A ponytailed Spanish mime in a traditional black fallero suit perches precariously on a bicycle seat and uses my left shoulder for balance. A young Englishman in a baseball cap zooms in with a video camera over my right side. Together, with hundreds of others jammed into a narrow alley near Valencia's central market, our eyes are glued to a 50-foot figure of Jose Maria Aznar, the neoconservative prime minister of Spain, out for a spin on his "Haley Davison" with his miniskirted biker-babe wife.
A hallucination? No, it's a falla (rhymes with "hiya"), one of the many fantastically detailed constructions of wood and plastic that lampoon Spanish politicians and mock pop culture. For four days every March, the streets and plazas of Spain's third-largest city turn into a surrealistic Disney-on-parade swirl of rude--and sometimes lewd--imagery.
Last year, early in the Fiesta de las Fallas, I had taken a particular fancy to the motorcycle caricature standing in the Plaza de Merced. Each day, I watched in amazement as more and more of these ornately designed satirical caricatures were added and swallowed up more space in the tiny square. Consumed with curiosity, I resolved to be here for the final night of the festival.
That is when, at the stroke of midnight, the fallas are set afire throughout the city. In 1997, 357 of them went up in smoke all at once.
I first came to Valencia--on the coast of the Balearic Sea, east of Madrid and south of Barcelona--four years ago when a sudden change in plans left me with a free weekend and a major city to explore. I was immediately captivated by the unguarded friendliness of the people, the vibrant night life and a comfortable ambience that managed to blend Mediterranean mellowness with high-energy urbanity.
I determined that Valencia is a city that is out of its mind in all the right ways. Though I returned for Las Fallas (The Bonfires), with a vague picture of what takes place, I wasn't prepared for its size, jaw-dropping visual spectacles and street carnival flavor. Think Brazil during Carnival, New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Pasadena's Rose Bowl Parade.
The elaborate effigies are a tradition throughout Spain, but the Valencia festival is the country's biggest celebration. It's little-known in the States, where Pamplona's Running of the Bulls is probably the best-known Spanish fair. Yet each March 12 to 19, people come to Valencia from all over Spain, Europe and Asia, swelling the city's population from half a million to 3 million, turning the city center into a 24-hour pedestrian zone.
Compact Valencia is a wonderland for urban wandering, and it only gets better during the festival, when turning a corner might bring you face to face with a giant satyr attended by punks in Mohawk hairstyles and a line of chorus girls. Or the Addams Family with The Thing perched atop Uncle Fester's bald dome. Or the Marx Brothers setting up for a jam session in a narrow alley. How can you not love a city that depicts its female mayor as a topless mermaid with protruding belly?
"It's the March of the Moors," my lawyer friend Lola Navarro announced as we walked through the streets a couple of nights earlier. Pounding drums signaled that something was coming our way. We ducked over to the takeout window of a corner bar to grab a cold beer.
Two dozen people, their faces painted black and green, marched into view dressed in black robes and wearing pointed shoes out of "Arabian Nights." They made mock-menacing feints with dime-store scimitars at the gawking bystanders as the band, featuring the eerie, bagpipe-like wails of Moroccan ghaitas, trailed behind. It was 3:30 a.m.
"A little Fellini-esque" Lola commented dryly. More than a little, I'd say.
The night wound down at a huge sculpture called "Na Jordana," the 1997 winner in the "Special Section" category made up of large, big-budget fallas. The caricature depicted two jolly, bearded giants in medieval armor hoisting their goblets in a toast. The scimitar, sword and fabric designs were meant to symbolize the Christians and Moors, the two mainstays of Spanish cultural heritage. Frolicking at the giants' feet were life-size figures of Spanish media personalities and celebrity couples depicted in bawdy, irreverent poses.
Meanwhile, Lola, her colleague Emilia Perez and I stuffed our faces at a huge food stand filled with enormous pans of fried squid, fried potatoes, every type of sausage imaginable, ham sandwiches stacked three high and rows of ripe red tomatoes lined up on beds of fresh green lettuce. Behind us, a carnival ride noisily whirled a few hardy youths through the air. It was now 4:30 a.m.
The fallas tradition began in the mid-18th century with Valencia's celebrated craftsmen. Needing light in order to work during the dark winter months, they built wooden frames from which to hang lamps. Come spring, they set the frames out in the street and burned them.
Las Fallas conveniently dovetails with the religious feast of San Jose (St. Joseph, appropriately the patron saint of carpenters), marking the end of winter. It's not hard to imagine an early craftsman slipping a hat onto one discarded scaffold, another artisan painting a face, and the embellishment gradually escalating into a citywide competition. Initially, full-formed caricatures were molded in wax, then cardboard.
Virtually all the sculptures, on display the last four days of the fiesta, are constructed by members of neighborhood committees who put in unpaid work time after their regular jobs. In addition to each large falla, the committee also makes a smaller, separate sculpture (falla infantil) to honor children.
The city council began awarding a cash prize for the best falla around 1900, and now a central fallero board coordinates the competition. Like Rose Parade floats, these days most "floats" (they are stationary) are the work of professional designers. Some rise as high as 60 feet, cost $80,000 to $120,000, and can incorporate full-scale productions such as laser light shows and rock soundtracks.
But the festival keeps in touch with its populist heritage through the ninots, models of individual figures taken from the full-size fallas. Each committee sends a small ninot to the basement of the Mercado Central for an exhibition that runs for seven to 10 days before the unveiling of the big floats. Visitors to the exhibit vote for their favorites.
Last year's most popular ninot included one that depicted the heads of Spanish politicians in a stopped-up toilet, another showing starving Rwandan refugees and others featuring mythological figures, Disney characters and Hollywood figures of the '50s. The prize for the winning model is a permanent place at the Fallas Museum, housed in a low-key building away from the city center.
The Fallas festival pageantry also includes beauty contests--one for girls up to 14 years old, another for young women up to their early 20s--in each neighborhood. During the celebration, the beauty queens are instantly recognizable by their fallera costumes: full-length silk dresses with sashes, gold hair combs and coils of hair falling over their ears, which gives them a "Star Wars" Princess Leia look.
Another festival ritual, the offrenda (offering) takes place over two days when thousands of Valencians (the local newspapers last year counted 150,000) parade through the streets to the main cathedral with bouquets for the Virgin of the Forsaken, one of the city's patron saints.
"What a horror!" muttered Lola, tossing her head as we stepped lively through the stream of people wending its way down the Gran Via Marques del Turia to one of the nighttime fireworks displays. I had been walking around in wonder for days, but it's easy to understand how local residents, who have to work during the week, view the crowds, snarled traffic and general din as a major pain.
Valencians love fireworks, and the Fallas festival is a prime opportunity for the city's world-famous pyrotechnic companies to strut their stuff. Lola and I waited for the 1 a.m. show to begin with thousands of others who crowded the banks of a dried-out riverbed.
WHOOOSH! Looking like flame-belching caldrons in a steel factory, the heavy-duty mortars in the riverbed sent projectiles hurtling high into the air and exploding in 3-D colors.
Night isn't the only time for fireworks. During the first 19 days of March, explosives are set off every day at 2 p.m. in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, Valencia's main town square. Noise is the real attraction of these displays, called mascletas, which always end with a rapid-fire crescendo. A veritable orchestration of explosions, the fireworks build from snare drum roll to full tympanic rumble that reverberates off the surrounding stone buildings at a volume on the order of a full-on artillery barrage.
Then there are the petardos, the nerve-jangling small firecrackers that go off everywhere during the festival. Which is as good a reason as any for this warning: Don't go to Valencia for Las Fallas expecting R&R.; This is a party-all-night vacation that you need a vacation from.
Valencia has that reputation anyway. "The Rough Guide to Spain," in fact, opined that Vivir Sin Dormir (Live Without Sleep), the name of one beachfront bar, could also be the city's motto. During Las Fallas, the bars are open virtually around the clock, and 24-hour sidewalk food stands sell churros (tubular, sugar-sprinkled pastries) and bun~uelos (doughnuts).
Meanwhile, back at the Plaza de Merced on the final night, it's nearly an hour past midnight. The tightly packed crowd remains remarkably patient as firemen roam the perimeter and holes are punched in the base of my favorite falla's motorcycle helmet in order to ensure a vertical burn. After one false start, the street lights dim, a string of firecrackers explode to light the falla afire, and up it goes! As the elaborate presidential effigy becomes fully engulfed, the crowd surges back from the intense heat. The flames shoot above the square's four-story apartment buildings as firemen shoot streams of water to wet them down--protection from stray sparks. The sky overhead is full of delicate burning embers as the sculpture finally collapses amid cheers and whistles.
There's barely enough time to dash back to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento for the climactic 1 a.m. torching of the official city falla. A Trojan Horse-like figure of the "Warrior of Moixten" has serenely surveyed the main square all week, looking oblivious to the bizarre figures of cavemen and scientists in lab coats hanging from ladders and scaffolds at his side.
When this last torching is over, the crowd begins to drift away. I disappear into the labyrinth of streets that make up the Carmen district, full of bars, and finish the night with a cognac at the Cafe Negrito, one of my favorite hangouts.
It's about 5 a.m. when I wander back by the Plaza de Merced one last time, but there are no ashes or residue left from the biker falla, only a sanitation man hosing down the street.
When I wake up the next morning (OK, early afternoon), Valencia is back to normal. All traces of an extra 2 1/2 million people, the ubiquitous Andean Indian street bands, seem to have melted away without a trace. The only thing remaining is the knowledge that by the following week, Valencia will restart its preparations for next year's Festival of the Fallas.
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GUIDEBOOK: Valencia Values
Getting there: The easiest connections to Valencia are L.A.-London on British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Continental, United or American, changing to Iberia into Valencia. Or fly L.A.-Frankfurt (Lufthansa, Delta, Air New Zealand, American, United or US Airways), changing to Lufthansa or Iberia to Valencia. Current round-trip fares begin at about $655.
Where to stay: The Festival of the Fallas is so popular that most hotel rooms in the city center are likely to be gone by Christmas (although last-minute cancellations are possible). Plan a year in advance for luxury hotels such as the Astoria Plaza, Plaza Rodrigo Botet 5, Valencia 46002, Spain; telephone 011-34-6-352-6737, fax 011-34-6-352-8078; double rooms about $160 per night. But hotels should be available in nearby towns.
A few economical possibilities just off the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in the heart of Valencia:
Hotel Excelsior, Calle Barcelonina 5, Valencia 46002; tel. 011-34-6-351-4612, fax 011-34-6-352-3478; double rooms about $85.
Hotel Continental, Calle Correos 8, Valencia 46002; tel./fax 011-34-6-351-0926; doubles during Las Fallas about $90, breakfast included, minimum five-night stay.
Hotel Londres, Calle Barcelonina 1, Valencia 46002; tel. 011-34-6-351-2244, fax 011-34-6-352-1508; double rooms about $50.
Where to eat: The best choices in central Valencia are restaurants called cafeterias (not like American-style cafeterias) and cervecerias offering tapas (appetizers averaging about $1 to $7 per plate) and an inexpensive menu of the day. Yes, you can order paella almost everywhere. Some favorites: Bar Boatella (Plaza Mercado 34) and Bar el Kiosco (Calle Derechos 38).
Upscale dining is found in two of the largest cervecerias: Alkazar and Palacio de la Bellota (Moisen Fernandes 9 and 11). and the crowded cafes surrounding them. For more information: Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 956, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (213) 658-7188, fax (213) 658-1061.