Do you love the smell of gunpowder in the morning? Well, gunpowder is one of the most important ingredients at Las Fallas de Valencia, one of Spain’s most weird and wonderful festivals.
And that’s saying a lot in a country that hosts one festival that’s basically the world’s biggest tomato fight, and another that involves deliberately putting yourself in the path of numerous, irate, stampeding bulls.
Las Fallas happens every year in March, and it is absolute madness. Total mayhem. There’s music, art, food and dance, of course… but there’s gunpowder too. And explosions. And on the last night of the fiesta, the 19th of March, there are hundreds of giant fires.
In the run up to Las Fallas, people spend months and months (sometimes closer to a year) building huge, elaborate, cartoonish statues called ninots.
Over eight hundred of these things are painstakingly built by different neighbourhood and city organisations in preparation for the festival, some of them costing up to and often over £50,000 each to make.
Many are as tall as three-story buildings, and are made of cardboard, paper-maché, styrofoam, wood – and phenomenal amounts of glitter. The effort, time and cost invested in creating these ninots is staggering.
They are a contentious art form. Some people find them beautiful and fun, and there’s no doubt that walking the streets of Valencia in mid March is like being a inside a slightly bawdy Disney film.
Some find them pretty grotesque – which, when you take into account that the point of many of the statues is to satirise something that’s been going on in politics or popular culture, makes sense.
Whatever you think of them, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale of them, and the work that goes into their construction.
And then, on the 19th of March, there comes La Cremá. If you’re wondering what that means, well, the clue is in the word cremá. You know what ‘cremation’ means?
Yep. All that effort, all the money, the countless hours and weeks and months… all those hundreds of lovingly built ninots go – quite literally – up in smoke. They just burn every single last one of them (except one favourite, which is given a pardon) down to the ground.
It’s not just that someone holds a match to the ninots until the flame catches and eventually spreads. Nope, early in the evening of the 19th, some men grab some axes and chop a few discreet holes in the statues and stuff them with fireworks.
As the natural light gives way to evening, the crowd starts to chant. The streetlights are turned off. The atmosphere becomes electric. Then, on the turn of midnight, all of the fireworks hidden within the ninots are detonated, and they explode into a hundred multi-coloured bonfires. It’s an incredible sight.
The festival, which starts to build up from the beginning of March, has plenty of other things going on apart from this one evening of pyromaniac paradise. During the days, you can attend parades, bullfights, pageants and paella contests.
Random fireworks displays explode into life everywhere. There is a daily spectacle called the ‘mascletá, where at exactly 2pm, long reams of firecrackers are ignited and cause more noise than is generally advisable for your ears to be exposed to!
And on the eve of the Cremá, the 18th, the ‘Night of Fire’ happens, and the Valencian sky is lit up in one of the most intense and beautiful fireworks displays you’re ever likely to see.
Remember the one winning effigy that gets a pardon? Well, it goes off to the Fallas Museum where it takes its place among previous winning ninots. It’s only a couple of euro to go and see them all, worth a visit if you’re interested in seeing what’s made the grade in previous years.
It’s for you if… you’re a bit of a pyromaniac, you enjoy wanton destruction, and you want to experience Spain at its most unforgettable.
It’s not for you if… you’re a dog, or just not a fan of random explosions.
Flights to Valencia
- Dee Murray