As a native Brit raised on the foundations of an overzealous Health and Safety culture and an unrivaled respect for personal space, stepping off the bus after the long journey from Madrid to be thrown into the chaos that is the Las Fallas festival in Valencia was some shock. We were greeted by groups of children no older than twelve or thirteen ducking and diving between fireworks and petardos (firecrackers) thrown by their friends as if they had been doing so all their lives, and with no fear for their own safety or that of those around them.
The festival really is an exhilarating assault on all the senses. From the scent of the jasmine trees mixed with the gunpowder lingering in the air, to the sheer number of people lining the streets and filling cafes and bars, to the truly staggering levels of noise dominant in every aspect of the celebrations. La Mascletà is the best exhibition of this obsession with deafening levels of sound designed to shake the foundations of the city and leave you in a state of awe. Taking place at two p.m every day while the festival lasted, with the main version in La Plaza de Ayuntamiento, it is a pyrotechnics display which replaces the colours usually associated with fireworks but rendered invisible by the daylight time slot, with unimaginable levels of noise that at times seem sufficiently powerful to knock you off your feet. For a first time viewer, as the noise stops and the thick cloud of smoke and ash clears, it appears almost miraculous that the beautiful buildings of Valencia’s central square are still standing after such an intense bombardment – but it is undeniably impressive and an absolute must see part of the festival.
Since arriving in Toledo as an ERASMUS student in early September last year, I have noticed that this obsession with noise is a particularly Spanish trait, and one which perhaps comes from their love of being together in large numbers – go to any given bar, cafe or restaurant in Spain and there is every chance the Television will be competing with raucous groups for vocal supremacy – there is no room at Las Fallas for someone fond of a bit of peace and quiet and his own company. As a foreigner living in Spain, a mix of experiences and unavoidable stereotypes have meant that, for me, the weekend in Valencia was very much a caricatured microcosm of the Spanish society which I have grown to love over the last few months. Like the figures themselves, all features of the festival were exaggerated to levels bordering on extreme and bear no resemblance to a normal Valencian weekend. But the virtues of Spain which make it such a beautiful place to live were present at every moment. Something that really strikes you whilst walking the packed streets is that, like in most of the country, age really is just a number. People of all generations mingle in parks and plazas, and there is a warm, inclusive atmosphere day and night. It is perfectly common to see a grandfather and his grandson tossing firecrackers together while parents watch on, a reminder that here nothing is more important than family, with young children at the centre of it.
I was lucky enough to experience this side of the culture first hand when searching for a quiet bar close to the beach as we looked to escape from the intensity of the centre of town if only for a couple of hours. Walking down Avenida de la Reina we came across a charming little bar called Sambori which seemed to be just what we were looking for, and upon entering the bar we received a round of applause from the twenty or so drinkers and staff. After the initial confusion it was explained that we were the first clients of the newly opened establishment and that tonight we would be offered as much as we could eat and drink on the house! The rest of the crowd were friends and family members of the new owners who in no time at all made us feel like one of the family and were interested to know about our experience of Las Fallas and ERASMUS in Spain, all the while plying us with drinks and tasty tapas of chorizo and jamón iberico. After insisting we must leave, having already missed two buses back to the centre, a round of photos ensued to commemorate the occasion followed by hugs and kisses and we left the bar without paying a penny. Despite our insistence the Spanish are an aggressively hospitable bunch!
This was not the first time since I arrived in the country that I was left with the warm sensation I have come to associate with the phrase “Only in Spain!” and I have many friends who agree this inclusive atmosphere perhaps best described by the Spanish word cálido, roughly translated as warmhearted and affectionate, is something truly unique to this country and its people. The impressive finale to Valencian calendar’s most important weekend is the burning of the ninots of the Fallas. The enormous figures scattered throughout the city are created by neighbourhood organizations called Casal fallers who spend all year fundraising and trying to attract the talents of the best designers in a competition to win the title of best Falla. Many are designed as political satire, with figures like President George Bush and more recently, during times of financial crisis, the city bankers have become targets. A large number however, as pointed out by a local Spanish friend, are purely a means of getting involved in the great sense of community and tradition associated with the event and conforming to that Spanish stereotype of loving fiesta. Las Fallas is a truly remarkable example of this national passion, with the strong sense of identity and history exhibited by los Falleros and Falleras — men and women in typical old fashioned Valencian dress who tirelessly parade the streets day and night — at its very core.
They say that the burning of the sculptures is born of the idea that the artisans of the city used to set fire to excess wood collected during the winter months in celebration of the spring equinox, and being part of the festival must surely be one of the best possible ways to welcome in the long summer evenings. Despite feeling a touch of sadness at seeing such impressive works of art go up in flames, after days of drinking too much and sleeping too little, you are left content and safe in the knowledge that this extraordinary city, where togetherness and tradition are so alive, will already be planning diligently to ensure that next year’s spectacle is equally unforgettable.