By Maxine Albert
Giant Dali-esque puppets loom over tall buildings as a continuous cacophony of explosions climaxes with a nightly display of fireworks. Red devils spout streaming fire from their pitch forks. Crowds gather in the streets as revelers party jubilantly and torch their beautiful city. This is not the latest blockbuster special effects sci-fi movie – this is the annual Fallas Festival in Valencia.
Valencia is Spain’s third largest city, with striking architecture surrounded by gorgeous countryside on the Mediterranean coast. With 300 days of sun, it is known as the California of Europe. The friendly people are intelligent and opinionated with great humor and pride. They prize their festival, saying “You can have Christmas and Easter – we have Fallas!
The most popular festival in Europe after Octoberfest, Fallas always occurs March 14th–19th. It ends on the Feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Be advised: Leave all preconceptions behind. This is a spectacle the likes of which I have not seen before. What at first might appear to be a city gone wild, a huge, noisy, smoky, non-stop block party and a pyromaniacs paradise, it might just change your life. It truly must be experienced at least once.
Depending on who you speak to, Fallas either started as a religious holiday, a statement of social and political commentary, or an invocation of the onset of spring. Whatever the origin, it has evolved into a 5 day high-spirited festival celebrating fire. Las Fallas means “the fires” in Valencian, the region’s unique dialect. The festival’s main attractions are the visually arresting ninots – colorful puppet-like statues made of plastic and papier mache which specially trained artisans work on a year in advance. Over 360 carefully crafted ninots are placed in key locations and intersections around the city. Many of these towering sculptured statues stand over 67 feet tall. They can cost over $75,000 and need cranes to move them into position.
These Dali-esque, sometimes bawdy statues often depict economic and political corruption and lampoon famous leaders, politicians and celebrities. It was fascinating to watch the crowds marvel at the aesthetics and try to decipher exactly what was being satirized. Many scenes skewered greedy banks and corporations, the toxic pollution of the earth or celebrated the green movement. Some were hilarious – Sarkozy with Carla Bruni on one arm and another woman on the other. A resident told me that Valencians believe if you can laugh at yourself, everything is okay. What a novel idea – an entire city coming together to view politics with a sense of humor and celebrate.
The pageantry continues with women and girls dressing up in elegant traditional Fallas dresses of the finest fabrics and detailed embroidery. They parade through the center of town carrying floral offerings to the plaza in front of the Basilica of the Virgin accompanied by bands playing everything from boleros to rock music. With their hair done up, best jewelry and beaming faces, they take this ritual seriously. Even the smallest babies in Fallas are wearing their finest as a Queen is chosen to reign over the festival.
The sound of exploding firecrackers fills the air throughout the day as locals and foreigners revel. Infected by the Fallas frenzy I threw a firecracker – and wanted to do it again. At 2 p.m. every day, crowds gather in the center of town at the Plaza Ayuntamiento to hear the boom of the mascletas, ropes of firecrackers rhythmically ignited. The thunderous rumbles, timed to increase in volume, are considered music and induce a state of ecstasy in onlookers as the ground literally shakes. The festivities continue until night when brilliant fireworks light up the sky.
At the end of the festivities, the ninots are judged, given prizes and remain in place until St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 when, at midnight, these creatures, stuffed with fireworks, are set on fire and burned to the ground during ‘La Crema,” or cremation. One of the ninots is spared from the flames each year and exhibited in the local museum with favorites from past years.
The whole city turns out for the destruction – grandfathers, mothers, children. A fire parade with costumed jokers and devils on stilts wielding pitch forks streaming fire celebrates the cremation. Fire-fighting equipment from all over the city stands ready and within two hours, each of these fanciful figurines is engulfed in flames and turns to ashes. Watching the city set ablaze as a pyrotechnic spectacular was apocalyptic. Madness or magnificence? To create and then destroy with non attachment. Very Zen. I wondered how these children would grow up – traumatized by the fires or wise buddhas who learned the lesson of the impermanence of life at an early age? I felt an indescribable catharsis watching the conflagrations.
Aside from the Fallas, the festival has a myriad of other activities. The bullring in the center of town features the most excellent matadors during Fallas. Although I am not a fan or even a believer, I thought it proper to partake of the culture. I lunched on delicious Iberian pizza in the lobby of the Astoria Hotel and took in the happening scene of well-heeled crowd aristocrats, socialites, and celebrities who dined before proceeding to the bullfight just minutes away. I saw superstar matador Cayetano, known as the Spanish Tom Cruise, who was gored by the bull, thrown into the air - and still continued the duel .
A visit to the City Of Arts and Sciences, with buildings designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava is a must. The Aquarium is fantastic, and you’ll see where the beautiful people socialize if you stop for a drink at Mercado Colon.
And the food - I enjoyed the freshest local fish, tapas, great wines and that famous Valencian dish - paella. During Fallas, paella contests pop up all over the city. At the esteemed La Matandea Restaurant I watched the owner cook both a seafood and a vegetarian paella with the requisite base of crispy, toasted rice called “socarrat.” New York master chef Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow stopped there on their foodie road trip, and Batali included this eatery in his book. I savored the best paella, with artichokes and monkfish, at the Vinatea Restaurant of the Astoria Hotel where I feasted on a delectable St. Joseph banquet. Dining at Arrop with its inspired creative cuisine was pure heaven. Other favorites are La Riua, Casa Montana and Sagardi.
I feel somewhat changed since I’ve experienced Las Fallas. Perhaps the heat of the fires burned away some of my inner demons and cleansed a path for the new. Maybe it’s just the advent of spring. For some, when asked “What is the most exhilarating experience you’ve had?” they might reply “climbing Everest.” For me, the answer is “Fallas in Valencia.”
Where to Stay: I had a lovely and large room at the Hotel Melia Valencia next to the City Of The Arts. It’s 10 minutes from the center, with a restaurant, bar, spa and friendly staff . A huge perk is that it’s quiet – a nice respite from the “wild party” where you can relax and sleep well. www.solmelia.com/hotels/spain/valencia/melia
Getting There: Air Europa from major cities to Madrid. Comfort plus tasty food and fine wines were a welcome treat aboard my flight from JFK. Business class has great adjustable seats affording you the opportunity to lie down and sleep. Valencia is a few hours drive or a short flight from Madrid.
For information about travel to Spain: www.spain.info