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Photo: Marcelo/Unsplash

My first introduction to Spain in the late 90s was getting off the train at Barcelona and immediately having my wallet lifted from my coat pocket. The city was dusty and the hostel where I was staying, dirty and shady. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed and my sour mood reflected badly on the city. I decided to move on. My second impression of Spain was Valencia in the throes of its Fallas Festival. And wow, it was just what I needed! The whole town seemed to be throwing one long crazy party. There was noise, smoke, giant weird-looking caricatured sculptures, and lots of street food. This was ‘Spanish fiesta’ at its most superlative.

Photo: ChiralJon/WikiCommons

Imagine someone suggested: Let’s have a festival that lasts for longer than a month, firecrackers that can possibly maim unborn babies, induce heart attacks and leave people deaf for several weeks. We’ll create large paper mâché and wood sculptures that are true works of art but then we’ll burn them. And we’ll burn them in the streets near houses and crowding throngs. And we’ll make sure the noise continues all day with kids throwing bangers in the street so people can also have a heart attack while buying bread; lots of smoke, because who doesn’t like a lot of smoke; fireworks at midnight and bands playing the loudest brass instruments they can at 8am because sleep is overrated. You'd say, sure, but don’t forget the paella!

Photo: Keith Ellwood/WikiCommons. Paella cooking in the streets

The Fallas (or Falles in Valencian) is an annual festival that epitomises everything about Spain and their long cultural history of festivals and celebration – from the fire, smoke, noise, traditional clothing, food and music to ancient pagan practices all rolled into a spectacular event that has become world famous, attracting tourists from all over the world. They are officially opened in early February, but activities really begin late February, early March with mascletàs (pyrotechnics) and light shows.

“Mascletàs” is thought to come from the Valencian word “mascle”, which means “little thunder”, though there’s nothing “little” about them. They are firecrackers that are strung in rows and lit up to a synchronized barrage of noise and gunpowder smoke that can be seen and heard from miles away. I pity the pets that live in Valencia and anyone who is not fond of war zones, because this is something to be witnessed to be believed. Only in Spain could they revel in an unparalleled cacophony of such spectacular firepower. At 2pm on the dot the city erupts and vibrates to the rhythm of the mascletà for eight long minutes - which apparently has a start, a middle and a finish, known as the aptly named terratremol (earthquake) – which is followed by an air show of fireworks.

Please check out THIS VIDEO (to the end!) to get the whole affect.

Photo: Maria1973/WikiCommons

There are also midnight fireworks and mascletàs which I quickly discovered during a particularly deep sleep. Then you are woken up at 8am with la despertà – brass bands marching through the streets - while kids delight in throwing down noisy bangers outside your window. It seems the aim is to make as much noise as possible during this fiesta; an attempt to set off car alarms, pacemakers and neighbourhood dogs. Unsurprisingly, pregnant women are advised from attending.

Photo: Jo Soc de Torrent/WikiCommons

The Fallas Festival probably has its origins in the Middle Ages, but there’s also a connection to pre-Christian pagan practices. Carpenters and other wood workers would clean out their workshops as a spring-cleaning ritual to mark the end of winter. The “falles” were structures of the old wood piled up and burned in the streets. Folklore suggests that competitions arose to see who could make the biggest, best, most elaborate structures and over time they eventually evolved into the complex wooden and papier mâché sculptures we see today. It's likely the practice was linked to Saint Joseph’s feast day on March 19th to Christianise the tradition, but it was certainly established by March 1740 when the first documented reference to the Fallas is a municipal decree banning the burning of these structures in the narrow streets.

Photo: Rafa Esteve/WikiCommons

Today, the main days of the festival take place between the 15th and 19th of March culminating with the la cremà when all the sculptures (ninots) are burned. The ninots are stylised doll/puppets made from wood, papier mâché, styrofoam, cork and plaster. They are typically satirical in nature, poking fun at political figures and popular culture, and defying the laws of physics as they hang, perch and leer down at passers-by in a giant bundle of bodies. The ninots can cost more than 70,000 euros to construct and are mounted on wooden frames in the streets and squares. The entire assemblage is known as a “falla” and after a week on display, they are burned on the last day during la crema, symbolising the purification of the city and welcoming in the spring.

Photo: Marcelo/Unsplash

Each neighbourhood in the city has its own community group known as Casal Faller (Falla committee) that holds fundraising events during the year to help finance their work. There are about 400 of these groups and they are very competitive. The festival is a challenge to see who can design the best, most humorous, satirical or elaborate falla, demonstrating a unique style and character, ranging from relatively small to up to 60 feet high.

During the festival, the fallas are paraded through the streets in a display of colour and fun, then set up on their wooden structures (which have been filled with even more flammable materials). A little like the US tradition of pardoning two turkeys during the Thanksgiving festival, two ninots are saved from the flames each year. Each Falla Committee chooses the falla they hope will be spared and it is exhibited at the Ninot Exhibition in the Arts and Sciences Museum where the public will decide. Since March 15th, 1934, the most voted ninots have been chosen for their artistic merit, originality and technical skill.

Photo: Museofallerodegandia/WikiCommons. Process of ninot construction from polystyrene, papier mache and paint.

Visitors can visit the Museo del Gremio de Artistas Falleras at any time of the year to get an insight into the preparation that goes into the festival. The museum displays sketches, watercolors, models, and photos of the fallas. The museum is located in the Ciudad Fallera (Falla City) - a group of large halls where the craftspeople work during the year.

The neighbourhood Falla Committee also selects one woman – the Fallera Mayor, and a child – the Fallera Mayor Infantil, to represent their neighbourhood and particular falla, and then one woman and child is chosen among those to represent the Valencian community. The fallera is very much a family tradition with the role often handed down from mother to daughter. The intricate 19th century dresses are hand-made from lace and silk and can cost anywhere between €2,000 and €15,000 ($2,250–$17,000US)or more.

Photo: Emilio Rubio Villanueva/WikiCommons

The falleras’ hair is tightly twisted into two buns at the side of the head – Princess Leia style over the ears - and another one at the back of the head. The style is finished off with three golden combs. The falleras then parade through the streets with flowers that will be offered to the Virgen de los Desamparados (Virgen Mary of the Helpless), patroness saint of Valencia.

Photo: yourtheone/WikiCommons

The wooden scaffolding of the saint is set up in the Plaza de la Virgen next to the Cathedral and each fallera walks up to place her bunch of flowers on the structure. The falleros (the men in traditional costume) climb the frame to expertly arrange the bouquets and the finished result of the Virgin’s floral dress is quite dazzling. This ceremony is known as ‘la ofrenda’, and the parades go on well into the night. Once the Virgin is dressed, she is paraded through the city and returned to her sacred space in front of the Cathedral to protect the city for the rest of the festival.

Photo: Paula Fenollera/Unsplash

After a week of hardcore celebrating and midnight fireworks, the final and grandest firework display happens at 1.30am on the 19th March in Turia Park. The great Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) explodes in a burst of colour and, yes, noise, for twenty minutes, after which people may or may not choose to go home and get some sleep. The rest of the day is spent with more flower offerings, a solemn Mass in honour of Saint Joseph (which unsurprisingly is also Father’s Day in Spain), another mascleta in the town square at 2pm and finally the long-awaited Cremàs of the Fallas from 8pm till midnight.

Photo: Emilio Garcia/WikiCommons

This truly is an exciting event. The streetlights are switched off, fire hoses at the ready and after months of hard work, the works of art that you’ve admired for the last several days go up in a dramatic blaze of flame. There may be a part of you that is keen to jump in and save what you can, like I was, but you must remind yourself that it symbolises purification and new beginnings, not wanton destruction of artistic enterprise. By the time the ash has settled, the fallas artists have no doubt already forgotten their masterpieces and are already thinking about next year’s ones.

Photo: Leo Perez Luis/WikiCommons

While these fiestas remain extremely popular and attract so much tourism, they are likely to continue for a long time to come. However, they have raised environmental concerns over the last few years and the local governments have made efforts to become more environmentally friendly. The increasingly growing number of visitors who flock to the city during the Fallas has had an impact on the city, and concerns have been raised regarding the danger to historical monuments, as well as to the air pollution created by the burning polystyrene foam. Some Falla Committees are considering a return to using only the traditional materials of wood and papier mâché.

The Fallas of Valencia were honoured the title of ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO in 2016. ‘Intangible heritage’ is a relatively recent term to classify the value of skills and knowledge and other cultural elements of a country or region. Storytelling, religious practices, rituals and festivities, sporting activities, traditional crafts and trades, and historic memories are all considered an ‘intangible heritage’ and if there’s one place that has an abundance of this, it’s Spain.

Photo: Joe Planas/Unsplash

As with most fiestas in Spain, the Fallas are a culmination of centuries, if not millennia, of intangible traditions that celebrate the seasons, birth, renewal, the shedding of the old, combined with a feverish Catholic zeal, all celebrated with an intensity, passion, creativity and dedication seen in few other places around the world.

If you have the chance, I recommend participating in the crazy wonderful experience of the Fallas Festival at least once in your life.

Just remember to take ear plugs.

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