Las Fallas Valencia







The Fallas Valencia, Las Fallas de Valencia (in Valencian Las Falles)

In Valencia, during the Fallas, they build and later burn gigantic works of art. They make a flower offering to Our Lady of the Forsaken, standing in front of the basilica and ,,weave” her colourful mantle with carnations. Everybody throws petards, there is such a noise in the streets as if the city had been conquered by heavy artillery.

Valencia, the capital of the autonomous community of the same name, attracts tourists with beautiful beaches and a number of holidays, which are a delight for the eye and a menace for the ear. The best known are Las Fallas (in the local dialect, the word falla in the Middle Ages referred to the torches placed on watchtowers, later to the bonfires lit during the celebrations). The festival is visited by a million visitors every year, and that is a really a mass of people! In 2016, it was added to UNESCOś Intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.

This tradition may be related to pagan rituals celebrating the coming of spring, but the more popular version is that it started at the end of the fifteenth century. On the eve of St. Joseph, the patron of carpenters, woodworkers used to clean their workshops. They jumbled up some unnecessary logs, shavings and other waste, along with a parot, a high wood structure in the shape of a cross, on which an oil lamp hung in the dark winter months. With the arrival of longer days, they didn’t need it anymore. Then they set fire to the pile and went to have fun.

One day, a carpenter with a sense of humour probably dressed the wooden "skeleton" into old clothes, which made it look like a dummy (in Valencian “ninot”).

The fun took over, the figures gradually assumed human look and mocked burghers, politicians or an unpleasant neighbour. An important milestone was the eighteenth century when the building of monuments consisting of several characters began; and their size slowly grew…

Over time, each neighbourhood created commissions to collect funds and prepare for the festival. They select two queens, one adult and one child, called Fallera Mayor and Fallera Infantil, who then officially represent them for twelve months at all the city festivals; dressed in traditional costumes.

One of the members is a fallero, a kind of total artist, skilled and respected; who is able not only to invent and design a falla, but also build it with his team of painters, craftsmen and engineers. He tends to have his own recognizable style.

The group of statues usually has a satirical character, criticizes and makes fun about the current Spanish and international problems, politicians, celebrities and the royal family. The biggest figure can exceed 30 meters and is surrounded by a number of small ninots. Their meaning is humorously explained on the small plates in Valencia dialect.

Materials have changed and evolved throughout history. From cardboard, plaster and paper-mâché (a shapeable mixture of paper, glue, possibly water and flour, which hardens when dried) to polyurethane; in recent years it has been replaced by light cork or expanded polystyrene, which is very ductile. The basic structure is wooden.

Small ninots are so cute that people requested their own exhibition. At the beginning of February, each commission provides its best one and visitors can choose the most beautiful. The winner will be pardoned and will not be burned on the last day. Instead, after the festival it will go on display at the permanent exhibition of “ninots indultats” in the Fallas Museum, where you can learn more about history.

The festivity begins on the last Sunday of February with the opening ceremony (La Crida). All the committees come together beneath the Serranos Towers, Mayor hands over the keys to the main Fallera and invites everybody to enjoy Las Fallas.

Approximately two weeks before the installation of the monuments, a parodic parade Cabalgata del Ninot is held, where the members of the commissions in masks and costumes represent "living" figures. In a few days; the streets competing for the most beautiful decoration officially light up (Encendido de luces).

On the night of the 14th of March, the commissions assemble the children's fallas; on the evening of the 15th all the others full-scale; they have to be completed at 8 am on the 16th. Then the jury examines them and awards the prizes. However, installation (plantá) actually begins earlier, because some monuments are so large that a crane is needed.

I arrived in the city in the afternoon and was immediately enchanted by the beautiful weather, trees with orange blossoms or ripe fruits and the aromas from restaurants. Many of the streets were closed because somewhere in the distance a mascletá was just taking place. For the people of Valencia, it is a pyrotechnic "concert" that tourists do not understand very much. It is the gradual blasting of special petards (so-called masclet), which look like wrapped bonbons densely hung on incendiary string:

To understand this symphony of gunpowder, you must be as close as possible, to hear and feel. Explosions have a rhythm and end with a final thundering, called an "earthquake." The noise level can exceed 120 decibels!

I admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I later read somewhere that a part of the Spanish population does not enjoy the mascletá and even protest against it.

And I also confess that why walking outside, I wore earplugs all the time. I know that the Spaniards love noise and I try to respect their traditions, but I have never experienced such an uproar. The kids threw the petards everywhere, preferably in the narrow streets and into the crowd; every time it banged, I jumped half a meter high. The little pyromaniacs had special boxes hung around their necks, with a set of different bangers, firecrackers, sparklers and rockets. And in the evening, tipsy adults joined them.

The fallas were astonishing. Imagine a city full of huge, colourful monuments that stood almost everywhere. There were more than seven hundred of them! People were strolling down the streets, looking, taking pictures, and trying to decipher their meaning. Each piece was composed of several small characters and objects, often representing Spanish politicians and Spanish problems. Plates with humorous versed texts helped the locals, but foreigners were mostly lost in translation, even flowery explanations in the official guide were sometimes useless. But when we saw how Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un compare theirs ... um, missiles, we all laughed J.

The City Hall finances two fallas which do not participate in the contest. The child's one was called the Little Prince, the adult Universal Balance – its base were human and animal figures, forming together a large totem pole holding the globe. The impressive work of art towered in front of the City Hall and after sunset, it was changing colours.

Of course, the streets were filled with food stalls. Valencia is surrounded by rice fields, no wonder that well-known paella was born here. They also offered other typical dishes, such as fideuà (like paella, but with noodles), arroz al horno (baked rice dish with beans, sausage, vegetables and potatoes), grilled meat, seafood, variety of tapas ...

A typical sweet delicacy of the Fallas is pumpkin donuts (buñuelos de calabaza) dipped in chocolate. When you see a pastry cook stirring a dark brown cream in a voluminous bowl, it is impossible to resist them. Oh, I can still feel the sweet taste in my mouth...

Another great Valencia invention is horchata (orxata), a refreshing whitish drink with almond flavour. It is made from tiger nuts, also called earth almonds. The plant looks like grass, but it has tubers below the soil, similar to little nuts. It was introduced into Spain by the Arabs.

After rinsing, the tubers are for 12 hours soaked in water to plump up and release more liquid. They are then ground, strained and some water and sugar are added to the obtained liquid. Horchata contains many vitamins and minerals.

They sell it from street carts around town. A vendor pours you a large cup; it is so good you barely finish it and already crave another one. You can also try it in numerous sweetshops. In the centre of Valencia there are two ancient horchaterias, decorated with colourful tiles - El Siglo and Santa Catalina. This cold drink is usually accompanied by ‘fartons’, sweet sticks to dip into.

In the evening, each district holds a street party (verbena), mostly reserved for members of the committees (and enclosed by a nasty fence). They cooked on fire directly on the streets, then set the tables ... and if there were no tables, people sat down on the pavement. No problem, Spaniards would have fun even if they were hung by one leg upside down. J

At midnight, fireworks lit up the sky. The best view is from the Paseo de la Alameda promenade, but on the first day I didn't manage to go there, I just watched the colourful stars above the historic buildings in the centre...

I had "Valencia water" (Agua de Valencia), mixed of Cava sparkling wine, vodka, gin and fresh orange juice and then went to the hotel.

Even with earplugs I was falling asleep with the feeling that the World War raged outside; there was shooting all night long...

In the early morning of the 17th March, I was awoken by a heavy artillery conquering our street. I felt the approaching explosions, saw flashes, firing was coming closer and closer… Jesus Christ! It was the despertá, traditional wake-up call. Just imagine this: the participants get plastic bags full of explosives, and then, accompanied by a brass band, march down the streets playing lively music and throw firecrackers. Those little bastards make such a loud noise, they would wake up dead! I didn't even have time to pull myself together and pour out a bucket of cold water on them, they disappeared and left behind a street full of smoke...

Well, during the Fallas nobody sleeps…

In the morning, the Prize Giving Ceremony was held at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, then I tried to find a place in the restaurant but in vain, the city was overcrowded. In the end, I bought a sandwich and ate it sitting at a bus stop with the locals who were ready for this situation and had lunch with them in plastic containers.

For dessert, I went to the sweetshop Llinares at Plaza de la Reina Square, where one day they decided that 'vanilla ice cream was dead' and launched brand new flavours: smoked salmon, lentils, mustard, black beer, fabada (bean-sausage soup), tortilla (potato omelette) or gazpacho (cold tomato soup). To make clear that the strangely coloured mass was an anchovy ice cream, there were a few fish laying on it. Luckily, first they let me try it. My stomach protested after a single lick. I didn't like tomato flavour either. The shop-assistant was used to such reactions, she laughed and pointed to a bin where I threw them. Apparently, salty tastes were supposed to be served as a side-dish to some meals.

I had a pumpkin-chocolate Fallero ice cream, made especially to celebrate the festival and a Little Red Riding Hood, which is a mixture of English vanilla cream, mandarin sorbet, strawberry jam and pieces of chocolate. It is so yummy that in 2016 it won second place at the “World Cup” in Rimini!

At 4.30 pm, the first part of the solemn Floral offering (Ofrenda de flores) began and lasted until 0.30 am! Nowadays, it is one of the most awaited events, although it started by chance in the middle of the last century. One of the Falleras decided to bring a small bouquet of flowers to the Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken), the patron saint of the city and the Valencian community. The following year, members of her commission joined her, and over time all others too. Today, more than a hundred thousand people are involved in the offering, so it had to be split into two days.

Indeed, it was an endless stream of people strolling through the city. Old ones, young ones, children walking on their own and babies in the arms of their parents. All carried bunches of flowers, baskets and stretchers with large compositions of carnations, irises, roses, lilies… Each commission was accompanied by its musical group.

The women had beautiful, elegant Valencian costumes from damask. The bodice accentuates the waist; shoulders are covered by a lace scarf. Beautiful brooch matches with the necklace and earrings. The skirt, together with a frilling petticoat is so heavy that when the strong gust of wind blew, women almost felt. It is adorned with tulle apron embroidered with gold or silver threads. Cute shoes as from the Middle Ages are made of the same material as clothing.

The hairstyle has to be in tune with traditional costume. Imagine braids in the back and on the sides, twisted into flat shapes, punctured by decorative clips. These "buns" can be bought and I have long been convinced that all women wear only hairpieces. But no! In Valencia I accidentally found myself in a shop where the hairdresser Carles Ruiz worked, and he combed and styled one girl after another so skilfully, it took him only about fifteen minutes for a person. He split the hair and greased it. He made braids; if necessary, added fake ones. He pinned, twisted and decorated them with golden combs. He greased more the hair at the front to make it shine and applied abundantly hairspray. All done! I just wasn't sure if the girls go to the hairdresser every day. ,,No, of course not! We sleep with it. When you're tired, you don't even feel those pins, you just lie down and don't care anymore,” one beauty revealed a secret, while admiring the finished hairdo in the mirror.

Sometimes this work of art can be topped with a lace veil, mantilla.

The men's costume, saragüell, is also nice. It consists of a white shirt, vest, sash, jacket (sometimes from velvet), wider trousers, knee-stockings and canvas shoes with straw soles called "espardeñas". On their heads, they wore scarves often tied with a big bow aside; they may put a hat on them.

In front of the Basilica, there was a 15-meter-high Virgin, a wooden structure with her head.  People handed the floral gifts to the helpers who tied bunches of carnations to this base and "wove" her dress and red mantle with white ornaments...

But I only watched it live on TV, because it was impossible to get closer to the church. All the roads were completely filled by parade, departing participants and spectators. For the devotees of Valencia the offering is not a theatre for tourists. Before handing over their bouquets to the patron of the city, they kissed them and women moved to tears wiped their eyes with a lace handkerchief...

So I spent the evening strolling around the neighbourhood Ruzafa, which is famous for the most beautiful fallas. And really! They were bombastic and looked like painted on the black sky. I gaped in amazement! Huge; monumental; detailed monuments, occupying the entire square. When they will set this on fire, the whole Valencia will burn down!

Two colossuses were fenced and it was necessary to pay a symbolic admission. They mostly satirized politics and all I managed to understand was that they might have some reservations about the Spanish Prime Minister.

The streets also competed for the most beautiful decoration, and again, I was caught completely by surprise. I didn’t expect such a gigantic illumination; a stunning colourful show on music where the lights drew ornaments in the darkness... Unbelievable!

In the morning of the 18th, I went to see the Lady of the Forsaken. Passing the City Hall Square, I was astonished to find that people (with food and portable refrigerators) were already waiting for mascletá which was supposed to take place at 2 pm!

The wooden structure in front of the Basilica was halfway dressed, the Virgin's mantle was made of white and red carnations. Other bouquets and stunning floral gifts on stretchers surrounded the church and fountain in the middle of the square and smelt delightfully. As the people woke up, the crowd seemed to get denser and denser.

This time, I decided to listen to the mascletá and didn't mind a bit that I got only a spot about a kilometre from the epicentre. J The streets were filled; many people watched the show from the windows and balconies.

Thanks to the warmth, the wax in my ears melted and perfectly sealed my auditory canals, I could hardly hear people around me. And so the mascletá was bearable, like a rumbling in the distance or as a daytime fireworks. Some colour effects occurred too; smoke covered the whole square. I was shocked by a Spaniard standing next to me, holding a five-month-old boy in his arms...

The second part of the offering took place; after 1 am Fallera Mayor of Valencia closed it. The result was a beautiful red mantel with ornaments, the Virgin was finally dressed. Floral gifts turned the square into a jungle; and thanks to a little rain, they smelt intoxicatingly...

But that wasn't all; at 1.30 am the sky lit up with a magnificent twenty-minute fireworks that had consumed thousands of kilograms of gunpowder. The Night of Fire, Noche del Fuego, was watched by more than a million spectators... and then, as always, hell broke loose in the streets, sounding as if Valencia was bombarded. The Spanish probably don't go to sleep at all these days, I also went to bed later and later (and needed more makeup everyday to cover the bags under my eyes  :)

On the final day, March 19, after the solemn Mass the mascletá was held again and at 7 pm Cabalgata del Fuego, the Fire Cavalcade, the harbinger of the burning of fallas.

A group of individuals dressed like devils marched along the Colon Street. They had pitchforks with Bengal light sparklers and when they set them on fire, they spun and sparks rained so densely that it looked as if they had golden umbrellas. When they approached the spectators with these glowing tools, they screamed and ran away.

Other spooky monsters, musicians, people in masks followed and at the end a giant spark-spitting turtle with shining eyes…

Then the finals began; La Noche de la Cremà; which I loosely translate as the Night of Fire. At 10 pm, the children's fallas would burst into flames, at 12 pm the others and at 1 am the official bonfire in front of the City Hall. Each burning would be anticipated by small fireworks.

Though it seemed impossible, the city was even fuller than in the previous days! The crowds were coming from all directions. Despite the cold, the most persistent folks were sitting in front of the City Hall already at 9 pm and waiting for the big moment.

First, I went to see the infantile falla near my hotel. The girls in costumes were already prepared; an incendiary cord crisscrossed the street. When a little fallera lit it, the fire flew down the cord like a radiant crackling serpent, as swift as an arrow and hit a sculptural group, which began to burn. The girls started crying and kept crying until it burned down. The huge black cloud of smoke (not far from the historic buildings) first aimed into the sky, but when a gust of wind blew, it turned and the sparks flew all around us...  The fire-fighters had everything under control, nevertheless, it was a dangerous entertainment (but at least it warmed us a little bit).

Then I watched the rider on horseback with his ninots disappear in flames. To make it shorter, the members of the committee cut holes in the figures with an axe and poured some gasoline into them; then thoroughly wrapped the whole artwork with an incendiary cord. Its beginning was cleverly draped over a grid standing beside; in a way that it formed the name of the Fallera. All the lamps went out, there was silence... then fireworks stars started dancing over our heads. The Beauty set light to an incendiary cord with a torch and the fire ran where it should. First it ,,wrote” her name with flaming letters and then flew around the falla, which collapsed in about two minutes. The audience appreciated the quick progress by applauding.

For safety, the Universal Balance was enclosed, so the mass of people was dispersed into the adjacent streets. I suffered there for an hour, I was bloody cold and my teeth were chattering.

At 1.20 am, they finally launched a monumental firework and Fallera Mayor set fire to a totem pole. Here and there little flames started to crackle and lick their way up, it took them a while to gain strength. But then in the centre of Valencia the bonfire big like a mammoth began to burn!

A dense column of smoke rose into the sky and flaming soot flew out like big pieces of paper. The "anthem" of Fallas resounded, the festivity was over, but we didn't have much time to look into the flames and cry. Suddenly a gust of wind blew, the whirl leaned over and all the sparks and "papers" began to fall on us, it was like being in a snowstorm. At first, the onlookers just backed up to a safe distance, but when the ash blizzard got worse, the crowd scattered in all directions. I smelt like a smoked fish!

But Valencia symbolically burned everything bad and old and could start a new period with a clean slate...

Valencia is beautiful even when there is no festivity. The river Turia that flows through the city constantly caused flooding, so after the disaster in 1957 it was decided that it must be diverted. Architect Ricardo Bofill had a brilliant idea when he turned the old riverbed into a park running through the town like a green ribbon.

The Valencian Cathedral is full of historical art treasures; also the mythical Holy Grail, the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper is kept there. Actually, one of many, for many came up with a similar claim.

At the market Mercado Central, you can do some shopping and have fun - they sell chickens in a completely different position than in my country. Lying on their backs with their wings and thighs stretched upward, they look like easy women awaiting the customer :)

On the roof of the building the green parrot revolves - the weather vane. It is a frequent decoration of houses; I saw angels, witches, ghosts…

However, the symbol of Valencia, is the City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las artes y las ciencias), a complex of extravagant buildings dedicated to science and culture. The Palace of Art resembles a fish with open jaws; the Hemisferic has the shape of an eye, in the pupil of which Planetarium and IMAX cinema are hidden. In the evening, a glowing hemisphere emerges from turquoise water. The Oceanografic presents various marine ecosystems, warm and cold water sea creatures. Ducks float on the lakes, walruses and seals are sitting on the rocks. If you find the courage to pass through the low tunnel into a mini bubble in the middle of the aquarium, you can observe fish quite intimately. But there is such a fuggy air I had to leave immediately otherwise they would have to pull me out! You can ́t stay longer neither in the aviary and admire pink roseate spoonbills because there is a stench to knock you off your feet. There is also a glass tunnel where sharks look ominously at you from above.

I visited specialized stores with fabrics and other costume accessories because they had very nice discounts… and so many customers, they used a take-a-number queue system! Girls and the whole families with children were already choosing damask for the next fiesta; they would not go twice in the same clothes! They were comparing colours; if necessary, they went in front of the shop, to see if the material had the right glint. One saleswoman showed us how to fold a massive pleated petticoat: using a trick she stuffed a white mass of fabric in a small round box.

I was delighted to finally buy a traditional set of earrings, pins and a brooch . On a white blouse, silvery decoration looks amazing and reminds me of Las Fallas...

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