When I first moved to Madrid I earned some money as an English teacher. Well, I say English but actually American English was more in demand. It was quite galling to be asked if you could teach someone only to be rejected because you spoke British English!! But anyway, at the academies I worked for – they abound in Spain – as long as you are a native speaker (of English or American!) you can always find work – and in the course of my work I came across a lot of young Americans who were really only teaching so that they could earn enough money to work their way across Spain from festival to festival – whereas I had married a Spaniard and settled in Madrid and had no money for festivals so I had to stay put! I was quite envious when they got together to plan their next sortie and a festival called ‘Las Fallas’ cropped up time and again in their conversations. Now, this may sound incredible, given that my husband was Spanish and he had close relatives in Valencia, where Las Fallas is staged, but it took me another 34 years before I got to see this renowned spectacle!
If you get the chance to go – go! Don’t leave it as long as I did!
Las Fallas is a week long festival, culminating on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th – another reason it took me so long to get there, maybe – it’s not the time of year when you’re usually on holiday. Valencia is on the east coast of Spain (Levante – where the sun rises) and the climate is sub tropical. The area around Valencia is known as ‘La Huerta de España’ – the Market Garden of Spain. The Arabs, who had invaded Spain in the early 700s, saw that Valencia was very fertile and they built an intricate system of irrigation channels known as ‘acequias’ to distribute water around the cultivated land. This system survives today and the area continues to produce all manner of fruits and vegetables, including, of course, the famous Valencia oranges. I remember on my first trip to Valencia seeing orange trees along the roadside – a bit different from England! My mum and dad had come out to see us and we decided to visit my husband’s relatives. We stopped to brew up one of my dad’s essential pots of tea (old habits die hard – he went nowhere without a primus and a tea pot!!) It was a very warm day in late July. While we brewed up an old man happened along – he was weather beaten in that Spanish way – gnarled and brown like a bit of dry bark! He stared curiously at the primus!
Of course, Valencia’s other claim to fame is the ‘paella’ , that delicious rice and seafood dish on the menu in restaurants the length and breadth of Spain, but it is actually Valencia’s regional dish – a lot of people don’t know that rice is grown extensively around Valencia thanks to those clever Arabs and their irrigation system!
Anyway, I digress. Let’s move forward to 2005. Sadly, my husband, Bienve, had died by then but I still hadn’t seen the Fallas so I went with a cousin of mine. She had been my bridesmaid and the man we were going to stay with in Valencia was Bienve’s cousin, Hortensio, who, 34 years previously, had been Bienve’s best man – so it was going to be a great reunion. My husband’s family had a penchant for giving their male children unusual names – my husband was called Bienvenido (which means ‘welcome’ and in all the time I lived in Spain I only ever came across ONE other! Now, if his name had been Pedro…) and his cousin, like I say, was called Hortensio – again, I only ever came across ONE other and that was his dad! Anyway, my cousin and I arrived quite tired at Valencia railway station at about 10 pm. Luckily, Hortensio lived literally round the corner so he sauntered up to meet us and we wandered back towards his place through the mayhem – hardly believing our eyes or our ears – little kids gleefully hurling sticks of dynamite (aka fire crackers – health and safety? what health and safety?), people laying out squares of turf and primus stoves on every available bit of pavement, ready for the paella competition – this lasted till the early hours and to be honest, no, I didn’t really want to try it! I wanted to go to bed ! but there was no point doing that really because there were bangers going off everywhere like artillery shells and hundreds of people, thronging the streets, laughing and drinking – or occasionally starting to doze off. It’s important to pace yourself – there are 7 days of this!
Now luckily for us, Hortensio had a flat right in the middle of the action – so over the next few days we were able to watch a lot of things from our vantage point on his balcony, but actually to truly appreciate the amazing goings on at some point you have to get in amongst it.
Spaniards have no qualms about combining the pagan with the religious – they don’t see any incongruity or inconsistency – nothing odd about throwing themselves heart and soul into the religious activities of their *peñas (neighbourhood groups), but at the same time revel in the dancing, drinking and enthusiastic burning of effigies! (*a linguistic note here, well more of a plea – I do speak castellano but I don’t speak valenciano – the only word of it I remember from this trip is ‘ninot’ – which is the figure on top of the falla, the falla being the bonfire in waiting, so to speak, so valencianos please forgive me! In fact, I found it quite frustrating – having gone to the trouble of learning ‘castellano’ (the Spanish spoken in Castilla) to find that the captions and explanations of the fallas were in valenciano – and, to be brutally frank, Hortensio wasn’t much of an interpreter so I was short changed there! It would have been nice to learn more but I was in the wrong company!
But, anyway, here’s the idea: essentially, each neighbourhood group builds a structure on top of which they can place a figure or sometimes lots of figures, and they put the whole thing at an allotted spot in the city – usually a road junction – and after a week spent touring the streets admiring each others’ handiwork – they burn them to the ground !!
Of course, there is a bit more to this week long celebration than that! One is the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary and another is the pageant where they elect a Fallera – very akin to our beauty contests, where they choose a pretty girl dressed in regional costume to be Fallera Mayor. She holds the position till the next year and gets roped into good causes and charity work.
For the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary, they build a wire framework outside the cathedral and, as each ‘peña’ processes into the cathedral for Mass, one of their number leaves flowers on this framework, which gradually builds up into the most amazing floral representation of the Virgin Mary.
The week is punctuated by all sorts of peripheral events: each area (and these include towns and villages from across the Autonomous Community of Valencia – so the whole region, not just the city itself – holds ceremonies and competitions of its own, but the coming together of all of them in the Cathedral at the end of the week is a sight to behold – they come in one after another through the main entrance, impeccably turned out in regional costume, and marching to the beat of a rousing brass band – this constant stream of humanity takes several hours to fill the Cathedral.
On the final day of the festival, the 19th of March, the citizens of Valencia throw themselves with abandon into the Cremà (the Burning). As you can see from the picture below, not one square inch of pavement can be seen – this is what you call a street party a la española! So they take advantage of the daylight hours to feast on lots of glorious tapas and seafood and then when darkness falls ………..the serious business of lighting the fallas and setting off the most impressive, ear shattering firework display this side of Sidney Harbour Bridge!
Although they may seem outwardly blasé about their fallas, when you quiz them about it and you realise that they have spent a whole year planning, designing and building them, their passion is obvious. For those involved it’s all to do with carrying on the family tradition, the desire to out-do your rivals, the need to be the biggest and best, the most ingenious and provocative, the most imaginative and outrageous – and always better than the year before!
I remember when I was still living in Madrid hearing news reports about fatalities at this festival – someone standing too close to a burning falla for example and it toppling over onto them – it has happened more than once, so they take more precautions these days. A falla must be made of something that will ignite – obviously – the whole point, after all, is to burn it to the ground, but it must be a material that doesn’t produce toxic black smoke as they used to; and these days there is also a more judicious positioning of safety barriers – a relatively recent measure, unbelievable though that may seem).
So what do the fallas look like? Well, an overall theme for the year is chosen – the year we went it was ‘Inventions and Personalities of the 20th Century’.
It is then up to each peña to design and build a falla in accordance with the theme – but more importantly, it’s an opportunity for people to make some sort of satirical comment on people in public life – Spaniards are not known for their subtlety ! Politicians, bankers, judges and even sportsmen are fair game.
When we went in 2005 there were over FOUR HUNDRED fallas positioned at crossroads and junctions all over the city, which gives you an idea of the scale of the festival.
Some towered above adjacent buildings and were very elaborate. These days the authorities bring in fire engines from forces all over Spain and they hose down the facades of the closest buildings – this is just as well, I can tell you, because once the flames had taken hold on the nearest falla to us we could feel the intense heat bouncing off the walls around us.
Of course, it would be a shame if all this artistry and ingenuity were lost forever when it is reduced to cinders, so before that happens, a panel of judges tours the city and selects a ‘ninot’ (figure) from both the adults’ and the children’s sections to preserve for posterity in the Ninot Museum.
This Museum is well worth a visit, and apart from marvelling at the talent of their creators, you see that these ninots do indeed provide an insight into the political and social landscape of the time – some are comical and some are downright cruel!
Of course, Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid, the capital, and Barcelona, the capital of Cataluña, so they couldn’t have those two cities outdoing them in the Top Ten of Spanish Fiestas.