On the 19 March each year the province of Valencia on the east coast of Spain erupts into a frenzy of hyper-active pyromania. The culmination of a four-day festival - Las Fallas - this night sees the deliberate destruction of over 700 papier-mâché statues, many between six and ten metres tall. Thousands of fire-fighting volunteers stand by, often in the tiniest of squares in the heart of the city's residential areas, to oversee the ritual sacrifice of each of these brightly coloured caricatures. The resulting multiple inferno is as inexplicable as it is ferocious. For at ten o'clock on the night of the 19th, the city of Valencia sets itself on fire.
No one is quite certain how this bizarre ceremony came into being. The earliest written references date back to only the latter half of the 18th Century, but many believe the festival originated much earlier than this. The fiesta has a strong pagan feel to it, and some suggest it may have evolved from early rituals centred around the vernal equinox. Others contend that the festival has always been Christian in nature, and was derived from the traditional Spanish commemoration of Lent. The first statues - or fallas - would have been caricatures of Catholic hate figures, ritually burnt at the stake in the same way as mannequins of Guy Fawkes are burnt in the UK. Certainly there is a very strong Christian component to the modern Fallas, and it can be no coincidence that the Patron Saint of Valencia, San José, has his official Saint Day on 19 March.
The Modern Fallas
Las Fallas today is made up of three principle elements:
Firstly, there are the statues themselves. These are outrageous caricatures of real or fictional individuals. Many are mythological, but politicians and film stars are also great favourites. Some towns outside Valencia organise their Fallas around specific themes.
A huge amount of work goes into the creation of each statue. Planning begins a year in advance. Hundreds of committees form to discuss ideas and make preparations. Usually, each statue consists of one tall figure surrounded by several much smaller characters of roughly life size. Each element of the statue is brightly coloured and has exaggerated features. Many of the subsidiary pieces are grotesque and ugly. Provocative images of bare-breasted women are commonplace. Sometimes the principle designer will even include a caricature of himself at the base of the central construction.
These large fallas are invariably accompanied by smaller, separate displays put together by the children from each locality. In this manner, the skills involved in making the fallas are passed from generation to generation.
The second element of the fiesta - and the most overtly religious - is the creation of a tribute to la Virgen de los Desamparados (the Virgin of the Defenceless) in the square opposite Valencia's cathedral. Hundreds of brass bands accompany colourfully dressed girls from every part of the community, each of them carrying a garland of flowers as they make their way across the city. A skeleton of the Virgin is erected in the square and the flowers are placed upon it to build up the final image. This part of the Fallas is comparatively recent. It was originally introduced in 1951.
And lastly, of course, there are the fireworks. These are a particular Spanish speciality. Each day there are two displays. The first is in the afternoon, opposite the railway station in the main square. The object of this display - la mascletá - is not to illuminate the sky with pretty colours; it is simply to make as much noise as possible. A long succession of over-lapping explosions gradually builds in intensity as more and more masclets are let off simultaneously. Smoke quickly engulfs the square and there is little to see beyond the odd flash of light through the white haze. The fun is in the sheer volume of noise. The ground shakes beneath the feet and the accumulated effect is that of a minor earthquake.
The second display, in the evening, is far more traditional - though no less spectacular. This takes place along the dry river bed which snakes through the centre of the city. It often begins late at night - at midnight or 1am - and is one of the best pyrotechnic displays you are likely to witness outside China. The Spanish are renowned experts at this kind of event, though the Valencianos always display a nonchalant attitude towards the whole affair. The fireworks, they will inevitably tell you, are not as good as they were the year before.
The Final Evening
Bars and restaurants remain open throughout the final evening. Small children roam the streets, setting off fire-crackers. Firefighters stand by as the pyrotechnic experts set to work.
Explosives are attached to each of the statues as the crowds assemble to witness the destruction of their favourite piece. A beauty Queen (una fallera) appears on a nearby balcony1. She steps forward, and an arrow of flame spits out from the balcony and hurtles towards the brightly coloured monolith. The fire encircles the statue, spiralling around and around, setting off fire-works along the way, but moving gradually closer until the explosives ignite and the falla erupts into a violent inferno. Heat ripples out from the centre, scolding the spectators and knocking them backwards against the walls. Many are forced from the square altogether. The volunteer firefighters, dressed in protective clothing, move forward to control the blaze. Parts of the statue soon begin to detach themselves and the skeletal frame becomes visible through the raging fire. This structure quickly begins to weaken and the crowd stares up, waiting for the moment when it finally gives way.
And when it does, a scream of pleasure erupts from the crowd.
At almost the same moment, hundreds of other fallas have been put to the flame. Cheers and applause thunder across the city as each statue meets its demise. In less than 20 minutes, almost all of them will have been destroyed.
But the evening is not over when the bonfires have burnt themselves out. By then the crowds will already be winding their way through the narrow streets towards the city centre. Here, one last falla remains to be destroyed. It is the largest of them all, and its destruction marks the finalé of the entire festival.
The main square is packed to bursting point. It is well after midnight and another mammoth firework display complements the final sacrifice. Television cameras film it all and a monumental cheer greets the disintegration of the last of the statues.
Afterwards, the crowds depart quickly and an army of cleaners set to work. By the time the city wakes soon after dawn the following morning, there is no trace left of the night's celebrations.
Las Fallas is the very definition of organised chaos. It defies logical analysis. It is an insane frenzy of fire and light, organised with all the precision of a military operation. For this reason, it is arguably Western Europe's finest street festival.