VALENCIA, Spain — “You simply won’t walk three seconds without hearing an explosion.”
It’s half past midnight, I’m watching a man in a neckerchief up on a ladder wrapping a string of explosives around a flammable statue like Christmas lights. Another man — also wearing a neckerchief — at the base of the statue, is preparing a Molotov cocktail. As soon as the firemen arrive, they’re going to light the fuses and burn the statue to ash.
It’s the last night of Las Fallas, and all over Valencia, sculptors set fire to their own creations to mark the end of an eight-day round-the-clock party.
Fallas is a mash-up of several celebrations, including St. Joseph’s day, pagan springtime rituals, and the traditions of local carpenters (for whom St. Joseph is the patron saint).
Fallas is not one big party with a hub, like Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, but a mess of block parties on every block in the city.
Each neighborhood has its own sculptures and fireworks and dance tents. There’s no need to venture beyond your own corner to see most of what’s going on. There’s no hype, you don’t have to pay for anything, and there’s no need to make plans, because you can just step outside and follow the sounds of explosions.
Like a war zone
There aren’t many places that would compare themselves to a war zone as a selling point. But it says exactly that in the program of events on the Valencia City Guide.
Over two weeks, it gets progressively more loud until, finally, on March 15 day the city is entirely engulfed. For the next four days, you simply won’t walk three steps without hearing an explosion to the left and to the right.
They’re not kidding. During Fallas, you’re never far from the sound and the shockwave of kids setting off some pretty serious ordnance. They build things to blow up, drop firecrackers down storm drains, and put them in trash bins to amplify the blasts. They throw them from mopeds. Parents encourage this behavior and supply their children from the pop-up stores in every neighborhood that sell fireworks by the crate. (Yes, there are dozens of injuries during each fiesta. But in 2009, Spain even fought EU safety requirements about fireworks, arguing that the rules would damage the country’s cultural heritage.)
There’s no interruption in the explosions any time, anywhere in the city, from a week before Fallas until the morning of the Monday after. I know one expat, a Vietnam vet, who leaves the city every year because the holiday makes him uneasy.
After a couple days of this, you get used to the noise — the way someone in an actual war zone might — and you notice that only newly arrived tourists flinch.
Every day at 2 p.m. they put on La Masclata, (or “noise fireworks”) in the city center. They set of sticks of dynamite in a cage and fire what seem like mortar shells straight up in the air. This is by far the loudest noise I have ever heard. And unlike regular fireworks, there’s an accompanying blast-wave you can feel in your chest.
Every night at midnight there are regular fireworks in the park, for which they shut off the streetlights.
Marching bands and Princess Leia hair
A less dramatic part of the festival is the parade that, like everything else, runs almost nonstop. Marching bands wind through the streets all day long and fly the colors of their respective neighborhoods.
One of these processions — from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. on March 17 and 18 — culminates in the Offering of Flowers in which Valencians decorate a massive wooden statue of the Virgin with a color-coded mosaic of flowers.
Locals wear elaborate traditional clothes to these official events, but also just walking around and hanging out. These costumes are a symbol of Valencian pride. The women also wear their hair in buns on the side, not unlike how Princess Leia wore hers.
Very few shops keep regular hours during Fallas, but the ones that do play recordings of the same music the marching bands play in the streets. This must have a deranging effect on a hungover reveler.
One big dance party
The second to last night of Fallas is the Nit de Foc (“night of fire”). A 1:30 a.m.-fireworks display kicks of an all-night dance party that fills every major street in the city.
The short walk from the fireworks back to my neighborhood takes almost two hours because of the density of people along the way. The streets are a crowded dance floor.
The late-night festivities are charmingly Spanish and all-inclusive. You see mojito booths and enterprising folks who set up adult lemonade stands with booze and chasers on card tables outside their homes. But there are also tons of kids running around having a blast, all night long. You don’t see anyone fighting or getting sick to their stomachs.
Green face paint marks the people who haven’t been to bed since St. Patrick’s Day, which falls two nights before the end of Fallas.
Burn it down
The last night is the main event, La Crema (“the burning”). In the city center they burn a huge wooden tower. And in the neighborhoods they burn the Fallas sculptures, for which the festival gets its name.
The tradition started in the middle ages with carpenters burning their scrap wood and damaged goods at the end of winter. These bonfires evolved into combustable sculptures.
During the Spanish Civil war — when Valencia was the capital of the Spanish Republic — the sculptures took on anti-fascist and anti-clerical themes. In the years of Franco’s dictatorship that followed, the Fallas were subject to censorship and suppression. When democracy returned in the ’70s, so did political satire. Recent sculptures have featured Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, and of course, the pope. No malice is intended, even in the case of this year’s Trump falla.
Other statues depict cartoonish sexuality. The sculptors compete to push the envelope without attracting censorship.
On the night of the Crema, the Falleros — dressed in fleece quarter-zips and neckerchiefs, featuring the colors and crests of their neighborhoods — rig the statues with strings of explosives. These fall somewhere between firecrackers and TNT in terms of intensity. One Fallero balances a Molotov cocktail in the arms of a statue that’s rigged to blow. They set up fireworks all around the base of the statue and run a long fuse to the explosives.
The firemen arrive at 2 a.m., to cheers from the crowd. They douse the surrounding buildings and the ground with water. The Falleros dump gasoline at the feet of the sculpture and light the fuses with handheld signal flares.
The fireworks go off first. They explode right over our heads and backlight the statue. The main fuse catches up and rattles the statue, setting off roman candles stuck in the mouths of the foam figures and igniting the foam and the gasoline.
The locals know to wear those neckerchiefs over their mouths to ward off the noxious fumes from the burning foam. The crowd backs up as the heat hits. When the top of the statue breaks off and comes down in a fireball, it lands inches from the guardrail. The crowd applauds.
The statues smolder in ash piles through the night. On Monday everything is quiet and the siesta shutters are all closed. It’s a workday but the city feels empty because nothing’s exploding.