Image: Las Fallas to be celebrated in Valencia, Spain
Kai Forsterling  /  EPA
Fallas, the huge papier-mache, cardboard and wooden sculptures depicting politicians and other well-known public figures, are set on fire by members of competing groups, who will have spent the previous year creating and building them. Only the sculpture which is voted best escapes the flames.
By Charles Leocha Travel columnist
updated 3/10/2008 2:42:16 PM ET 2008-03-10T18:42:16

When most people hear “Valencia,” they think warm weather and oranges. Some may think paella and rice. I’m not even sure if most conjure Spain because Valencia is still relatively undiscovered by Americans, even after last year’s America’s Cup sailing races. However, this city on the Mediterranean coast of Spain is the capital of fire, fireworks and explosions during its incendiary festival, Las Fallas, in March.

Starting on March 15, organizations from every Valencia neighborhood assemble giant, elaborate, papier-mâché, wood and wax effigies, called las fallas, some almost 100 feet high, in the city’s squares. Then on St. Joseph’s day (San José), March 19, La Crema commences — the massive and simultaneous immolation of the fallas in a conflagration of some 700 fires set in the city squares. Those who planned, paid for and carefully crafted the fallas burn them. What took a year to plan and build goes up in flames in minutes.

It is almost as if they took all the floats from the traditional Mardi Gras parade that crewes had worked on for the whole year and set them on fire on Fat Tuesday for a dazzling night parade.

No one knows exactly how Las Fallas began. Some speculate that the carpenters, whose patron saint is St. Joseph, used the saint’s feast day as the time to clean out their workshops, burning their scraps and odd pieces of wood in the square near their shops. These small annual bonfires came to be combined with festivals marking the beginning of spring; at some point, dolls were made for the festival, then statues, and eventually the intricate, towering fallas we see today.

Even before the giant conflagration, Las Fallas is a festival characterized by sound and fury. Every day at 2 p.m., mascleta explosions erupt in the city — pyrotechnics for the ears. Imagine hundreds of howitzers fired off one after the other, a crescendo of explosions that literally shakes the ground. Every night fireworks explode in the skies over the medieval heart of the city.

Bands march through the city unannounced, surrounded by dancing citizens. In the afternoons at 4 p.m., on March 17 and 18, a massive procession of more than 100,000 Valencianos, dressed in a spectacular display of brilliantly colored traditional costumes, walks to offer flowers to the Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken). Every evening, bullfights draw crowds to the Plaza de Toros.

Around these festivities — the bands, bullfights, fireworks and fallas — Valencia offers some of the most beautiful cathedrals and churches in Spain, perhaps Spain’s best covered market, the sensuous Silk Market, the spectacular modern architecture of La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias, one of the world’s largest aquariums, and wonderful traditional paellas.

For those who love big, all-consuming festivals, Valencia’s Las Fallas is one of the world’s best.

For more on Valencia, see my other articles, Undiscovered Valencia and The Medieval Center of Valencia.

Contemplations on Las Fallas
For me, the most fascinating thing about Valencia’s Las Fallas is its emphasis on creation. There has been an ongoing discussion within communities of artists for centuries: Is art to be enjoyed after it has been created? Or is it the process of creation, and its spiritual nature, that is important? Is it the destination or the journey that evokes the most pleasure?

This festival in Valencia makes me think about what I spend time doing in my life. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and a year’s worth of teamwork go into designing, building and decorating these fallas. To see them burned to the ground in only a few minutes unsettles to me.

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I’m not at ease with the idea that the joy of art is found in the act of creation. I would like to admire these colossal, outrageous, satirical statues some more. I’d like to have time to understand them and ponder them. A pile of cinders and glowing coals doesn’t do it for me.

I think back to an art class I took while at the university. Each student created a painting or drawing a week, working with acrylics, oils, watercolors, pastels and colored pencils. We critiqued each other’s works, and I kept my collection of works carefully preserved in a massive binder. It was a treasured record of my journey toward improving my art, a visual diary of my life and thoughts during that series of classes.

On the second-to-last day of the class, on a brilliant New Hampshire spring day, our instructor asked us each to choose the two paintings we thought were our best work. We showed them to the rest of the class and explained why we prized them. I remember how pleased I was with my creations and with the work of the group.

Our professor then told us to take our favorite works with a couple of easels to the front of the library. There, on a small campus green, we set up our art. I thought we were displaying our work to get others’ points of view. Instead, the professor unfurled a big banner that read, “Free Art — Take Anything You Want.”

It didn’t take long for every one of our paintings to be snapped up by those passing by. As I rolled up my last painting — of a tree, under which I had sat many days — and handed it to a thankful and very cute girl, I didn’t know quite what to think. My personal journey was being ripped away from me. My diary, as it was, was being defiled. My personal masterpieces were gone.

I still haven’t reconciled the journey vs. the destination debate. I like them both. For me, the destination is all part of the journey, just as my finished art was never finished, but a step along the way.

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