About an hour ago, in a town on the east coast of Spain, there was a fireworks display. It wasn’t an ordinary fireworks display: for one thing it started at 2pm when it was still bright daylight, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because it wasn’t about visual effects, it was about audio impact. The sound of the fireworks reached 120 decibels at one point, louder than a jet plane taking off, and the vibrations pounded the eardrums and shook the internal organs of the several thousand people crowded into the town square to listen. It lasted for about ten minutes. This fireworks display will take place every day for the next nineteen days…but the silences in between will gradually get shorter and shorter as people start to set off their own smaller fireworks in the streets and the parks and the plazas, until finally there is no silence and the city becomes one cracking, popping, roaring wall of sound. Welcome to the wonderful world of the mascletà, and Valencia during the annual Fallas fiesta.
Fallas is essentially a celebration of fire, although the epic firework displays are only a small part of it. Equally as impressive are the four hundred or so ninots – the wood and polystyrene mannequins – erected all over the city. Often taking a topical or political theme, the statues are powerful, eye-catching and enormous: walking around Valencia can seem, to the uninitiated, like wandering into a particularly vivid Disney animation after indulging in far too many hallucinogenic substances.
So, is there a good reason for all of this? Well, yes. Fallas started as a celebration of St Joseph – patron saint of both fathers and carpenters, being a multi tasking kind of guy – and historically seems to have something to do with burning surplus wood at the start of spring. Cool.
These days the festival is a joint venture organised by the different districts in the city, each of which has its own clubhouse and is responsible for raising money and building its own ninot. The ninots take an entire year to construct so as soon as one festival finishes, work will start on the next.
It’s not all about blowing things up and burning things, however. This being Spain, music and processions also play a large part in the festivities. The members of each clubhouse are known as falleros and falleras and they take part in traditional processions across the city, the most notable of which is the Flower Offering where the female falleras carry flowers to lay in Plaza de la Virgen, the most beautiful square in the centre of the city.
It doesn’t come cheaply though – each fallera’s costume, shoes and elaborate hairpiece cost hundreds of euros to make.
Did I mention the food? Valencia is the home of paella, so expect to see plenty of simmering rice (and traditional Valenciano paella uses rabbit meat as its protein) during the festival. They don’t just cook it in their kitchens, that would be very boring – why not cook it outside in the street and have a competition to see who can make the biggest?
Of course no Spanish fiesta would be complete without lashings of alcohol: in this case the local brew agua de Valencia (water of Valencia, but believe me when I tell you it’s definitely not water). If that seems a bit daunting you can buy a beer or some hot chocolate from one of the many stalls, but do it properly and go to one of the streets of lights to soak up the atmosphere.
Although the mascletà is a daily occurrence from the 1st of March, the fiesta officially runs for five days from 15th to 19th March. The population of Valencia trebles during Fallas so don’t expect a relaxing city break…but if loud, bright, non-stop craziness is your thing then this is the festival for you.
Oh – and what do they do with those 400 giant ninots when the festival finishes? They set fire to them all, obviously.
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