On March 19th, the city of Valencia burns.
The fires overshadow the buildings with flames felt from blocks away, roaring monstrosities that light the city streets and burn a purifying blaze, destroying the negative memories of the past in the form of carefully constructed artistic monuments, called fallas, and their ninots. The satirical ninot figures and their staging takes an entire neighborhood’s funds and several artisans a year to build and are gone in mere minutes, destroyed by the fireworks lit around their base. Liberated, the city celebrates their massacre, dancing in the ruins and drinking to their destruction. As further pyrotechnics illuminate the sky, smaller versions of the fireworks spark in the streets, flying from every hand in all directions, regardless of the passing crowds and parked cars. In the manic spirit of the festival, they bounce off the sides of buildings within the confines of the narrow streets.
Before the city burns, it must explode.
Five days before the burning, each day dawns at 8 a.m. with an outbreak of traditional music from parading bands and explosions thrown by the following crowd. The sounds of La Despertá do not stop until the grey hours of the morning, and begin again with each new day. The closer the explosions, the sharper their crisp pops—the farther, the deeper the rumbling booms that echo off the buildings, reverberating in overwhelming waves beyond the initial point of impact into the neighboring barrios of the city. Regardless of proximity to the city center it is unescapable: this unpredictable series of sounds, with mere seconds of rest followed by minutes of uproarious noise. That brief pause is just enough time to wait for peace with baited breath before cringing at the next rapport, a stinging assault that vanquishes any hope of returning to sleep. Falling asleep after exhausting days of walking the city and dodging the explosions underfoot is easy, but staying asleep once the morning begins is almost impossible.
For Valencians, this is a beautifully cacophonous symphony of staccato tones and rolling bass notes, a perfect orchestral arrangement designed by the collective minds of the millions of participating citizens. Every faller chooses his own melody, joyously providing time and talent to christen the day’s celebration, with each note a launched noisemaker or propelled firecracker. Their instruments are the festival’s constant companion throughout the week, a rotation of musicians that never stop and never tire.
La Mascletá is their crowning performance, conducted by the city’s pyrotechnical masters in a four day battle for the honor of hosting the fifth and final municipal exposition in the city center. Hours before the millions begin to gather, forming an immobile mass that dwarfs Times Square on New Year’s Eve by over a million. Revelers, pressed elbow to elbow, occupy the minutes leading up to the afternoon event with cheap beer and good friends in an atmosphere of eager anticipation. The crowd stretches for blocks, but even those at the farthest points easily hear and see the effects of the detonation enclosed in the center of the masses.
Strung between the gated fences that form the central cage hang thousands of firecrackers whose ignition cloaks the crowd in smoke and a deafening roar of noise, shaking the body to the soul. The assault comes in waves; the pure force of the final rapport transcending the realm of sound to become a physical being, assailing the spectators from all directions. Everything is sound—staggering, paralyzing sound.
The vibrations fade into muted cheering, inaudible at full volume through the veneer of sound that coats the ears. The city is shrouded in a haze; gleaming buildings once unmistakable in the brilliant midday sun have vanished under the smothering, post-production pollution. The last few flakes of ash fall gently on motionless bystanders, still unable to move. Regardless of their restlessness, it is only after the eventual dissipation of the observers at the undulating edges of the beast that the center can begin to shift. The merriment moves to the city’s outdoor terraces and they quickly fill—at just before three in the afternoon, it is the perfect time to relax for a lunch of the Mediterranean region’s famous paella and sangria before the night’s festivities.
Once Las Fallas is over, the city has celebrated with heart and soul.
The attitude of revelry pervades all aspects of each day; however, it holds a varying significance for the distinctive groups of participants. For visitors, these days are an explosion of visual and auditory stimulation unlike any other. Each new day is yet another opportunity to bask in the joy of living and in life.
For many native Valencians, the days serve as a reaffirmation of the province’s culture. Throughout the celebration, impromptu processions parade the streets, comprised of each district’s falleras and falleros in traditional dress as well as volunteer instrumentalists blaring long-established marches on historic instruments. On the designated days all make the journey to the Plaza de la Virgin and place an offering bouquet of flowers to Our Lady of the Forsaken, the Patron Saint of Valencia.
Having fulfilled the requirements of their positions, the members of the suburban fallas committees breathe a sigh of relief and proceed to cheer and snap pictures of their loved ones, friends, and acquaintances from the sidewalks as they journey to the Plaza. Committee members are the unsung heroes of the event, responsible for the preparation of their constituency for the annual event. All organizational decisions come from this body, which in turn reports to the democratically-selected, citywide fallas council. For months its members work to perform a vast number of tasks, including choosing the artists for their community and pardoning the most popular ninot, which is determined with a popular vote by the public.
As hordes of individuals stream by eager to begin the night’s celebration, Valencia’s families come together and block off the streets and alleyways to erect massive tents and organize the necessary number of tables and chairs for the local parties. Children dart in and out of open doorways, cheering and chasing one another with their seemingly-endless supply of poppers, as adults converse over cervezas and steaming pans of paella big enough to feed twenty. Music blends with laughter as they prepare to gather around the nearby fallas and join together to watch the city burn.