Mooching around… the Fallas festival in Valencia

Got anything bad or negative in your life? Need a bit of purification? The Fallas festival in  Valencia is your chance to rid yourself of all that stale old stuff – symbolically at least – and move on to a more positive future. Or have some fun trying if nothing else. The Fallas festival officially starts at the beginning of March but things really get going on the 16th, when the extraordinary sculptural groups known as fallas appear as if by magic in the streets and squares of the city. They stay there for just a few days before being ceremoniously burned on the night of March 19th  – technically the 20th  I suppose, as it all kicks off at midnight.

Fallas artists –  it is a recognised proper job that you can study for at university –  have been working all year in their studios to create the cartoon-like papier-mâché figures that depict celebrities, film stars, television personalities, politicians and members of the royal family as well as mythical and fantasy characters. Some make you laugh, some make you think, quite a few are rather rude. Others are just plain baffling to the untrained eye to be honest but it’s all part of the fun at this massive street festival.

So how did it start? The origins are a bit vague, with overlapping pagan and Christian rituals but it seems to have evolved from a tradition going back to the 15th century or thereabouts. Saint Joseph – San José – is the patron saint of the carpenters’ guilds and is celebrated on March 19th. On this date, the carpenters  would mark the end of winter and the onset of spring by burning the wooden poles that they had used to hang their lanterns on over the winter. Bear with me here… They would chuck woodshavings and old bits of rubbish on it to keep the fire going. Then they started adding bits of material, then an old hat, and the pole started resembling a human figure, called the ninot. The next thing was that the effigies were placed on some sort of platform so that it was easier to see them – and so on until we get to the over-the-top extravaganza we have today.

There are more than 700 fallas at around 400 sites around the city but the ones that that get the most attention are those that have won a place in the coveted Special Section. When I was there last year, I did some serious trudging around looking at these creations. The weather was perfect, sunny with clear blue skies, warm enough to go out without a coat but not uncomfortably hot. Fallas is all about drifting around town with a bunch of friends with a vague plan to tick as many different fallas as possible off your list. This will take some time, days in fact. It’s not just that there are a lot of fallas to see, but that there are a lot of distractions along the way.

And by distractions I mean cold beers, obviously. And maybe the odd gin and tonic. Or you can really get in the swing and have an Agua de Valencia – a cocktail of cava, fresh orange juice, gin and maybe vodka or rum. Yes, that is gin AND vodka or rum. And maybe a shot of cointreau too. Another popular choice is horchata, the Valencian speciality made from chufas, or tiger nuts, with crushed ice and sugar. It is only sensible to take frequent breaks as you will probably be out for at least 12 hours and walk a good 20 km a day – we are talking seriously sensible footwear here. Sitting down at a pavement café to discuss your opinions on each falla is all part of the experience. In my case, of course, this was totally uninformed and no use to anyone, so thank goodness I was with friends from Valencia who knew what they were talking about.

First up on our tour was the Antiga de Campanar. Each falla belongs to a neighbourhood and has its own club, the members of which meet all year round. I definitely needed help getting my head around it all and got chatting to Chelo, a leading representative of the Antiga de Campanar fallas club. “It took the artist, Mario Gual, six months to make this one, helped by seven assistants. He made three other fallas too.” She then tried to explain what their falla was all about, but it was too complicated for me. “Our falla deals with voodoo, sorcery, black magic, the dark arts. We are joking  that each falla in the Special Section uses a secret technique to try to win the big prize.”

Standing in front of their falla, Chelo pointed out references to tarot cards, destiny and triumphing over the adversity of the economic recession that Spain in general and Valencia in particular is struggling with. Every element of the falla symbolised or represented a bit of the story. Chelo explained that although their voodoo theme was tongue in cheek, people really want to win the top prizes and all sorts of skullduggery goes on to find out what other clubs are planning for their fallas. “There is probably a bit of spying as no one wants to divulge the theme of their falla. The Ruzafa neighbourhood has two of the most important fallas and they managed to keep the topics secret from each other until they were installed. And they are neighbours, people who live in the same building!”

You don’t have to grasp all the details to enjoy the spectacle though, thank goodness. The fallas are made in workshops  and then transported to the locations, where the pieces are assembled with the aid of cranes. Most are completed on March 16th, although some appear earlier. There is also always a smaller falla for children alongside the main one. The Antiga de Campanar one was all about the wonders of reading, stories and fairy tales.The money to make the fallas is raised from sponsors and the local community.The expense is eyewatering – from a few thousand euros up to a million in the years before the economic crisis. Devotees claim this is at least partly justified as it creates employment, attracts visitors and brings millions of euros to the city.

“It is very important for the community,” said Chelo, “The annual fee to belong to a fallas club might be around €400 a year – we have to cover the rent on the premises and other overheads and expenses. At weekends we take sandwiches and meet our friends there. It’s a tradition that has been more or less the same for years and years.”

We next went to see the Nou Campanar falla, in the same residential area just outside the city centre. This was a very different sort of sculpture, called Menuda Menina, created by Manolo García, who is one of the top fallas artists and was also chosen to create the all-important gigantic falla in front of the city hall in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in 2014 and 2015.

His Menuda Menina was a huge female figure, as seen in Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting) but modified to resemble a Valencian lady. The skirt, made of slats of wood, formed a dome that you could actually walk into. Inside there was an exhibition of drawings, paintings and models of meninas created by students. This was a highly original idea but the fallas jury likes to stick to traditions so it didn’t win one of the top awards. The main section comprises 12 fallas but the jury only gives 11 prizes.  So one is left with nothing and in 2014 it was the Nou Campanar.  A bit controversial. It seemed very unfair to me as it was a beautiful artwork in its own right. And it only cost around €80,000, while 10 times that amount has been spent on the Nou Campanar falla in the past.

Our next stop was Na Jordana, by the Turia gardens in the old river bed on the edge of the old town, the Carmen district. Loud music was blasting out, vying with the firecrackers that are the constant background noise during the festival. Did I mention the noise? This one was all about corruption in the banking system, with lots of plays on words – ‘banco’ means both bank and bench.

I got talking to Maria José, the fallera mayor – the falla queen – who was waiting in the doorway of her apartment block before being accompanied by a marching band to the Carmen church nearby. I could hear the trumpets and drums as the band approached. “People take food to the church as an offering, like a sort of pop-up food bank, that is then given to people in need,” she told me.

On March 17th and 18th  fallas groups in traditional costume come from all around the province of Valencia to parade through the city to the Plaza de la Vírgen by the cathedral to present their flowers to the Virgin of the Forsaken, who his the patron of Valencia. This is called the Ofrenda, or Offering. The figure of the madonna is a huge wooden structure and the flowers are attached to slats in the frame forming her cloak. This is a highly emotional event where people are thinking about their mothers and their children. There are a lot of tears and  cute babies in regional garb.

At 2pm each day during the festival, thousands of people gather in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to experience the mascletà, an explosion of gunpowder and firecrackers. This is all about the sound, as the setting off of the firecrackers is carefully orchestrated to create a rhythmic composition – like a very loud drum solo – which aficionados appraise with expert knowledge. There is hardly any colour involved here – it is not a firework display. The fireworks come later, at night, in the dry river bed that is now a park, and are of course spectacular. The bangs of the mascletà build up gradually, getting louder and more intense.The vast square and the elegant buildings surrounding it disappear in the smoke.

And then on March 19th, excitement builds ahead of the big night, the Cremà,when all the fallas around the city are burned at midnight and Valencia turns orange in the light of the flames. Explosives are placed in the figures, which are then set alight. Bits fall off, flames flicker upwards and eventually the whole thing collapses, amid much clapping and cheering. All that work and effort and it is all destroyed in a matter of minutes. You can get really close to the action, which sounds like a bit of a health and safety nightmare, but it is all carefully monitored.

The crowds then surge towards the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to witness the burning of the massive municipal falla at 1am, which is a real spectacle. Again, I know it sounds really dangerous but there are teams of firemen all around and it is all closely controlled, despite the general mayhem. As soon as it is over, the cleaners get to work and by the next morning you would hardly know anything had gone on at all. But meanwhile, in the fallas workshops, the artists are already getting ready to start again.

For lots more information, have a look at Visit Valencia and Fallas from Valencia. It is very handy to have a Valencia Card which covers public transport and some sights and museums. You could also look at my Valencia guide on Telegraph Travel.

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