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Burn Baby Burn


Pyrotechnics of the world meet your nirvana; a weeklong fire festival with bonfires the size of skyscrapers, sparklers handed out like candy and more fireworks than a Disney extravaganza.  The Fourth of July is for novices; this fiery fiesta in Southern Spain offers the real deal.

The festival- aptly named Las Fallas, or “the fires”- takes place in Valencia, a sunny Mediterranean town known for its oranges, seafood paella and beautiful, white sand beaches.  According to legend, the burnings have pagan origins, and were used during the Middle Ages to mark seasonal change.  Today Valencianos continue this tradition every March when they usher in spring with dangerous explosives, burning rituals and raucous celebration.

A float catches fire

I knew I’d stumbled across a hell of a party when, upon arriving, I was nearly killed.  Twice.  The first time I had just exited the tour bus, and was so intently studying my map I didn’t realize the street was deserted and silent.  Suddenly I heard a deafening explosion and angry Spanish men began flailing their arms in my direction.  Panicked, I moved out of the way, ducking into a nearby building.  The area filled with smoke and loud bombs blasted wildly overhead.  At first I wondered if the Iberian peninsula was under attack; later, however, I learned blowing up random streets was just part of the fun.

Less than an hour after, I was under siege again when bombarded by a sea of firecrackers.  My attacker was an adorable, 5 year old child, giggling playfully as he tossed explosives in my direction.  In this festival, I soon learned, all celebrants- regardless of age, affinity for violence or IQ level- were allowed to purchase fire toys, and do with them as they please.  To my 5-year-old assailant, this meant shooting potent explosives as close to my vital organs as possible.  When a firecracker landed on my new Prada boot I hastily retreated, muttering Spanish curse words under my breath.

Despite these near-death experiences, the festival proved one of the most exhilarating, insane days of my life.  No one, I’ve realized, knows how to party like the Spanish.  This is a country where bars don’t close until 6 am, if they close at all.  Where crazed European partygoers seek sun, sex and sin on the infamous isle of Ibiza.   And where people run with bulls for fun. 

The full conflagration

Las Fallas contains all the elements of a typical Spanish fiesta: hordes of people, bulls, deafening noise and meat.  I spent the day wading through crowded streets, perusing outdoor flea markets and laughing at men in ridiculous metrosexual costumes.  I caught part of a bullfight in the local Plaza de Toros and witnessed more ham consumption than I thought humanly possible.  And of course, I admired the floats.

These aren’t just any floats, at least not ones you’d find in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or Hometown Festival USA.  These effigies- known as ninots- are bawdy, offensive and lewd, lampooning edgy topics like Spanish political scandals and material culture.  One, for example, satirized ex-dictator Francisco Franco, rendering him a short, disagreeable old man.  Another illustrated a racy bedroom scene where an excited male gawked longingly at his female partner.  Among other topics for ridicule- illegal immigration from Africa, the infamous Galician oil spill and Spain’s love affair with food.

Such astute social commentary and intricate artistic renderings take time however, and cost the town a pretty penny, or in this case euro.  The effigies- made of paper mache, wax and wood- are neighborhood wide projects, enlisting the talent of local artists, carpenters and crafts people.  Often taking months to construct, ninots reach gigantic proportions not only in physical size, but also in the bankbook, costing upwards of 75,000 bucks a piece.  By the time March Madness rolls around, about 350 such floats have been crafted.

Celebrations begin with a mass installation day, when large cranes transport the floats onto various street corners in town.  Over the next week, about 2 million celebrants make their way to Valencia to admire, photograph and judge the ninots.  The floats then compete in a beauty pageant for bragging rights, as all aspire to crowned Queen of the Fallas.  After this considerable time, effort and money, there is only one thing left to do with the ninots- destroy them.

On the final eve of festivity I witnessed this climatic moment, known as La Crema, or the burning.  Following the crowd, I made my way over to one of the enormous floats and staked out prime viewing real estate.  After a few minutes of waiting, spectators grew impatient and began to get antsy. 

By a fire truck is a refuge for this writer

“Empieza ya o la pública se va,” they chanted angrily.  Roughly translated this means, “Start now or we’re out of here.”

Suddenly the streetlights went out.  A fuse was lit, and a sparkler snaked its way towards the float.  This gave way to a small burning display, as the crowd shouted a round of olés encouragingly.  Then the ninot itself began to catch, with flames quickly spreading upwards.  At first the burning was gentle, controlled and peaceful.  Soon, however, the bonfire spiraled out of control, spewing huge puffs of red and orange heat.  Figurines and objects crashed to the ground, as the float collapsed in dramatic swoops.  Black smoke billowed overhead and the air was thick with burning.  For a moment I got scared; the heat was so intense I thought I myself in danger.  The crowd surged backwards forcefully as overheated celebrants scrambled from the flames.

I watched the rest of the show from relatively safer ground.  Flames eventually engulfed the ninot, swallowing months of hard work and preparation.  Finally the burning died down, giving way to a small pile of smoldering ash.  The mood was solemn, almost spiritual, as a vacant lot stood where a grand monument once had.  A series of tragic rituals began; a band marched in playing funeral music and a little girl in costume wailed in mourning.  Then, as a nod to the festival’s pagan roots, the crowd joined hands and began to dance in the moonlight.  It continued this way for a while, until the firetrucks roared in and extinguished the few remaining flames.  Las Fallas was officially over; what a long, strange trip it’d been.

On my way back to the tour bus, exhaustion began to set in.  My clothes were singed, I smelled like an ashtray and I worried about going deaf from hours of consecutive explosions.  I’d never been involved in such a chaotic mess of a festival, never experienced so many near death encounters in such a short amount of time and never watched something so completely unbelievable, enchanting, surreal.  How would I ever go back to the Fourth of July?

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