During the Las Fallas, Valencia turns into a big street party

In Valencia, Spain, Las Fallas is the street party with lessons in humour, creativity and letting go

brunch Updated: Dec 17, 2016 18:39 IST
Valencia,Spain,Las Fallas
The towering Fallas, created by artist Monolo Garcia, represents all the previous Fallas and is set aflame on the last day.

Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, is known for its oranges and paella. But by the middle of March, the world descends here for an entirely different reason: a spectacular, raucous five-day street party in honour of St Joseph. Las Fallas (pronounced fai-yas), is when Valencia bursts into colour with gargantuan papier-mâché and wood statues, and then bursts into flame when those sculptures are burned down.

You can’t miss the city’s transformation. In the days leading up to the festival, Fallas installations – dwarf-sized statues called ninots – decorate every street corner and square. In one lane, cartoon characters and dragons belch fire. In another, politicians and celebrities stand caricatured with exaggerated noses and lips. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if children’s book illustrations came to life, the answer is only one street away.

A colourful Fallas installation with smaller ninots

The spark

The origins of the fiery Festival are enshrouded in many stories. “It was a pagan celebration of the equinox,” says my guide Jose. In medieval times, it started as a kind of spring cleaning after a long, gloomy winter, when carpenters burned their heaps of scrap wood. “The carpenters then started fashioning whimsical sculptures from their scraps, sometimes fashioning a political comment or a comic tableau. Over the years, the sculptures only got more extravagant, and competitive. Today, they’re conceptualised and created by a huge team consisting a principal artist, sculptors, painters and designers in every neighbourhood, and have become displays of creativity, community spirit and social commentary. And of course, a big draw for tourists.

The women ambassadors of the Fallas are dressed in finery with elaborate hair styles

Watching the Fallas when they take to the streets, you can smile in nostalgia, grin in mirth or laugh out loud at the satire. Every so often, you’ll also blush. This year, an erotic and suggestive display, The Kiss, featured dozens of pastel-coloured figures of outsized body parts in suggestive poses. The butt of jokes ranged from Valencia’s ex-mayor, embroiled in a money laundering scandal, to Spanish politicians facing prosecution for corruption. Another display, Perestroika imposed politicians’ faces on to Russian nesting dolls. Disney villains, grotesque butterflies, true love, Obama, Da Vinci and muscled vikings – anything goes when you’re at Las Fallas.

A Fallas installation called Pesteroika which has Russian dolls with heads of politicians

The people

Every year an adult Fallera Mayor and a young Fallera Infantil are elected to serve as ambassadors for the fiesta. Practically the whole city – men, women and children show up in meticulously recreated 18th century costumes. For the men, smocks and breeches with a handkerchief tied around their necks. But it’s the women who steal the limelight in voluminous, embroidered gowns of silk, lace or chiffon with lacy mantillas, their hair braided into discs at the sides of their heads, hoops in their ears and elaborate combs in for headpieces.

The 45-foot wooden statue of Our Lady of the Forsaken which is dressed up with flowers on the day of La Ofrenda

Stick around for the La Ofrenda the festival day when a procession of women, men and children walk with bouquets in their hands, led by a band, and cheered by enthusiastic onlookers, to dress a massive 45-foot-high wooden representation of Our Lady of the Forsaken. The flowers for the Virgin are collected in synchronised steps by a team and an impressive tapestry is woven with the flowers on the main façade of the Basilica. Many women and children are wrought with emotion, dressed in brocade gowns with full skirts of apple red and leaf green, embroidered in gold and silver thread with tears streaming freely down their faces.

The moving and emotional La Ofrenda when men, women and children carry flowers to dress the massive wooden statue of Our Lady

Another part of the festival, which takes place every day at 2pm, are the fireworks. This is when Valencia’s streets transform into cordoned-off war zones. Firecrackers can be ignited to the strains of music. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in colour and tradition; the party spirit is contagious, with typical Spanish bonhomie and strangers chatting and sharing a beer or sangria. Great vats of paella simmer on pavement grills. There’s special street food too. Try the bunuelos or pumpkin fritters dipped in hot chocolate and the refreshing Orxata, a frothy drink made from tiger nuts and sugar, served with pastries.

One of the most important aspects of Las Fallas, the streets have a competition with their creative lighting

Feel the burn

The culmination of the fiesta is the cremà, when the Fallas are finally burnt down. People squeeze into balconies, rooftops and rooms of all adjoining buildings, crowds collect behind cordons to watch the finale. Firemen stand ready, dowsing nearby buildings to prevent them from combusting. The focus of all attention is the central towering figure that represents all previous fallas, conceived by artist Manuel Garcia and reaching five stories high. The Fallera Queen (yes, there’s a mayor and a queen) for the year lights the first firecracker which sets off the explosions, that sets the sculpture alight. Cheers and the rousing strains of the unofficial anthem of the city, Himne de l’Exposició, resound as each piece of the creation is enveloped in flame.

Take a walk, the morning after. The streets are clean and you wonder if the mayhem of the preceding week ever happened. Manolo Garcia, the talented artist who created this year’s giant Fallas for the main square explains the idea best, “The act of destruction is as important as creation, as it teaches me to let go”. It also gives you reason to return.

From HT Brunch, December 18, 2016

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First Published: Dec 17, 2016 18:39 IST