What's happening here? Is it a concert? The crowd raising their phones as the star of the show emerges into the lights?
Sort of. In a way, there has been a concert going on all week and this is the big finale. For days, marching bands have been filling the streets with Paso Doble, and the traditional Spanish music has been bouncing down the alleyways and filling the squares of Valencia from morning until late in the evening, when it is replaced with more modern beats from DJs and street performers
The city has been packed with people, many in traditional dress and the rest sporting the telltale blue and white pañuelo around their necks. There have been performances, and dancing all night and street food and drink. And now it is all coming to a climax. The only thing, there will be no music for this finale. Instead, it all ends in fire.
So what is this? It is Las Fallas, Valencia's annual festival of fire, pyrotechnics, satire and noise. Officially tied to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, it dates back to the middle ages, when carpenters would celebrate the arrival of spring by burning what they had been using for light in the winter - wooden structures laden with candles. Those structures, over time, have morphed into huge, satirical tableau made from wood, styrofoam, wax and other flammable materials.
This is one of the more elaborate pieces. There are apps and maps to guide you to each neighborhood's falla, but with these big ones, you just need to follow the stream of people toward any particular plaza or intersection from which you see light streaming. Multiple stories high, filling entire plazas, intricately designed and painstakingly created, the largest (and best funded) are almost unbelievable.
This one clearly had a Bollywood theme. I don't know much about the points they were making though, as all of the written content is in Catalan, rather than Spanish. I don't know Catalan, and neither did our travelling companions, both fluent Spanish speakers.
It doesn't take a polyglot to appreciate the craftsmanship and plain old hard work that went in to these structures, massive, delicate and detailed all at the same time. And yes, most of them had a political message...
This was one of the better at making its political points. I loved the image of Angela Merkel struggling to steer the ship of Europe while Marine Le Pen takes an axe to it. And the rats leaving the ship - we probably each have our own list of names as to who those represent.
Of course, there were many caricatures of Donald Trump. This was one of my favorites: the mobile phone in one hand, popcorn in the other, riding a golden Donald Duck floaty-toy into oblivion, and obliviousness. The creators of this falla got my vote for this piece alone.
The picture above came from another large falla, this one with an Asian theme. I loved the details - the shading on the helmet, the designs on the shoulder armor, the hand on the sword. Fantastic.
There were roughly 300 of these fallas throughout the city. While not all as huge as my examples here, most of them displayed the craftsmanship and attention to detail that can only come from artists, builders and the community working together over many hours.
All of that work, all of that artistry, all of that craftsmanship comes to an end on the final night of the festival. Starting around midnight on Saturday, each neighborhood launches a fusillade of fireworks over their falla, crowds of hundreds watching in anticipation, their phones capturing every minute.
Within a few minutes, flames begin licking their way up these marvelous pieces of popular art. A few minutes more and they are completely en fuego, the heat rolling over the crowd in waves.
"Wow, wow, wow," were the only words coming out of my mouth as I watched, and felt, the first falla burn. It was difficult to comprehend that the massive, intricate, artistic, completely unique representation of months of hard work and years of creativity was now engulfed in flames. And the people who did all of the work were there cheering. This is why they had been created, to end in glorious fire.
The scene is repeated all over the city throughout the night, until all that remains are 300 smoldering piles of ash. It is one of the most unique and interesting cultural events I have ever seen, and heard (I haven't even gotten to the mascleta, which I can only describe briefly as a firecracker rock concert. Stay tuned!).
One thing that struck me: while this is a uniquely European (and specifically Spanish/Catalan) tradition, it actually felt like a Zen practice to me: build something extraordinary; spend countless hours getting it just right; watch it be destroyed; start over. I guess that makes Las Fallas one big, loud, fiery, multi-cultural metaphor for life.