Las Fallas (2)
March 15 and 16
Although Las Fallas officially starts on March 12, the serious festivities get going on March 15, the day of the plants, when the fallas are put into place – both the towering structures and the much more modest fallas infantiles (children’s fallas) – and the ninots, are paraded through town. After being woken by the dawn chorus of three hundred marching bands, hired just for that purpose, and accompanied by the desperta, the “wake-up” fireworks, you can spend the day wandering around, exploring the various fallas displays, mounted throughout the day by each committee, who lay on music, and, if you’re really lucky, hand out free beer. All the main fallas are judged except the huge one on the main square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which crowds watch being hauled into place at midnight.
The highlight of March 16 is the first full-scale mascleta.
From 1pm, a vast crowd assembles in Plaza del Ayuntamiento, falling silent at 2pm, as if some great concert were about to begin. Straight away, the whooshing and whistling of the rockets split the air, which, combined with the kettledrum barrage of the firecrackers, strike up an infernal rhythm, gaining in tempo and volume as the evening progresses. The effect is mesmerizing: the sky is obscured by huge clouds of grey gunpowder and the ground shakes with the loudest explosions you’ll probably ever hear. The spectacle is only about five minutes long, but your nerves will be jangling for a good few hours afterwards. Locals then organize their own mascletaes around town throughout much of the afternoon, so there is no let-up.
Fallas and ninots
Strictly speaking, only the large central figures of each structure or effigy are the fallas; the smaller wooden sculptures on the same theme that surround it (as many as 75 of them) are called ninots. Explanatory placards – mostly written in Catalan (and occasionally Spanish), and almost always in biting or amusing verse – are placed next to each falla, completing the caricature embodied in the effigies themselves, which are often representative of local figures or controversial events. Over the years, fallas displays have grown less satirical, but recently the creations have begun to pull fewer punches – an award-winning falla of 2005 featured a cigar-chomping Uncle Sam seated astride a globe surrounded by Arabs grovelling in the desert. Big cheers all round when that one went up in flames.
Traditionally, fallas were made of papier-mache figures placed on a wooden skeleton, but for years now painstakingly hand-painted polystyrene has been used instead. This has led to the creation of far taller and more sophisticated effigies, some of them thirty metres high, which billow acrid black smoke when they are burned. Each falla sculpture has its own committee, made up of a group of neighbours, who hold meetings, pay dues and seek out financing for their costly creations (in 2006, the best falla came in at a staggering €600,000). These amazing works of art are crafted during the preceding year – for some craftsmen and artists, this is a full-time job, with a lull in work from mid-March until late spring, and a mad rush to get them finished the following February. Still renowned as a centre of excellence, the Valencian artisans also export carnival paraphernalia to Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and many of the other big festivals around the world.