Joan Ribo, the Mayor of Valencia, just announced that Las Fallas would be held this year, Coronavirus or not. In many other places this could be seen as a risky decision. There’s only been a few confirmed cases in the province, but it’s easy to imagine the virus spreading like wildfire during the city’s mammoth and most important festival.
Packed streets, fast food passed from hand to hand, lots of cheek kissing. And all that pollution on the last night, when over 700 polystyrene sculptures go up in smoke. It’s not a festival which promotes good health, virus or not.
Las Fallas is of massive cultural significance in Valencia. It celebrates the beginning of Spring on 20th March and originally was a way of carpenters getting rid of their old wood, by making it into dolls or figures. These were then burnt on 19th March to make way for new shoots. It’s a practice I applaud and I may well burn a bit of metaphorical dead wood myself.
I will also be standing in the square, watching the Falla, which stand scarily close to my third floor home, go up in smoke. Dramatic music plays and firemen are on hand to put out the flames as soon as they reach the top of the structure, which is about the height of the three-story high building.
I can’t imagine this being allowed in many other places. It all looks highly dangerous, but it’s also a part of why I love being here. La Nit Del Foc(the last night) is a ritual which transcends viruses, floods and the stock market’s fluctuations. It feels primitive, pagan and emotionally stirring , an antidote to modern life.
On Sunday 1st March, the first day of Fallas, around 100 people of all ages, from our local Fallas association, set out long tables in the square, played a mix of music through outdoor speakers and at 2.30pm all sat down to eat paella, all wearing matching red zip-up fleeces. Children set off firecrackers and a few Falleras made an appearance, in their traditional 18th century style costumes.
These are the beauty queens of Las Fallas, decked out in highly uncomfortable looking brocade dresses and embroidered shoes, their hair pinned up with false braids on either side. Being a Fallera is an immense honour and there are little girl versions too, aged about ten. The costumes cost around £2,000, which makes me wonder how inclusive this event is. But Las Fallas appears to be a festival of the people, which sits firmly at the core of Valencian society.
That night a dazzling show of fireworks took place at the Torres de Serrano right in the centre of the city, over looking La Turia gardens. The night before, a similar amazing display was held at the Marina. Every day until 19th March, there will be a Mascleta in the main square – where explosives are strung together on a long rope and then ignited. The first time I heard this, I thought there had been a terrorist attack and I literally jumped with fear. Valencian people talk with pride about their love for the Mascletas, which strike deep within their souls. Animals and the fainthearted are less keen.
Whether you like Las Fallas or not, it’s hard not to be impressed by this Unesco Cultural Heritage festival. The city stops for the five days of non-stop revels as visitors and locals make tours of the polystyrene 20 meter high figures, many based around a special theme or with cultural and political significance. There are parades and parties, and fireworks galore, some of the best I have ever seen.
Also in our square will be a big marquee where the local people gather to eat, drink, converse and who knows what? You can only go in if you’re a fully paid-up member of the association. We must content ourselves with listening to the unbearably loud techno music which plays until 5 am. The windows of our flat shake and it’s impossible to sleep.
We endured this for a few years, but now we go to Britain during Las Fallas and will return when it’s all done, Spring is officially here and the smoke clouds have all blown over. I admire the Valencian people for their gusto and their determination to enjoy themselves, virus or no virus, but clean Welsh air is what I crave right now.