In my book, Spain is the world champion of dangerous, frivolous, and politically incorrect festivals. The Spanish run with bulls, stage wars with tomatoes and leap over infants. But Las Fallas in Valencia is, perhaps, the most over-the-top, unconventional Spanish spectacle of them all.
Las Fallas began in the Middle Ages as a celebration to welcome the coming of spring. During Las Fallas, the townspeople would gather together everything deemed unnecessary or harmful to their lives and set it all ablaze. The purpose was a kind of literal, and spiritual, house cleaning. Over time, the fodder for Las Fallas fires has evolved from household junk to elaborately constructed works of art. Now made of flammable polystyrene, some fallas reach over 100 feet tall.
Every year, Valencia’s neighborhoods compete to design and build the most ornate fallas, a process that spans the entire eleven months preceding the actual festival in March. An absurd amount of effort and money is invested in the creation of the fallas, all of which are ultimately destined to simply go up in smoke. Adding to the insanity, many of today’s fallas are satirical caricatures of public figures or events, and absolutely nothing is off limits. Politicians are lampooned, racial and sexual taboos are exploited, and virtually every cultural norm is violated.
During the final days of the Las Fallas festival, Valencia is not the place to be if sleeping is a priority. But the entire city is pretty much a pyromaniac’s dream. At 8 AM, the Despertás wake the neighborhoods with marching bands and firecrackers. At 2 PM, the Mascaletas shell shock the town with tumultuous explosions of gunpowder. In between, there are boisterous processions of traditionally-dressed beauty pageant contestants and rowdy cavalcades of celebrants toting floral offerings to Our Lady of the Forsaken, Valencia’s patron saint. Evenings are devoted to extravagant fireworks displays, a Parade of Fire (featuring, of course, a fire-breathing dragon), and street parties with live music. As if all that were not enough stimulation, randomly, throughout the day and night, revelers of all ages simply walk down the street casually lighting firecrackers and launching rockets among their fellow pedestrians. Las Fallas is not for the faint of heart.
Las Fallas culminates around midnight on the night of March 19. This is when things really get crazy. As huge crowds of spectators gather, the fallas are doused with flammable liquid and set afire. The resulting infernos are several stories high. The heat from the blaze is sufficient to singe the eyebrows of front row spectators, but retreat is not an option in the solid sea of humanity. As over 300 fallas burn around the city, buildings, cars, and participants are covered in a blanket of ash. It is kind of like being in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.
Is Las Fallas chaotic? Definitely. Is Las Fallas foolish? Pretty much. Is Las Fallas unsafe? Probably. Is Las Fallas riotously fun? Absolutely.
I know the odds are against it, but I hope Las Fallas does not to succumb to the pressures of the PC police, environmentalists, fire safety officials or budgetary constraints. Las Fallas should never be tamed.
Las Fallas, Valencia: When You Go
Lotelito Rooms & Bar, stylish, minimalist quarters in a retro building, only meters from the Plaza Ayuntamiento, ground zero for Las Fallas action
Taberna Vasca Ché, a no frills hole in the wall with authentic, affordable tapas; Copenhagen, a fashionable den for vegetarian fare; Tinto Fino, a lively purveyor of simple, flavorful food, and good times
Museum of Las Fallas, repository of pardoned pieces of fallas throughout history; Valencia Cathedral, home of the purported ‘Holy Grail’ and a bell tower climb to the best bird’s eye view of the city of Valencia; City of Arts and Sciences, an architecturally dramatic complex of buildings containing the largest aquarium in Europe, an IMAX Theater, the Museum of Science, and the city’s performing arts center