By Simon West
SPAIN IS A country renowned for its unique festivals and distinctive culture. Of course, what comes most immediately to mind is the Fiesta of San Fermin (Running of the Bulls) and La Tomatina, that outlandish event where people pelt, and get pelted with tomatoes. With the spotlight firmly pointed at these it seems that Las Fallas has taken a back seat. This fact would surprise anyone who has attended the event, as it is an explosive, smokey, rowdy five-day celebration of fire where the beautiful coastal town of Valencia is set on flames.
Well, the town itself is not actually sent burning to the ground but a few hundred large statues called Ninots are. Ninots are made from cardboard, wood and plaster and depict either people or scenes of current or historical interest, which obviously gives quite a lot of scope. Local and international celebrities may find themselves depicted in a colourful satirical form while scenes of recent events, local customs or the economy may also be made into an elaborate, creative satire. Combine this with around the clock festivities and you have Las Fallas -Europe’s, not to mention Spain’s, most wild Spring time festival.
Valencia is burning
Valencia is Spain’s third largest city and although it has a reputation for a frenzied nightlife, Las Fallas brings a totally new dimension to what is already there. The population of roughly half a million erupts to three million during the festival, so it is not surprising that the town has an anarchic feel to it during this celebration.
The history of this distinctly wild event is somewhat distorted. Put simply, it officially begins on the first Sunday of March to commemorate St Josephs Day, for the patron saint of Carpenters. This however, doesn’t start to explain or justify why large sculptures need to be set alight and destroyed. The connection apparently comes from the towns older times when wooden lamp posts were burnt as the days became longer and they were not seen as necessary. This happened at the beginning of spring, and St Josephs Day became the logical day with which to mark it.
More than just a Fire Festival
There is however, far more to Las Fallas than fire and the burning of Ninots. They are placed around the city from 15 to 19 March, and it is only on this final day that they are set alight. There is plenty to do during those days leading up to ‘La Crema’ or the final day. Daily events consist of bullfights, paella contests (Valencia is the unofficial paella capital of Spain), beauty pageants, outdoor concerts and street parties so the city has a buzz, and an atmosphere of constant excitement.
One of the most popular events takes place at2pmeach day. This is where the Mascleta are held in the cities main square, Plaza Ayuntamiento. Mascleta is a series of smoke bombs and firecrackers which draws loud crowds that wait in anticipation. The event is certainly not hard to hear as what begins with a few ‘pops’ or ‘bangs’ escalates into what sounds like a firing squad. A competition is held each day, as groups try for the loudest and most impressive fireworks, usually creating the type of explosion that causes a shudder through the ground.
To Ninot or not to Ninot
When not involved in one of the many Las Fallas events, it is a good idea to make time to simply walk the streets and get a good look at as many Ninots as possible before they are destroyed. They vary greatly in colour, decoration and complexity so if you have seen one, you certainly have not seen them all. Each year people vote for one Ninot to be saved from a fiery conclusion and it is later displayed in a museum along with other winners saved from a fiery end.
Although some of the Ninots are difficult to comprehend and may require some understanding of Spanish, they are so elaborate and interesting it does not really matter. Teams of local artists, craftsmen and carpenters design and create them all and whether you do find them either grotesque or beautiful, they are at the absolute least very impressive. It is the sheer size and cost of these statues that truly amazes, they range from a few feet to around fifteen metres (city building size) and can cost more than £80,000! A few require cranes to move them, while others are on wheels and work like a float from a Mardi Gras parade.
The BIG day
19 March is the big day every year, and is the day that puts other firework orientated holidays to shame. Local neighbourhoods labour for months on end to create the Ninots only to have them stuffed with fireworks and left to burn to the ground — all the hard work usually disappears in mere minutes!
The days schedule runs surprisingly smoothly and work finishes early as the community is brought together for the spectacle. The small Fallas are burnt down at around10pmand they work towards the large figures that garner the most attention. These are set alight at midnight. The firing sequence is quite basic, little explosives are ignited and fireworks catch the original flames that burn down the Ninots at rapid pace.
Staying safe amongst the chaos
The obvious question arising once hearing about all these events is how can all this happen without widespread mayhem and the city burning down along with the arty structures? Well, despite sounding incredibly dangerous and hard to regulate this festival is actually well managed and kept under control. Teams of firemen control the route and guard the flames, which prevents any surrounding infrastructure from catching alight. The firemen also try to keep the people safe although this is much harder given the partying nature of the festival. Regardless of the mindset of the revellers, the flames are not so much an issue for the claustrophobically packed crowds as when a decent amount of smoke floats into the masses.
For this reason, ambulances are close by, with it not uncommon for people to faint, especially pregnant women, asthmatics or young children lost in the commotion and abundance of cheering bodies. This however, should not deter people from going to Las Fallas, but is meant to warn that this fun-filled festival is not for the faint hearted or the holiday maker planning to lie on a beach away from distractions.
Unfortunately, getting to Valencia for Las Fallas is not nearly as cheap as you may find at other times of the year. If you can go a couple of days early and maybe come back a day later — you may just save yourself quite a few pounds.
Las Fallas is an event that Valencians take great honour and satisfaction in. It is a festival that is marketable yet feels less commercial than others. Revellers will find it well-organised but also run to keep a free-spirited smorgasbord of tradition and passion that the Spanish are so well known for. If your idea of a decent few days away is a loud, explosive and non-stop party then Valencia during Las Fallas could be just your kind of holiday.
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