Flowers and Fireworks, Las Fallas- Part II

I’ve already posted about two major parts of Valencia’s annual spring festival: the exuberant noise-making and the fabulous artistic creations of the fallas (giant sculptures) themselves. BIMG_0448ut there are other elements to impress visitors as well.

On March 17th and 18th, it seems like all 800,000 Valencians dress up in traditional native costumes and parade through the city streets.

The women and girls carry bouquets of red or white flowers, whiIMG_0456le some of the men wheel or carry huge floral arrangements. And by huge, I’m talking 6 or 7 feet wide and of a similar height.

Each neighborhood group winds its way to the Plaza of the Virgin, where the bouquets are used to form the robes of an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. The first group enters the plaza at about 3 PM each day. The last doesn’t arrive until well after midnight.

IMG_0434 Just getting the flowers placed is a ballet. Each bouquet is handed off to a helper who piles them by the side of the giant wooden structure. From there another helper tosses the bouquets to someone else, standing on a narrow ledge bIMG_0452uilt into the statue 8 to 10 feet off the ground. That person tosses the flowers up to someone clinging to the wooden struts near the top of the statue. And he hands them to someone even higher up who wedges them into the structure, carefully following an elaborate red and white pattern that’s different each year.

Nearly all of these helpers are male, though a few young women, clad in traditional men’s short pants and embroidered vests could be spotted.  One young lady was having trouble tossing the bouquets high enough to reach her colleague, and I was heartened to find that the crowd was encouraging rather than disparaging. She eventually got the hang of it.

IMG_0454 Meanwhile, the huge arrangements are massed together to the side and in front of the adjacent Bishops’ Palace. By the time all the flowers are in place on the 18th, the blocks surrounding the plaza are perfumed with their scent.

Across town, crowds gather every night on the sides of the old riverbed that now forms a miles-long public park curving around the ancient part of the city. For four nights in a row, the city sets off a spectacular fireworks display. On day 1, it starts at a relatively reasonable hour of midnight. By day 4, the show doesn’t begin until 2AM. I’m not sure anyone sleeps at all during Las Fallas.

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The fireworks themselves aren’t much different than those in New York or Washington or Boston on the Fourth of July. There’s the usual assortment of sparkly golden spheres, silver showers and colorful bursts. What is different here is the number of fireworks theIMG_0341y set off at the same time. There are times when you can see only a blur of light, there are so many going off at once. The Spanish also seem to like to set off rows of rockets that streak color from the ground up—sometimes crisscrossing in mid air—while simultaneously huge blossoms appear overhead. It’s a wonderful sort of chaos.

And finally there’s the light displays in the Ruzafa neighborhood. Traditionally,   each neighborhood strings decorative lights across their narrow streets, marking their territory with a distinctive design. Most of them are qute pretty and quite tasteful. But the CaIMG_0483lle Cuba and Calle Sueco are really something. Remember that Danny DeVito movie about the guy whose Christmas lights could be seen from space? He had nothing on the Ruzafa guys.IMG_0493

From a 100 feet away, one display looked like some sort of neon cathedral, soaring into the sky. It wasn’t until I was practically underneath it, that I realized it wasn’t just a two-dimensional lighted outline. It was a block-long canopy of coordinated lights. That was amazing enough, but when they started blasting the music and the lights began a syncopated dance, the crowd roared. Me, too.

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Las Fallas — Part I

It’s impossible to decide which aspect of Valencia’s city-wide festival is the most impressive: the explosive volume of the Mascletàs; the controlled chaos of the nightly pyrotechnical fireworks; the 800 or so elaborate IMG_0489monuments, some nearly 100-feet tall; the neighborhood light displays; or the thousands of traditionally clad men, women and children who march to the Plaza of the Virgen to offer flowers, used to decorate a 45-foot wooden statute. Add in the food—giant pans of paella in makeshift sidewalk cafes, churro stands, sausages sizzling over hot fires and more—and well, it just can’t be compared to anything in the U.S.To even come close, you have to imagine New Orleans Mardi Gras crowds and parades combined with the family atmosphere, IMG_0283 croppednoise and pyrotechnics of IMG_0287 croppedthe Fourth of July, plus over-the-top Christmas decorations and the religious pageantry of Easter. Then picture it all pumped up on steroids—for four days.

Though the details are lost in the murky history of the Middle Ages, the origins of the festival seIMG_0365em to be secular, overlaid with a significant veneer from the Catholic Church. Centuries before electric lights   lengthened the short winter days, Valencian carpenters and other artisans constructed parots, wooden supports for lanterns to allow them to work later into the day. When spring brought more IMG_0307daylight hours, they gave their workshops a thorough cleaning and burned the parots, along with any broken artifacts, leftover pieces of wood and other detritus from the winter. Over time, the night of the bonfires became a sort of celebration of spring, and children would go from house to house begging for any discarded items to add to the piles. By the mid 1700s, las Fallas had become a regular municipal event. Somewhere along the way, the tradition of the spring burnings was co-opted by the church and the datIMG_0439 croppede became fixed as March 19, the day of St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

According to my trusty (and incidentally quite swoon worthy) Valencian guide to the most noteworthy Las Fallas monuments, the tradition of using the discarded parots to poke fun at fellow Valencianos is centuries old as well. Because the contraption looked rather like a pointing scarecrow, the townspeople began to dress them up, often adding features that identified them as a particular person. By the 16th IMG_0292_croppedand 17th centuries, if it was known, for example, that the butcher was having an affair with the baker’s wife, the parot was likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the meat-cutter, with a heavy dusting of flour. Gradually the costumed parots evolved into tableaus of giant figures, typically surrounded by smaller ninots, or dolls.

The monuments wereIMG_0386 originally made of cardboard, paper mache and wax; in recent years, they are constructed of light weight lumber, moldable cork and polystyrene. Each of Valencia’s neighborhoods erects at least one fallas, and typically two—the main one and a smaller one for children, called the infantil. (WalkinIMG_0355 croppedg around, it sometimes seems there is a giant lurking around every corner; there are nearly 400 fallas in the city itself.)

Neighborhood associations work on their fallas all year-round, raising money to build them, hiring the artists who design and make them and helping to erect them. An estimated one million tourists flood the city for the celebration (more than doubling its regular population) and the event as a whole is big business. In recent years, an estimated 750 million euros a year is poured into the monuments, the fireworks, hotels and restaurants, transit, security, flowers, music and other costs.

Each neighborhood fallas has a theme and nearly all use the opportunity to issue stinging commentary on public affairs and to mock loIMG_0372 croppedcal, national and even international public figures.This year’s winning fallas (yes, this is a fiercely competitive exercise) espoused the idea that “everything is play-acting”, and the ninots surrounding a 100-foot-tall dancing couple included IMG_0375_croppedStalin, Hitler, de Gaulle, Kim Jong-il and other departed world leaders, dancing and drinking, suggesting that they weren’t really dead, but living it up in Benidorm, a popular Spanish resort town. Fidel Castro waited nearby to join them when his time came. The country’s major newspapers were  represIMG_0361_supercroppedented as fun-house mirrors, distorting the facts they reported. Even President Obama and global security interests got a ribbing.

Other themes: A future in which everything, including sex is pictured quite differently–look closely at this amorous couple!. (Indeed many of the monuments feature some pretty racy figures.) Also, the inevitability of change. And of course, what the Spanish simply refer to as “Le crisis“.

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The fallas are judged on creativity, skill and wit. But there are other criterion as well. Complex engineering is expected, for example, with cantilevered figures, mimicking the original parots’ cantilevered arms. Most importantly, they must be IMG_0303made entirely of flammable materials, because on the last night, the Nit de Cremá, a string of fireworks inside the monument is ignited and the structure is burned IMG_0512to the ground. The last to go are the winner for the year and the monument on the Plaza de la Ayuntamiento, the city’s main square. This year, it was an  enormous lion–beautiful both whole and when burning. By morning, all was cleaned up; not even the ashes remained.

Indolence and Noisemakers

It’s after 6 p.m.  I’m still in bed.  Yes, I was up and out last night till past 2 a.m. watching the spectacular Las Fallas Nit de Foc fireworks  (worthy of a post of their own). And no, I haven’t actually been asleep all day. Since about 10 a.m., I’ve alternately read or browsed the web for a few hours and drifted back to sleep to the sound of nearly constant firecrackers set off across the city. I was definitely awake at two this afternoon, when the last Mascletá of the officially four-day, unofficially two-week-long festival went off a few blocks away at the city’s main plaza.

Las Fallas, in general, and the Mascletá, in particular,  is a 12-year-old boy’s pyrotechnical dream. When I think of the mischievous delight my son and his fellow miscreants had in designing their own jerry-rigged noisemakers, blowing up everything from potatoes to discarded GI Joes, I know they’d give their right arms to be in Valencia during Las Fallas. (I strongly suspect that some young Valencianos have sacrificed body parts to the gods of loud noises.)

Everywhere, all day and all night, people set off firecrackers. Tots  throw and stamp on those tiny poppers. 5-year-olds and their dads light and throw what I recall as salutes.  Teens and adults set off explosives that sound powerful enough to take out a car or a small building. They seem to be constantly going off just a few feet away, scarring the dickens out of unseasoned visitors like me. Mentally, I hear the perpetrators, like the bad guys in an old Western, gleefully shooting firecrackers at my feet, saying “dance, tourist, dance.”

Every day during the festival, the city sets off  its own barrage of the loudest possible fireworks. Crowds throng to the plaza and the streets surrounding it awaiting the moment when the first nearly deafening boom announces the day’s entrant to what is essentially a competition for the best—that  is, the loudest, most pulse-pounding, smoke-billowing—Mascletá of the festival. The din lasts for at least five minutes, and the noise is amplified by the echoes off the buildings surrounding the Plaza. The ground trembles. Tourists are warned to keep their mouths open when at the plaza for the event, lest the pressure from the explosions damage their ears. No one talks about earplugs, however, and I notice what seems to be an extraordinary number of audiologists’ offices and hearing aid stores around this city. I wonder if anyone has done a study to see if Valencianos have a higher-than-usual rate of deafness?

The surprising thing about the Mascleta is that it’s not cacophony. There’s a rhythm to the noise, with waves of smaller, quieter fast pops, interspersed with and underpinned by crescendos of bigger explosions. It’s rather like listening to an all-percussion musical performance, and it makes you want to stamp your feet in unison.

So, after nearly a week of the noise and pageantry that is Las Fallas, as dusk arrives today I’m still lolling in my rented apartment, occasionally nibbling the sweet local strawberries I bought at the market yesterday and munching some of the fresh bread, Serrano ham and manchego cheese, I also picked up. I feel a bit guilty wasting this time in such a lovely city, lying in bed. But I’m also enjoying it, thinking “Ah, this is what retirement is about: doing nothing if that’s what I want to do.”

Still, it is the last night of Las Fallas. The night when hundreds of Fallas sculptures across the city are set alight; the last one, the huge lion at the Plaza de la Ajuntament, well after midnight. The last night to catch a glimpse of some of the spectacular Fallas I haven’t yet seen and to check out the reportedly fabulous light displays in the Russafa neighborhood. I guess it’s time to get up!