It takes a little while, but during the fiesta known as Las Fallas, in Valencia, you eventually get used to the sight of four-year-old boys walking around with pieces of burning rope. At first I didn’t know what the ropes were for, but then I saw one little guy run up to his father and jump up and down imploringly until dad produced a few firecrackers. The kid then ran off to light them with the rope and then throw them pretty much wherever he pleased. Oh, I thought. I see. The ropes are fuses. Of course. I mean, you can’t exactly let a four-year-old play with matches, can you?
Ah, Spain. It’s fun for people of all ages! While the kids amuse themselves by lighting firecrackers in bars, in restaurants and throwing them at the feet of unsuspecting tourists (“Wow, that old man jumped a lot higher than I thought he could!”), some of the adults busy themselves with the final touches on the mascletás. Whole sections of streets are cordoned off and rigged with firecrackers of all sizes that detonate in quick succession. They look like booby-trapped demilitarized zones, strangely juxtaposed beside tables set for lunch in the street. But none of them compare in size to the mascletá in front of city hall. It’s so popular that it’s next to impossible to get close, but you don’t want to get close, trust me. They actually warn you that hearing damage is a possibility and when somebody warns you of something in Spain, you’d be wise to take heed–these are people, after all, that run with bulls for fun. The mascletá is so nuts that some people actually faint from the noise. Pregnant women are not allowed. People with heart conditions are discouraged from attending. All I can say is that it is very, very loud.
Yet one more crazy Spanish fiesta, Las Fallas makes a strong case for being the craziest of them all. But the mascletá is just a warm up. The real show comes on the eve of March 19. This is when they burn giant wooden and paper statues. The history of it goes that to celebrate the arrival of spring and the end to long nights of darkness, carpenters around the city burned their wooden candle holders in the street. Flash forward a couple of centuries and you have a fiesta where people burn things in honor of St. Joseph, whose feast day conveniently coincides with the spring Equinox and who is also the patron saint of carpenters. (In this case, carpenters who like to burn things made of wood, but still.)
And boy do people from Valencia like to burn things. Not just any old thing, mind you. Not junk, certainly, not anymore. No, today, they burn fallas, which are huge, intricate statues made of wax and paper and wood that take many weeks to plan and many months to build. Some of them are as high as 20 metres. They can be whimsical or bitingly satirical, portraying unpopular politicians or dubious events in the past year. They don’t burn just one of them; they burn, in an average year, more than 300 of them, all on the one night. To cap off an event that is already wonderfully absurd, some of the fallas cost 200,000 Euros to build. The most expensive of all time was a falla made in 2008, which cost an eye-watering 900,000 Euros. Read that number again if you like, but just to confirm, it starts with a nine and has five zeros following it. Of course, last year, in prudent deference to the country’s crippling financial crisis (something about the idea of setting fire to money), the people who make these kinds of decisions decided to reign it in a little. In 2012, the most expensive falla cost a mere 400,000 Euros.
Only in Spain could this actually work as a model for a gigantic party. Of course, Las Fallas has all the prerequisites for a proper Spanish fiesta. Alcohol in all its varieties at cheap prices, good food, dancing in the streets, parties that rage all night long. Marching bands and beautiful women in 19th Century dress parade by huge paellas cooking in the street (Spain’s national dish originated here) and everyone has a blast, quite literally. But it’s the burning of the fallas that everyone comes to see. Valencians take the Field of Dreams approach–if you burn it, they will come–and it seems to make sense somehow. The making of the fallas employs hundreds of craftsmen and sculpters and the fiesta attracts untold thousands of visitors, so they end up making a lot more money than they, well, burn. So come on, goes the thinking. Let’s get our drink on and watch stuff go up in flames!
I spent the evening walking around downtown, admiring the fallas and trying to pick a good one to watch burn. A good one, as in a big one. Fireworks exploded everywhere. Sometimes the fireworks were part of loosely coordinated neighborhood shows. Other times teenagers set them off randomly, without undue concern as to where or when. Firecrackers popped off everywhere, infants twirled sparklers, and the smell of blackpowder permeated the air. Cardboard firecracker casings floated down from the sky and assorted party detritus littered the ground, in places ankle deep.
Things were happening quickly and by the time I realized they were going to finally light the falla it was a little too late to get one of the good spots behind the barrier. The crowd was already four- or five-people deep. But as soon as the flames really took off, the heat was ferocious and nobody could stand anywhere close to the barrier. People started backing up a few steps at a time, thinking it might be okay a few metres back, but with the fire at its height the heat was unbearable so they simply turned and walked away in full retreat. As the entire falla was engulfed in huge, hungry flames, thick clouds of black smoke billowed into the air. It was a bizarre sight, this gigantic fire raging in a small plaza on the narrow streets.
It took surprisingly little time for the fire to consume almost a year’s worth of work. Soon it was a pile of smoldering ash, burned right to the ground. The falleros who made it posed in front of the remains, smiling and taking pictures. Now, as if the entire previous week was just a dress rehearsal, the real party was just beginning.