Blast from past
During the week culminating , more than 300 public squares in this city not much larger than Cleveland fill with building-sized sculptures called ninots. The ninots make fun of the past year’s events in Spain and around the world.
At the end of the week they’re blown up and ignited, turning the entire city into one giant inferno.
It’s Fallas (say FIE-yus), a festival originating in the 1700s, and the hottest street party scene in all of Spain. Historians believe the wild bash resulted when Catholicism merged with pagan rites celebrating the start of spring.
It’s not a week for the noise-sensitive, and it’s certainly no place to catch up on sleep. But go once and you’ll never forget it.
I thought Fallas would be a great way to celebrate my mid-March birthday and I joined another Pisces birthday girl there.
This palmy city in the middle of Spain’s Mediterranean coast closes schools and businesses during Fallas so night owls can feast, explode fireworks and become involved in a citywide extravaganza of parades and festivities.
We saw ninots in which the airlines were derided for their sometimes arcane cost-cutting and security practices. We saw George W. Bush lampooned as a destroyer of the environment and as best buddies with Osama bin Laden. We saw the public dislike of new anti-smoking laws that prohibit public smoking in a country historically committed to nicotine.
But despite the then-ongoing worldwide Muslim brouhaha over a Scandinavian magazine’s cartoon depiction of Mohammed, there was absolutely no reference to that controversy.
I thought that strange, given Spain’s nearly five centuries of Muslim culture and rule. Ever the cynic, I figured censorship but would be proved wrong.
Arab lands are just an hour or so by ferry from the tip of Spain, and entire neighborhoods in many Spanish cities are populated with adherents to Islam. The Muslim culture continues to influence everything from architecture to cuisine throughout the country.
“Why does Islam seem exempt from the fun?” I asked Nacho, our guide and interpreter who was helping us non-Spanish speakers with context for our Valencian adventure.
“I’ll ask our driver,” Nacho said. “He’s Muslim.”
The eye-opening translation revealed that our driver, Ahmed, believes that no one’s religion is a suitable subject for humor or public ridicule.
Coexistence is key in this predominantly Catholic country.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Nacho conceded. “But perhaps the lack of those ninots for Fallas is a sign of respect.”
Despite the no-holds-barred artistic expression and loud blasts of fireworks from every corner during Fallas, respect seems to run deeply through Spanish life.
The giant sculptures, created by close-knit community groups, are ignited at on St. Joseph’s Day. Nearby buildings are shuttered, and fire departments come from around the world to join Spain’s fire experts in preventing the fires from spreading.
Orange glows brighten the darkened sky over different neighborhoods as black clouds spiral skyward while throngs of spectators stroll from one furious bonfire to another.
Earlier that evening, we were hard-pressed to choose the parade we wanted to attend. As a journalist, I was curious about the Muslim influences surrounding us, so voted for a neighborhood known for its Moroccan population, people also known as Moors. In modern usage, the term Moor has come to mean anyone Muslim but it originally signified the mixed Arab, Spanish and Berber people who settled in North Africa and southern Spain between the 11th and 17th centuries.
The Moorish neighborhood, two dozen blocks from our hotel in the city’s historic center, was a challenging walk, especially amid Fallas throngs. Although Valencia has a well-developed system of buses and a Metro subway, when public celebrations are everywhere, walking is most rewarding.
The parade of our choice, an extravaganza of Muslim, Spanish and African costumes and music, portrayed Valencia’s rich history with sword presentations, pageantry and even camels. Lavish costumes included garb made entirely of feathers, shells and faux animal skins that must have required hundreds of hours for their construction and cost dearly. Although a tradition for just 30 years, the 700-person Moors parade has evolved into one of the city’s most spectacular events.
During Fallas, Valencians’ passion for traditional costumes is played out all over the city, but nowhere more intensely than in the flower offering to the Virgen de los Desamparados, patron saint of Valencia.
A cavalcade of more than 140,000 ornately clad women, girls and even babies in strollers carry bouquets of flowers to dress the Virgin. This sedate parade, its pace set by neighborhood bands marching between groups, continues day and night for two full days. Some of the youngest musicians play the sweet-sounding flute called a dolgaina, an oboe-like instrument.
The two-story statue begins as a 40-foot wooden framework of scaffolding topped by the head and crown of the Virgin holding a baby Jesus. Outdoors in the cathedral square, it’s sheltered from the elements by a huge awning.
Over the hours, volunteers catch carnation bouquets tossed to them after being solemnly presented to the Virgin by the gowned females. Alternating colors, the agile volunteers insert the flowers, mostly carnations, into the framework until the Virgin’s flower gown appears. More than 40 tons of flowers are used for this fragrant and colorful ritual.
The traditional costumes worn by the women are ornate and expensive creations of silk, taffeta, damask and brocade, some taking six workers 700 hours to create, according to one Fallas publication. Although gowns usually are passed down through the generations, the price tag for one dress produced today can reach nearly 6,000 euros, or $9,000.
In contrast to the boisterous, sometimes ribald fun of other Fallas revelry, the procession to the Virgin is laden with emotion. Not a few tears are seen as the women present the bouquets they’ve carried from their neighborhoods to present to Our Lady of the Forsaken.
Spain’s night-loving culture holds true even in the mid-March Fallas season, when it can be chilly along the palm-lined streets of Valencia. The dry heat of Spanish summers originated the custom of a midday siesta, when most shops close for a couple of hours and employees enjoy a two- to three-hour lunch.
It was quite an adjustment for me, an early-to-bed-early-to-rise type, to sit down to dinner at
Nothing gets moving in Valencia until mid-morning, especially during Fallas, when late-night parties hosted by neighborhood groups pop up all over town in barricaded streets and beneath tents.
The mascleta, a midday fireworks tradition of Fallas, shakes late sleepers wide awake at each day. It takes place in the Plaza Ayuntamiento, or city hall square, where different sound artists take charge of each day’s multiple blasts.
These aren’t the colorful nighttime fireworks that bloom like flowers in the sky, but an ear-shattering arrangement of thousands of firecrackers that each day result in a different, almost musical, harmony played out in gunpowder.
Crowds gather in the square for the 11-minute display that, to my ear, initially sounded like castanets, then merged into a staccato dance of rhythm. When it ends, the almost vacuum-like silence is shattered by the screaming of car alarms set off by the extreme noise.
It was in Valencia that I learned ear-splitting is not an overstatement.
The Web site www.turisvalencia.es has all the resources and information you might need for planning a trip to Valencia. I flew there from New York on Iberia, Spain’s national airline, which also has flights from Chicago. A one- to three-day Valencia Card ($7 to $19) provides free transport and free admission to a number of great museums and discounts at others. Order it at www.valenciacard.es.
Fallas 2007 will be observed in Valencia, with festivities peaking the final three days. Hotels will be filled to capacity so if you hope to go, make your plans soon. Get insight to the festival with a visit to the Fallas Museum, which preserves ninots chosen to be saved from the fires of each year’s event. They vividly portray history through the Franco years, the hippie era, and to the present.
Next May, Valencia also plays host to the 32nd America’s Cup sailing race, so you’ll soon be hearing a lot about this 800,000-person city on Spain’s middle Mediterranean coast.
I stayed at the well-located and beautifully appointed Hotel Astoria Palace, at the edge of the city’s picturesque historic old town district (www.hotelastoriapalace.com).
That part of town is up against the Turia riverbed, which was dried out and made the sunken location for gardens, museums and recreation after serious floods in centuries past. The curving expanse of park lands is framed by bridges to embrace the city and provide easy reference points for getting around.
Get information about Spain, including Valencia, from the tourist office in Chicago at 845 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; 312-642-1992; www.Spain.info.