The festival in Valencia, Spain’s 3rd largest city, is similar in many ways to the Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona; open and welcoming, people of all ages and stature coming together, long days and late nights in a city that never sleeps, thousands of participants immaculately dressed in traditional regional costumes, food stands serving chocolate y buñuelos (hot chocolate and fritters), massive crowds filling the streets and plazas, daily bullfights featuring the country’s most prestigious matadors, spectacular fireworks, 700 streets blocked to traffic and all the pageantry surrounding the Feast Day of San José.
But Las Fallas has its own unique level of intensity and beauty, one created with papier-mâché and flowers, ignited by gunpowder and fire.
Spread about the city squares are more than 750 Fallas, which are enormous monuments, created from wood and papier-mâché. These structures are composed of artfully painted and sculpted figurines, the Ninots, which serve as humorous or satirical caricatures of local and national public figures and current events. These genuine works of art, scattered all over the city, create a huge open-air sculpture garden. And all but one of these figures, the ninot indultat, the “pardoned one”, go up in flames on the fiesta’s final Night of the Bonfires.
Marching bands, like the Peñas in Pamplona, play tabalets (traditional drums) and dolçainas (woodwind instruments) on every street corner, and each day at 2:00 pm, a deafening explosion of some 250 pounds of gunpowder, the mascletà, takes place in the Town Hall square. This unique pyrotechnics spectacle is often described as a fireworks “concert with barrage upon barrage of sheer rhythmic noise”.
On March 19, Saint Joseph’s night, the burning, or Cremà, of all of this artwork takes place in hundreds of bonfires throughout the city. The fallas are doused with gasoline, packed with fireworks then set ablaze. Tradition dictates that the fire must reduce each monument to ashes, purging away the sorrows or the evils of the previous year, like a dramatic “spring cleaning”.
First, the children’s fallas are set ablaze, then the full-scale monuments, then the crescendo an hour later at 1 am, the burning of the city council monument, which belongs to all Valencianos, on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. With our press passes we were able to witness the burning of this enormous Falla from the City Hall roof top, above the tens of thousands of spectators, and we marveled at both the intense heat and at how only a handful of firefighters managed to control this enormous blaze.
Like San Fermín’s Pobre de mí, this is both a sad moment, marking the end to the festival, but also a happy one, symbolizing the coming of spring and the start of the preparations for next year’s Fiesta
And just as the municipal sanitation workers undertake their heroic chore of cleaning Pamplona’s streets after the chupinazo on July 6, for the daily encierro and following the Pobre de mí ceremony on July 14, the Valencia municipal fire brigades perform their own Herculean task of collecting the ashes and debris so that the following morning the city can return to normal.
One of the most beautiful and moving aspects of this unique festival is its religious act – the Ofrenda. This is the solemn procession of the Fallas commissions, the falleras and falleros dressed in richly embroidered silk costumes, who parade from their neighborhoods to the Plaza de la Virgen, accompanied by their marching bands. In front of the Basilica of the Our Lady of the Forsaken, la Virgen de los Desamparados, a 15-meter high wooden structure is erected, topped with the face of the Madonna and Child. On March 17 and 18, from 4 pm to the early morning hours, a steady stream of falleras and falleros makes the pilgrimage to the square to present their floral offering to Valencia’s patron saint. The falleras hand their bouquets to the Virgin’s “dressers” who create a stunning tapestry of flowers which form the Virgin’s mantle, the design of which changes each year. Along with these bouquets, the falleros place flower baskets at the feet of the Virgin. During this ceremony an astonishing 25 tons of flowers are used.