Wow. It’s been quite a week.
I finished my CELTA course last Friday, which just happened to coincide with the start of the Fallas festivities. Yes, sure, Fallas officially started on 1stMarch and there were events even before that, but there was another step up in activity over the weekend – and a corresponding increase in the number of visitors to the city.
So, on Friday night, after our leaving meal and drinks, a few of us decided to carry on celebrating into the night by doing a walking tour of some of the local fallas and my goodness, the streets were alive!
Many of the streets had been closed so for once we were able to walk along in the middle of the street, not worrying about whether or not it was safe to cross. Stalls had been set up selling kebabs, chips, drinks, souvenirs and – of course – churros and buñuelos.
Everywhere we went, there were firecrackers being thrown in the street – mainly by children, who walked around with wooden boxes of the things around their necks and lit tapers in their hands. I didn’t see anyone lose a finger, but I did see a child return to – and pick up! – a firework that had fizzled and rolled around but failed to explode. Fortunately, nothing happened. The child shook it next to his ear, dropped it and stamped on it, then carried on up the street to join his parents.
And then there were the fallas themselves. Some were fairly small and seemingly abandoned. Others were hubs of activity, with stages set up to provide entertainment to the people who had helped to fund and create them. The sound systems pumped out music while the people sat and ate paella or just sat and chatted as their children played in the street.
For the most part, on Friday night, the fallas were not surrounded by huge crowds of people, so we were able to get close and take photos (or rather, my friends were. Sadly, my phone battery was running low, so I had to be economical!) Some of them weren’t quite finished yet, but boy, they were spectacular! It was hard to believe that these sculptures, so delicately crafted by hand, would be set alight just a few days later.
And yet, they were.
Perhaps now would be a good time to examine the roots of the festival. Apparently, it dates back to the Middle Ages when Valencian carpenters would burn old pieces of wood they no longer needed to celebrate the spring equinox. They used to use pieces of wood, called parotsto hang candles on, and when the spring came, they no longer needed them, so these parotswould be burnt.
Over time, the burning of parots was brought in line with St Joseph’s Day (el día de San José) on 19thMarch, and the children started to dress the parots up to look like people – often recognisable people from the local community.
These days, ninots– statues of individual characters – are no longer made so crudely, but are designed by artists and brought together to form whole monuments or fallas. They vary in size but many are political in nature (although you may have to do some digging to understand what the hidden meaning is) and all – except, I believe, for the big one in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento – are funded and managed by their local casal faller.
But it’s not all fire and fireworks. At some point in the history of the festival, each of the casals fallersstarted to take flowers to offer to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Foresaken. This parade now takes place on 17thand 18thMarch, when the local people dress up in traditional Valencian costumes and walk to deliver their flowers to a wooden statue of the Virgin in the Plaza de la Virgen. It’s a noisy affair, with each casalhaving its own marching band, and an emotional one, and it’s also extremely popular so it’s hard to get near enough to get a really good view of what’s going on. But as the days wore on, and the Virgin’s cloak slowly filled up with flowers, it was worth the effort to get near enough to take a picture or two.
On Sunday night, we were invited by one of our CELTA students to come to an event where they would be ‘running with fire’. It sounded interesting, so I thought I’d go along and see what it was all about. It was utterly crazy. Not only were people (including children) running about with lit fireworks in their hands, they had also strapped them to the back of a bicycle which was ridden around the closed-off street, and stuffed them into a model dragon! And at the end of the event, they set off fireworks that were so close to the audience that I could feel hot ashes raining down upon me. (By this point, I was totally in the fire-running zone and just kept videoing!)
And then it was time for La Cremà, the big finale on Tuesday evening. We left the flat at around 10pm, just as the children’s fallas were being burnt. (If that seems cruel, it’s worth pointing out that these are fallas made for, rather than by, the children. If that still seems cruel, I suppose it is preparation for the main event – the burning of the main fallas.)
We arrived at our chosen falla at maybe 10.10pm. The children’s falla was still burning. Already the street was crowded. We took our place next to a churros stall and we waited. And we waited. And we waited. I can’t say an awful lot happened between then and midnight, except that it started to rain (for the first time during waking hours since I’ve been here!) and we got to know some of the people near us in the crowd. I was surprised at how many would be leaving the next day.
I have to say, Fallas is a sight to be seen, and I’m glad to have been here for it, but if I was only going to visit Valencia once, I would prefer to see the real Valencia at another time of year. That may sound strange, because surely Fallas is Valencia and Valencia is Fallas…? Well, to a point, yes. But the Valencia I know and love is so much quieter, so much calmer. There is more to Valencia than Fallas. And that’s why I’m glad to be staying.
Eventually, midnight came round and there was a flurry of fireworks, and then the fire was lit. It was strange to think that at that moment, all across Valencia, fallas were burning. All those hours and hours of work, all those thousands of euros of investment. And yet this is what the whole festival had been leading up to.
It didn’t take long. Soon big flakes of burning ash were being blown over the crowd as the flames took hold, and already the firefighters were damping down to keep the fire under control. A few minutes later, the falla was down to its bare bones and the crowd started to move. There was another fire to be seen and nobody wanted to miss it.
And so we hurried to the main square – literally running, so as to get ourselves a good space. Of course, we were already too late for that, but we squeezed through the crowd and got the best view we could and again, we waited. And at 1am, the final falla – the one outside the town hall – was set alight. Again, there were fireworks. Again, the flames did their work in remarkably little time… and then it was all over.
They say that the casals fallersdon’t take even one day off. If that’s the case, they will have met yesterday to start planning next year’s fallas. It’ll be great to see what they come up with… but I can wait.
For now, Fallas is over. It was good while it lasted, but it’s good to have the city back, and it’s amazing how quickly it did get back to normal.
Now, I have to work out what’s next for me. I’ve actually been quite poorly over the last couple of weeks, so Fallas has been a convenient excuse for not doing too much, but it’s time to pick myself up, dust myself off and start to look for work.
Wish me luck.