PLAYING WITH FIRE All photos and text by Fazillah Abdul Gaffa.
I’m convinced the Spanish have discovered the secrets to living life to the fullest. You can’t help to think that way when you’re it a country that make siestas [afternoon naps, to the uninitiated] obligatory, they have an entire island dedicated to partying and they have customs personnel so hot, with uniforms that look like they’ve been surgically sprayed on, you can’t help but to have dirty thoughts whilst queuing to get your passport stamped.
Of course, I didn’t realise the extent of this love for partying until I visited Valencia during the festival of Las Fallas. The Las Fallas, simply explained, is one big party of colour, noise and fire. For four to five consecutive days in a row in early spring each year, Valencia, the third biggest city in Spain pays no attention to the usual humdrum of life and fill their streets with colourful extravaganzas of historical and religious processions and non-stop revelry in celebration of St Joseph’s Day.
Las Fallas Explained
Las Fallas, like many Spanish festivals, was formerly a simple pagan ritual that celebrated the Spring Equinox - the longest day of the year – and the impending summer.
When autumn arrived in 15th-century Valencia and days became shorter, artisans sought the help of crafted wooden lamps to continue their work; and when spring beckoned, the days got longer and the lamps were no longer needed, they were ceremoniously burnt at the door. Over time, the lamps were given a creative touch, thus resulting in the grand displays of handmade floats, called fallas seen all over the city during the festival today.
The fallas are the first things you will see once you enter the city – besides leggy Spanish brunettes, of course. These fallas are sculptures made from wood and papier-mâché created by the city’s artisans, some reaching 20m in height, are displayed all over the city. And at the end of the festival, these Fallas are ceremoniously burnt – synchronised one after another; making Las Fallas the biggest fire festival in Spain.
Sights and Sounds
If the Chinese thought they knew fireworks, they thought wrong. I was amidst the hundreds and thousands gathered to watch the Mascletà display in the Plaça de l'Ajuntament, the city hall on my first afternoon in Valencia.
The Mascletà is an explosive spectacle of the concussive effects of coordinated displays of fireworks, gunpowder explosions and firecrackers that happens promptly at 2pm all over the city during the Las Fallas festival.
Pyrotechnicians carefully study the rhythm of firework sequences, launches and whistles, combining them into a spectacular crescendo that concludes with the terremoto, when hundreds of the masclets go off simultaneously.
Whilst trying to eavesdrop on a conversation with my pathetic grasp of Spanish, a girl flashed me a grin, offered a cold drink and a shady spot amongst her group of friends. Of course, I gladly accepted.
Soledad Llaneras explained that the Mascletà is a display no true Valencian would miss; “I cannot explain it to you – the feeling cannot be put in words. If you asked me what a Mascletà is, I will say it’s an explosion of gunpowder and firecrackers, but it is much, much more than that.”
And Llaneras did explain it perfectly – promptly at 2pm, the symphony of gunpowder and firecrackers went off, threating to blow the eardrums of anybody who came too close – but nobody budged. Hundreds and thousands of Spanish ditched their siesta plans to listen to blasts so deafening, it seemed like you’re on war front but it ended without a blood baths, but with wolf whistles, thunderous applause and dancing on the streets instead.
Mascletà displays aside, if you want to create a symphony yourself, firecrackers and noise makers of all sorts are sold at every street corner; and the different types are sold according to how old the individual is.
And the symphony of sounds doesn’t stop there – hundreds of bands parade the streets during the Las Fallas, accompanying Falleras and Falleros, religious devotees dressed in their traditional costumes to participate in the biggest expression of religious devotion in the entire Las Fallas calendar, the Ofrenda de Flores a la Virgen de los Desamparados.
Thousands and thousands of the Falleras and Falleros march into the Plaza de la Virgen to offer flowers to the enormous statue of the Kingdom of Valencia’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Forsaken.
Luisa Forner, who has participated in the Ofrenda as a Fallera numerous times explained, “It feels incredible to be a part of this tradition – my mother has gone through it, and so has my grandmother and you feel proud to carry it on.” The traditional Fallera costumes are made of Valencian silk and are so detail-specific that it costs at least 6,000 to have it made. While it could also be rented, a lot of the Falleras prefer owning one of their own; according to Luisa, she still has her Fallera costume as a toddler, a child, and has one as an adult.
“When I walk into the Plaza de la Virgen and see the big Lady of the Forsaken, no matter how many times I have done the Ofrenda, I will feel very emotional. In many ways, the Las Fallas is a celebration of purification [in anticipation of] the summer and you reflect about everything you have done in the past, and hope for a better year to come. It feels amazing,” Luisa explained.
Light My Fire
And whatever my mother had berated me about not playing with fire were all forgotten on the final night of Las Fallas. The 700 fallas, some of which had taken up to six months to build, displayed all over the city were set on fire with the one facing the Plaça de l'Ajuntament being the last one to be set aflame.
And as you watch the massive structure disappear to ashes and feel the last bit of heat of the flames, you can’t help but to feel a little nostalgic that such an amazing festival has come to an end. But not before an all-night Spanish party on the streets, of course.
If you can’t schedule a trip to Valencia during Las Fallas, fret not – the city still has a plethora of delights to offer any tourist.
Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
Many boast about having seen Baroque, Rennaisance, Gothic on their trips to Europe, but Valencia’s Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (The City of Arts & Sciences) transports you to the future instead of the past. Like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia or Peru’s Machu Picchu, no photo will do it justice and you just have to see it for yourself.
Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias is made up of five architecturally-orgasmic establishments: the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (the concert hall), L'Oceanografic (the marine park), L'Hemisferic (the Imax cinema), L'Hemisferic (the museum of science) and finally, L'Umbracle (the greenhouse). Like a city within a city, you’d be flabbergasted by how different the city of Valencia is compared to this new city that they’ve built. Unless you’d like to enter any of the parks or museums, you may walk around to experience modern architecture for free.
Plaza de Ayuntamento
You’re not going to miss Plaza de Ayuntamento even if you tried. The City Hall, located smack in the city centre is arguably the most impressive of all Valencian squares, hosting rows of incredible buildings; it is also possibly the best Valencian architecture of XIX - beginning of XX century. Some of those buildings are simply stunning, while others are also very peculiar in their construction.
During the opening hours (Mon – Fri 10 am - 13.30 pm; closed Sat, Sun, last Fri of the month) you can also visit some of the interior - the central hall, the Sala de Cristal (luxurious reception hall) and the Historic Museum - a small collection of heavy-weight artefacts from Valencian history.
There’s nothing quite like visiting a local market when you travel, especially if you’re a foodie. Flavours, sounds, smells and colours amalgamate into a divine explosion only a good market can offer. With over a thousand stalls to choose from, you’ll be spolit for choice with the array of cheeses, seafood, paella rice and pans, Jamón, fruits and vegetables and even pre-prepared food to sink your teeth into. The best time to visit the market is in the morning, where most of market-related activities happen.
* How to get to Valencia – Singapore Airlines travels daily direct to Barcelona via Milan. From Barcelona, fly direct to Valencia on Iberia Airlines which departs several times a day from Barcelona to Valencia. * For the quintessential Valencian dining experience, make your way a little out of the city centre to Casa Montana (C/ Jose enlliurre 69. El Cabanyal 46011 Valencia. Tel: +34 963 672 314 ) and ask for their traditional tapas lunch set menu.