“Careful. Those firecrackers can take a finger off.”
Vicente, my neighbour, isn’t joking. As I place the offending petard back in its box, he raises a hand to show a missing section on the middle digit of his right hand.
“Happened years ago,” he says with a shrug. “When I was a kid.”
Valencia, in March. The mercury is rising, the sun beats down; spring is in the air. While the vernal equinox is celebrated elsewhere by a quiet stroll and a picnic in the countryside, here on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, after 11 months of relative restraint, Valencians are once again indulging their greatest passion: letting off vast quantities of colourful, dangerous and very loud fireworks.
There is something almost heart-warming in these overly cautious times to discover that in one corner of Europe, for a few weeks of the year at least, seven-year-old boys are walking the streets with boxes of explosives under their arms, scorching their fingertips as they fiddle with fuses on the pavement. Forget health and safety: fire and noise – so loud it can make your ears bleed – are the watchwords for one of the most spectacular fiestas in Spain.
I’ve been living in Valencia now for 10 years, married to a local girl – a flamenco dancer – with both my sons born here. Fallas has become a part of my life. Like most Valencian families, we tend to measure the year in terms of “before” and “after” Fallas, as others might do with Christmas. For Fallas is more than a celebration of springtime. It has come to define this city – its mindset, its way of doing things. For some, it is an indication of the playful, energetic spirit of Valencians. For critics it represents a tacky frivolity.
A falla, after which the fiesta takes its name (from the Latin facula, “torch”), is a brightly painted and often gaudy statue made of wood, foam and wax, anywhere between one and 30 metres high. It is comprised of a number of figures – ninots – often satirical in character, which may represent real people (politicians and celebrities), concepts (“the sea”, “fame”), or pretty much anything that was passing through the sculptor’s mind at the time. Having been constructed over the previous year in a suburb known as La Ciudad Fallera, hundreds of these statues are erected all over the city during the early part of March. For weeks, streets are closed, parties are held in the open air and firecrackers are let off in abundance, while large-scale fireworks light up the night sky. Then, at midnight on March 19, St Joseph’s Day, the fallas are ceremoniously burnt, almost simultaneously, in a bacchanalian frenzy as enormous crowds surge around the flames, intoxicated by a curious primal energy. “Orgy of fire” doesn’t even come close.
St Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters, which gives weight to the theory that Fallas started with a carpenters’ tradition of burning poles or planks of wood used to hang candles from during the dark winter months, which were no longer needed in spring. Others talk of a hangover from the Middle Ages when artisans had a clear-out of their workshops as the days grew longer, burning what they no longer needed. Whatever the origin, insisting this essentially pagan celebration of the equinox has anything to do with St Joseph or Christian rites doesn’t stick: there is none of the seriousness of the Easter processions here. Indeed, the Christian events on either side of Fallas – Lent and Easter – have all but vanished from the city, so imposing and dominating has it become. Fallas is all about the changing of the season, and having fun, whether you want to or not.
The official dates of the festival are March 15-19 but few pay attention to that and each year it seems to start earlier. Certainly by the second week in March the party is well under way.
A typical Fallas day goes something like this: having just managed to get to sleep after the revelry of the night before, you are woken up at eight o’clock sharp by the despertà – a brass band walking the streets playing loud paso dobles. Any thoughts of catching a few more minutes between the sheets are dispelled as what sounds like a fierce gun battle breaks out beneath your bedroom window. Those are not AK-47s firing off but local children throwing potent firecrackers at each other, as they will do for the rest of the day and into the night. Silence is a rare and precious commodity during Fallas. If you crave it, do as thousands of non-fallero Valencians do and leave town as fast as you can.
Stumbling bleary-eyed out on to the street, your body’s cry for high doses of sugar to kick-start you into action are catered for by dozens of fried-food stalls. Here you can get Spanish-style hot chocolate, so thick you could plaster walls with it, and buñuelos, the main Fallas delicacy, made of battered pieces of pumpkin dough.
With your stomach duly lined, the rest of the morning involves pasacalles – small-scale processions where more traditional music is played. Locals show off their special Fallas costumes, made at great expense in embroidered silk – once a Valencian export. These stylised 18th-century dresses are paraded with great pomp, the women braiding their hair into flat discs at the sides of their heads (not unlike the coils on the city’s Lady of Elche statue).
By now it’s past one o’clock, and you notice that many people are starting to leave, all walking in the same direction. Following them, you come out into the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, a major square in the centre of the city. This is the setting for one of the most important daily Fallas rituals – the mascletà.
“A concert of firecrackers” might be the best way to describe this. Others might use terms like “a lot of banging”, or “sheer bloody madness”. With tens of thousands of people tightly packed around a fenced-off area in the middle of the square, on the dot of 2pm, thousands of fireworks and firecrackers are ignited, creating a barrage of noise that well exceeds 120 decibels. Revellers stand watching open-mouthed, not in awe but because they know that to close your mouth risks blowing your eardrums, so powerful is the sound. Red Cross ambulances are on standby for anyone foolish enough not to follow the crowd’s example.
The effect of attending a mascletà is interesting. It is the only time when I’ve had the impression of actually seeing sound, like some special-effect wave in a sci-fi movie. That’s apart from feeling the explosions reverberate through parts of my body I didn’t know existed. Then there’s the light-headed feeling that comes when it finishes (they usually last about seven to 10 minutes). Curiously you can feel quite cleansed afterwards, and a spontaneous camaraderie will develop with strangers standing nearby, as though you have shared something significant by witnessing this powerful event together.
With the mascletà over, it’s time for lunch, which can mean only one thing in Valencia – paella. As this is the home of what has become Spain’s national dish, be prepared to taste the real thing, made with chicken, rabbit and beans. Some of it might be cooked over open fires built in the middle of the road, other servings can be found in bars and restaurants dotted about the city.
Sleep of any kind is officially frowned on during Fallas but some might try to put their heads down for a quick siesta before the afternoon’s activities. For bullfight enthusiasts, Valencia hosts one of the most important early events of the season, with many big names appearing. Others might stroll the streets, admiring the fallas. Meanwhile, the falleros make another appearance in their traditional costumes, this time moving in slow procession carrying bunches of carnations to take to the Plaza de la Virgen next to the cathedral, where a large floral statue of the Virgin is built as the offerings are brought in.
By nightfall it is time for more firework displays, the largest being on March 18 – the nit de foc, the “Night of Fire”. Then on March 19 comes the culmination of the fiesta – the cremà, when the fallas are finally burnt down. Firemen stand ready, dowsing nearby buildings with water to prevent them from spontaneously combusting. The crowds watch, hypnotised by the flames, as sparks and plumes of thick black smoke surge into the night air.
With ears ringing from the explosions, nerves shattered from lack of sleep, the smell of acrid smoke permeating your clothes, you eventually fall exhausted back into bed, sound in the knowledge that you have lived through one of the most insane fiestas on the planet, and survived.
And for the first time in what feels like an eternity, as you place your head on the pillow, you listen and hear ... nothing.
Jason Webster is the author of books about Spain including ‘Duende’, ‘Guerra’ and ‘Andalus’. His latest is ‘Or the Bull Kills You’ (Chatto & Windus), a detective novel set in Valencia
The world on parade
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 5-8
Celebrations before the start of Lent take place around the world, though in radically different forms, writes Izabella Scott. Britons, for example, spend the evening of Shrove Tuesday (March 8 this year) making pancakes, while Brazilians enjoy wild, multiday parties. In Rio several million gather for the festivities which run from this weekend until Tuesday. The highlights are the parades of the samba schools on Sunday and Monday nights.
Cologne, Germany, March 7
Masked revellers take to the streets in a parade of more than 12,000 people, 500 horses, 128 floats and 123 bands (2010). Three symbolic characters are elected as representatives of the festival; the Prinz (Prince), the Bauer (farmer) and the Jungfrau (virgin), all played by men. The parade is watched by more than a million spectators, who greet one another during the festival with “Kölle Alaaf!”, translated as “Cologne above all!”
Port of Spain, Trinidad, March 7-8
The Caribbean’s biggest carnival begins under the cloak of darkness in a pre-dawn party named J’Ouvert (from the French jour ouvert, or daybreak). Partygoers bathed in chocolate, oil and mud depict devils and demons, and dance through the streets – beginning a day of festivities that ends in a competitive parade.
New Orleans, USA, March 8
Opinion is divided on the origin of the word “carnival” but many believe it derives from the Latin carne vale (farewell to meat) or the Italian carne levare (to remove meat), both referring to the using up of food stores before the fasting of Lent. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday in English) is a variation on the theme, and in New Orleans it is celebrated with a series of parades, made up of floats captained by “Carnival Krewes”, who toss strings of plastic beads into the crowds, a tradition that dates from the late 19th century.
Binche, Belgium, March 6-8
The medieval town of Binche celebrates carnival in a festival that goes back to the 14th century. From dawn to dusk on Shrove Tuesday, performers known as Gilles parade through Binche, often 1,000 at a time, casting away evil spirits with sticks. Gilles dress in vibrant costumes, wooden shoes and wax masks, with baskets filled with oranges that are dispensed to the crowd.
Basel, Switzerland, March 14-16
Basel’s huge carnival is an anomaly, and not just because it sees a normally sober city break into wild partying. It takes place during, rather than before, Lent, possibly the result of this being a traditionally Protestant city while carnival is seen as a predominantly Catholic affair. The festivities last for exactly 72 hours as an estimated 18,000 Fasnächtler (participants) parade through the town.