March 19, 2005

Las Fallas, Valencia - March 19th

Las Fallas, Valencia

Does the smell of gunpowder excite you? Does the sight of flames make you smile? Do you harbor pyrotechnic urges that are only socially acceptable on the Fourth of July? Well, Las Fallas de Valencia is your kind of event--a loud, smoky, rowdy fiesta where the whole town is literally set ablaze!

Las Fallas is undoubtedly one of the most unique and crazy festivals in Spain (a country known for unique and crazy festivals). What started as a feast day for St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, has evolved into a 5-day, multifaceted celebration of fire. Valencia is usually a quiet city with a population of a half-million, but the town swells to an estimated three million flame-loving revelers during Las Fallas.

Las Fallas literally means "the fires" in Valencian. The focus of the fiesta is the creation and destruction of ninots--huge cardboard, wood and plaster statues--that are placed at over 350 key intersections and parks around the city today. The ninots are extremely lifelike and usually depict bawdy, satirical scenes and current events (lampooning corrupt politicians and Spanish celebrities is particularly popular). They are crafted by neighborhood organizations and take about six months to construct (and often cost upwards of US$75,000). Many ninots are several stories tall and need to be moved into position with cranes.

The ninots remain in place until March 19th, the day known as "La Crema." Starting in the early evening, young men with axes chop holes in the statues and stuff them with fireworks. The crowds start to chant, the streetlights are turned off, and all of the ninots are set on fire at exactly the stroke of midnight. Over the years, the local firemen, called "bomberos," have devised unique ways to protect the town's buildings from torching along with the ninots, such as by neatly covering storefronts with fireproof tarps. And each year, one of the ninots is spared from destruction by popular vote and exhibited in the local Museum of the Ninot along with the other favorites from years past.

Traveler and pyromaniac Janet Morton says, "The scene at Las Fallas is extremely cathartic and difficult to describe, but resembles a cross between a bawdy Disneyland, the Fourth of July and the end of the world!"

The origin of Las Fallas is a bit murky, but most credit the fires as an evolution of pagan rituals that celebrated the onset of spring and the planting season. In the sixteenth century, Valencia used streetlights only during the longer nights of winter. The street lamps were hung on wooden structures, called parots, and as the days became longer the now-unneeded parots were ceremoniously burned on St. Joseph's Day. Even today the fiesta has retained its satirical and working-class roots, and the well-to-do and faint-of-heart of Valencia often ditch out of town for Las Fallas.

Besides the burning of the ninots, there is a myriad of other activities during the fiesta. During the day, you can check out the extensive roster of bullfights, parades, paella contests and beauty pageants around the city. Spontaneous fireworks displays occur everywhere during the days leading up to "La Crema", but another highlight is the daily mascletá which occurs in the Plaza Anyuntamiento at exactly 2pm. When the huge pile of firecrackers is ignited, the ground literally shakes for the next ten minutes.

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