The “Falla” Burns Strong

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If I had known a little bit more about the way Valencia celebrates it’s hallmark festival, I never would have set an alarm. Every morning, like clockwork, I was woken up by the sounds of the celebration starting again. Or, perhaps more accurately, continuing without end. Parade music leapt up from the street below and invited itself into the little rented apartment all the way on the 11th floor of my building before 10:00 rolled around. Many of these paraders would then continue to march all day past sunset. I’m still not sure if some of them ever truly took a break.

The festival of Las Fallas is not only special for Spain—it’s unlike anything you can find in any other country. Central to everything in the week-long celebration are the magnificent, brilliantly designed constructions from which the festival takes its name: las fallas. Each built by a different team of falleros, the fallas are “sculptures” made of wood and paper which are typically designed to communicate some sort of social commentary.

Pinnochio Fallas 2013

Most of them are satirical in nature, and so as you might imagine Rahoy was well-represented this year.

A play on a famous Velazquez painting: "The Surrender of La Breda"

A play on a famous Velazquez painting: “The Surrender of La Breda”

In some, the message is quite clear and painfully obvious, like this falla that took a jab at tourists just like my friend and I:

Can you spot the irony in this picture?

Can you spot the irony in this picture?

Others are, shall we say, rather dense. Several fallas appeared to be more of a collection of random gripes rather than a cohesive story or statement. If you were to ask me, I’d be sorry to say that no, I can not in fact find a way to find a relation between a large woman falling out of her dress while standing on a dragon, and the witch, cave-woman, balding old man in makeup, and many other characters that surround her.

Fat Woman Falla

And you thought I was joking.

And you thought I was joking.

Confounding or no, not a single falla ceased to impress me. On practically every corner of the city was one of these monumental structures, each with their own cheeky allure. Although made by different teams, every falla is done in an exaggerated, cartoonish style that gives them all a common charm. Some are for kids, and thus appropriately “kid-sized,” and some are unbelievably massive. Each falla is a work of art unto itself.

Woman With Moon Falla

It’s a shame they burn them all in the end.

On the final night of the festival, which unfortunately took place after I had to leave Valencia, the town goes up in flames. Every falla save one (the most popular, which is preserved in a museum), is sentenced to immolation by way of firecrackers. Not only is this an efficient way to get these hulking structures off the street, but it’s also a grand symbolic gesture. The fallas are designed always with this fate in mind. They are representations of all things that the people might wish they could literally burn in real life. Some show a desire to move on, others to draw attention to hidden problems, and some even to take a run at religion:

Not even the old Pope is safe from the falleros.

Not even the old Pope is safe from the falleros.

But apart from the custom, which is already widely known, I found the true brilliance of Las Fallas in all the little things in between. When I say that the festival has no equal anywhere else in the world, I mean that if you tried to have it at least in the United States, you’d be shut down on the first night. The phone lines would collapse due to a flood of noise complaints, the eyes of children everywhere would be fussily covered as they approached the “inappropriate” fallas, and don’t even get me started on the concept of “fire hazard.” It’s hard to catch a moment’s piece when there are young kids running around at all hours of the day setting off some pretty heavy-duty fireworks. At times it felt like I was in the middle of a war-zone, but to the people of Valencia it didn’t seem to matter because the whole town is in on it.

From parents proudly cheering their daughters as they march in full traditional dress throughout the city…

Girls in Valencian dress

Baby in Las Fallas

to groups of friends cooking immense pans of paella in the street…

paella in the street

nobody is left out in this grand celebration.

So your son says he wants to say out late to see the fireworks on Saturday (easily the best display I’ve ever seen in my life). Why would you stop him? At 2:00 in the morning, even on Sunday night, it was just as common to see teenagers gearing up to go out, as it was to see adults sitting and sharing a drink, as it was to see kids playing soccer in the street.

And this goes on for several days.

Las Fallas carries with it a great sense of something shared, unlike any other holiday or festival in which I’ve ever taken part. My advice? If you ever have a chance, you simply have to go.

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