Las Fallas de Valencia: Playing with Fire

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Fire – normally a foe and a fiend – becomes dearest friend. How this is made possible without the whole thing turning into either crime or disaster only these audacious Valencians know. This mystery is supposed to have medieval and religious roots, but Las Fallas has evolved into something worldly, even bawdy.

For five days and nights, from March 15 to 19 each year, strategic corners of this Spanish port city, famed for its sweet naranja and paella, become the focal points of this one-of-a-kind celebration in honor of St. Joseph.

The ninots, or satirical puppets, are dexterously crafted at a high cost. Made of papier mâché, plaster, wood, or cardboard, and with varied themes like zoological, mythical, and phantasmagorical, the ninots, raised on platforms called fallas, require an entire community and an entire year to build.

Cranes are often used to move these behemoths at their assigned positions. It is the day of la plantà (the rising), and the message is clear: The next five days is now time for siesta… and fiesta! Hermosas chicas y damas in traditional fineries compete for the title of the most comely. Brass bands lead the display of Valencia folk in traditional gowns and costumes of intricate embroidery, transporting spectators to a bygone era. Fireworks explode too, without warning, the ear-splitting noise building up in intensity in time. There are bullfights, and then there are paella-making contests.

What is a Mother of All Parties without food stalls sprouting, tempting revelers with their cream-filled churros and pumpkin buñuelos dipped in thick chocolate, as well as assorted Arabic sweets, baked pumpkins,  special raisin bread and other pastries, goat cheese, chocolate-covered apples, horchata Valenciana, tuna empanadas, and paella Valenciana (rabbit, chicken, white bean) paired off with either agua de Valencia or sangria?

At 2 PM sharp in Plaza Ayuntamiento, firecrackers connected by strings are detonated in style, issuing coordinated cracks and booms, with some dropping to the ground for ten minutes and creating little earthquakes.  Mascletá – this daily highlight in the lead-up to the final day is called.

By night, festive lights of the most beautiful baroque possible adorn select nooks.

Las Fallas – literally “the fires” in the local language – reveals its full meaning on the final night, when the ninots are set up for the burning ritual called La Cremá. Using hatchets, young lads can be seen planting fireworks inside the ninots as soon as darkness sets in. At the strike of 12 midnight, La Cremá simultaneously creates conflagrations in key parks and intersections across the city. Valencia smolders, in the dark! But, with its bomberos on hand, it burns, not like infierno, but to the tune of chanting. The streetlamps deliberately switched off, it’s as though Valencia is a city of pyromaniacs.

Why turn the spectacular ninots into a holocaust (except for one ninot spared for a museum)? Why turn the night into apocalypse? Las Fallas appears, on some level, to be a way of thanksgiving. If other towns can throw tomates at each other with abandon, why can’t Valencians play with fire?

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