VALENCIA, SPAIN - The city pulses with the energy of two million tourists, the sizzle of rice paella cooked on wood fires on the streets, and the crackle and flare of firecrackers thrown to the ground.
Though my friend Kaite and I have never before heard of Las Fallas, Valencia’s wild spring festival, we serendipitously arrive here on the “Night of Fire,” which is one of the festival’s biggest events.
While we’re tired from our day spent travelling, we know the spectacle is worth staying up for.
Las Fallas is a two-week celebration of St. Joseph and is held every year in March. Alex and Sarah, American university students studying abroad for a semester, explain the festival to us as we push through Valencia’s crowded streets. We pass elaborate constructions of paper, wax and wood, each depicting different scenes and characters. Some of the structures are huge, nearly five storeys tall, and they’re often provocative. We pass one where a buxom Statue of Liberty is given the finger by the cheeky flame character coming from her torch.
“That’s a falla,” Alex says. “Each neighbourhood puts one up, and at the end of the festival, they burn all of them.”
Above: Cartoon characters come to life at Valencia festival.
“All of them?” I repeat, taken aback.
“All of them,” Alex confirms. “There are hundreds around the city. The festival is kind of like a spring cleaning — out with the old, in with the new. Burning them is the getting rid of the old part.”
Many of the fallas make a satirical comment on society and current events. We pass one that colourfully depicts the seasons of life. A woman with her hair in curlers cringes as a large red boxing glove labelled “menopausia” punches her in the jaw. Another shows British tourists, of which there are many in Valencia, leaning over the edge of a red double-decker tourist bus. One has a Union Jack on her shirt and is holding a mug reading: “I ♥ FALLAS”.
When we reach the old riverbed, we squeeze to find a spot on a bridge to watch the fireworks. My North American sensibilities are surprised by how many people are willing to stay up this late. Parents have their children in tow and elderly people are in the crowd, too.
The large gathering is no deterrent to setting off firecrackers. Small explosions happen all around us. I jump at each new explosion.
“Yesterday, I saw a father in an alley with his 6-year-old son setting off firecrackers,” Alex says. “It never stops during Las Fallas. It’s really something.”
The show is impressive. The fireworks cast everything on the streets in a red and white glow as they explode across the sky like dandelion spores blown by the wind. We watch in an appreciative silence.
Above: The streets come alive in a blaze of colour both day and night.
The fireworks display kicks off the street parties. The entire city is an open-air dance party, with musicians performing on small stages in city squares, and stalls selling delicious fried snacks like churros.
One street features an illuminated castle — thousands of lights create tower spires at its entrance and intricate patterns of lights form its walls. We walk through it, chandeliers of white lights hanging above our heads. There are so many lights I can hear the soft hum of electricity.
While the festivities continue through the night, there’s no rest for Las Fallas revellers. The next morning, brass bands march through the streets at 8 a.m., in a tradition called La Desperatà — “the wake-up call.” Following the band through the streets are people enthusiastically throwing large firecrackers, dressed in medieval costumes. Kaite and I groan, rolling over to try to fall back asleep.
We rouse to get to Plaza Ayuntamiento for 2 p.m., when the Mascletà starts.
The Mascletà is a display of gunpowder explosions, set off in a staccato rhythm, creating its own music. It’s loud and I can feel each explosion in my chest as we stand in the square, shoulder-to-shoulder with those beside us. The red, yellow, blue, black and white bursts of gunpowder form small clouds, and the Town Hall becomes hazy in the distance.
We visit the beach that afternoon, away from the crowds, resting up for that night. It is the climax of the entire two-week festival, when each of the hundreds of fallas in the city will be burned.
A bit before midnight, we go to our neighbourhood falla, the Statue of Liberty. Every so often, fireworks rain across the sky, signifying neighbouring fallas have been set ablaze. Firemen hose down the buildings close to the fallas, to prevent them from catching fire.
I jump when fireworks are set off only a few metres from where we stand — I am still not used to the constant explosions. Then the falla is set on fire. The flames move slowly at first, then pick up speed and devour the entire three-storey structure. Black smoke obscures the buildings around us as the flames grow higher and brighter. A pillar of fire eats everything in its path until only a charred and smoldering frame is left, unrecognizable as the Statue of Liberty.
Out with the old, in with the new …
The fire takes with it all vestiges of the previous year, and the evidence of a one-of-a-kind festival, until next year.