Colour, Sound And Flame
In Valencia, Spain, Las Fallas is the street party with lessons in humour, creativity and letting go
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FACT FILE FOR VALENCIA
Getting There Fly to Madrid by Emirates through Dubai and connect by train to Valencia. For train tickets visit www.renfe.com
Where to Stay Stay at the luxurious Melia Valencia, a little outside the Old Quarter, with modernistic décor and comfortable doubles. www.melia.com
Do: Visit the Old Quarter with the Cathedral and the Silk Exchange, the City of Arts and Sciences, walk in the old river bed of the Turia which is now a public park, and take a guided tour of the Lladro Factory outside town.
Eat: Try chorizo sausage and Valencian paella (especially seafood). Drink the local tipple-Agua de Valencia which has cava, orange juice etc. Another local drink which you must try is Horchata – a drink made from tiger nuts, accompanied by a breadstick called farton.
Buy: Silver jewellery, pottery, leather goods, Lladro porcelain, local wines, cheese and olive oil. For more information, visit www.visitvalencia.com
By Kalpana Sunder