It’s the ultimate pyromaniacal extravaganza with incredible artistic sculptures, chest-pounding concussions, synchronized conflagrations and orgasmic fireworks – contrasted by gorgeous filigreed religious ceremonies woven in to remind everyone of the week-long feast’s origin.
Las Fallas (pr: fayahs) literally means “the fire torch”, however it also represents the annual celebration praising Saint Joseph – the patron Saint of Carpenters. (The hammer & nails type – not Karen and Richard)
In Valencia, Spain (Catalan pr: Balenthia, per their rumored lisping king), more than 180 sculpted foam figures, surrounding figurative entourages and highly detailed vignettes are created to depict famous events, satirical statements, political opinions along with often edgy, occasionally comically off-color themes. Many of these creations are 40, 50, as much as 100 feet high – meticulously crafted by neighborhood teams who spend much of the prior year designing and building these oversized wood / papier-mâché / styrofoam masterpieces.
In case you’ve never been – Spain is THE place for festivals, with at least one major celebration a week. The Spanish adore their religious holidays and have a wondrous way of weaving multi-day music, dining and drinking parties around mere hour-long Christian rituals. Kinda gives the church social a hip new image.
I was in Valencia for the March 1999 Las Fallas, along with my wife at the time and two theme park special effect industry colleagues. Amidst sharply cracking M-80’s being tossed from apartment windows above and the never-ending strings of fizzling firecrackers, I felt as if we were in a Twilight (war) Zone party from the 1980 film ‘Altered States‘. The vibe was, eh, casual-intense with explosives going off throughout the day in every part of the city. Next time I’m bringing earplugs so I can better enjoy my elderly years.
The annual all-out party, pardon me – Christian celebration – goes on for a week beginning March 15, concluding March 19. But just in case you aren’t really warmed up at the beginning of the mid-month celebration the locals begin March 1st with lunchtime fireworks along with quaint parades, shows and related pre-party parties.
Daily at 2 PM: Mascletà (awkwardly translated as: highly powerful firecracker)
Hundreds and hundreds of seriously concussive bombs hanging from aerial fuse cords sequentially ignited to stunningly rock the central square. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Ongoing throughout each day:
Occasional street processions with elaborate, traditionally dressed ladies, gentlemen and adorable children carrying flowers toward a massive central-city wood slatted alter which, through addition of flowers all week, eventually becomes the dress of Mother Mary.
Nightly at 9-ish PM: Sky fireworks
Each night one of the five largest Spanish firework companies show off their wares. Not for 15 minutes. Not for a half hour. 90 non-stop minutes of the most colorful, unique pyrotechnics ever.
The final night, March 19: Nit del Foc (Night of Fire)
The grandest of all five aerial firework displays followed by La Crema – the burning of all the sculptural vignettes.
La Crema (cremation) is the Spanish equivalent to Buddhist mandala sand paintings – where such laboriously passionate creations are suddenly wiped off the board, released as undulating sparks back to the cosmos. Think of it as stars returning to heaven after a week’s holiday on Earth. In a few short minutes the work of an entire year goes up in flames. The symbology is thermally breathtaking as the entire flickering city of 810,000 blazes well into the wee hours with giant bonfires in every community. Mucho pagan.
Now for some personal details for all you pyro fanatics – since my life has been generally involved with theatrical special effects. Science and Art; the coolest combination! (In school I was the kid who thought a beaker explosion deserved an A+)
First, no Fantasyland castle firework display can touch Las Fallas. Not ‘Fantasmic’, not ‘World of Color’. The secret? Heavy metal aerial vapor regulations. Spanish laws appear to be more forgiving than what I’ve seen in other parts of the world – and artistically that’s a godsend, though admittedly not very ‘green’. Future health issues aside, the colors seen in the evening firework displays were incredibly deep and vibrant; cobalt blues, emerald greens, Jimi Hendrix violets and blood-Goth reds like I’ve never seen before. Just don’t be down wind ingesting the vaporized brew of toxic fumes!
The physical tricks are a wonder to behold as well. Shells explode dozens of small parachutes into the night sky, each carrying their own secondary pyro charges which hang mysteriously in mid-air to produce dimensionally dreamy effects never seen in the United States. Once again, from Valencia’s looser safety angle; with a good down draft these small yet vibrant and VERY hot spark spewers could dive right into the crowd, but if you haven’t succumbed from quarter-sticks exploding in the alleyways you’ll likely survive this.
The best physical effects were the mysterious flying saucers – again thrust into the evening sky from ground mortars, left to spin high in the sky as if visiting from Mars. Even I was taken by the size and quantity of these hovering, flaming entities – trying to figure out exactly how they became airborne in the first place.
The finale presented a visual effect I have yet to see anywhere else in the world… a 36-inch (3 foot!!) diameter shell was launched with a soul shaking low frequency thud. Ten seconds later the entire sky was completely filled with the most spectacular array of effervescently radiating light. The ENTIRE SKY! I admit Valencian fireworks have corrupted me forever. I must now scour the planet for my remaining years to get an even grander 3D firework fix. Today the Japanese regularly launch 48-inch shells in their finales.
So now for my absolute favorite; an aural/body experience no Led Zeppelin or Van Halen concert ever got close to. The Mascletà.
No, you’ll just have to book a ticket to Valencia. Well O.K. – – I’ll try.
The surrounding crowd cheers as the president of that day’s host firework company ignites the beckoning, hanging fuse with a glowing flare.
Boom – BOOM
Pow Pow KA-BLAMMM!!!
Louder and faster and louder and faster AND LOUDER for about 30 seconds. Then you begin to feel the explosions in your face and shoulders. After about a minute (if you value your hearing) you firmly insert fingers in ears. Unfortunately you have just identified yourself as a foreigner because the locals just stand with arms at their sides. Even tiny kids on parental shoulders have no hearing protection. Yiiiiiikes!
It’s not over though. 90 seconds in and now my entire body graphically feels each concussive WHAM as if Armageddon was becoming a 3D HD reality. The concussion waves surprisingly tear through a 10+ layer thick wall of people in front me. 2-1/2 minutes in and I’m beginning to wonder how far this will go because I’m feeling the ground shake; wincing from each more powerful pyrotechnic punch. Then – – silence.
Assuming it’s over the crowd cheers as dense smoke blows up and around. Then suddenly a dozen six inch diameter charges explode at once – scaring the &%#@ out of everyone as the cathartic onslaught continues. Time is in complete suspension now with crowd laughter obliterated by beyond-deafening decibel levels.
Circumstances are both scary and strangely exhilarating. Raw power as I’ve never felt before. Absolute noise becoming curiously beautiful in the midst of protective, insulative humanity. It’s hard to describe. After, I don’t know, ten minutes or so the display self-extinguishes as the final couple of massive shells detonate. At this point I’ve discovered there’s a limit as to how long everyone can respond to such aggressive pounding – and we’ve reached it. But I have to say, with my hair blown straight back and my brain asking “uh, why?” I subconsciously realize Las Fallas is not about how much money it costs to produce or how many gallons of paint were used to coat the sculpted vignettes.
Las Fallas is life and death and rebirth for five days in a row. It’s the most ‘alive’ festival I’ve ever participated in. I don’t mean lively – rather ‘alive’ in the sense of the people and their spirit. We Americans can’t fathom something like Las Fallas in the States because of our social, legal and law enforcement systems. In Europe residents have a very different view of safety and fun and community and celebration. They truly live life on another wavelength and I encourage you to give it a try.