I tossed my can on the ground and peered up at the sun slowly creeping its way around the corner of the four story building to my left. There was no escaping its warming glow, I was trapped in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people and the sun was going to have its way with my white wintry face. It was nice to be tall in Spain, I could throw my hand in the air and be seen above the crushed crowd, the sign of a man in need of another beer. An entrepreneurial immigrant bulldozed a path to my outstretched hand and replaced my euro coin with a chilly Amstel as a single firecracker rang out overhead, only 10 minutes to go.
We had come to Valencia for Las Fallas Festival, a Valencian tradition of welcoming spring with 5 days of non-stop partying, fireworks, and the fallas themselves. For this long weekend everything was about the party, the streets of the city center were closed as millions of locals and visitors flooded every nook and cranny, drinking in the streets and setting fire to anything in their path. For Valencianos their first fireworks came around the same time as their first steps. Everyone was an aspiring pyromaniac, taking to the streets with bags full of firecrackers that rang out around the clock. This was the closest I had ever come to a war zone. For four straight days there was not a second of silence as explosions echoed off the walls of the narrow alleyways and carried down the broad boulevards of the city.
The movement of the crowd around me had long since stopped. We had held our ground for nearly an hour as people jockeyed for position in front of the fenced off town hall square as every inch of space was laid claim to. Bodies hung over balconies and terraces, while children were hoisted onto shoulders, their gazes fixed on the imposing fence 100 meters ahead. We had no idea what to expect but we knew that this many people couldnt be wrong. Our friends had only told us to come early and be prepared to be blown away. Another firecracker exploded in a cloud of smoke against the baby blue sky, 5 minutes to go.
Competing with the ear shattering rapports are the grandiose artistic expressions of the fallas. Enormous sculptures of paper, wax and wood, the fallas are designed and crafted all year long by every neighborhood throughout the city. Over the years, the teams have continually tried to top one another by attracting more talented artists, building higher, and spending more. This years winning falla clocked in at 5 stories in height and cost $400,000 to build. It all seems like a ridiculous amount of money and effort to put into an art project, especially when you know whats going to happen to all of your hard work when the festivals are over.
It was nearly 2pm and the warm spring sun was transforming my pale face into a nice rosy tone as we huddled with thousands of others waiting for the clock to strike. Most things in Southern Spain are go with the flow, take your time sort of affairs, but when it came to fireworks things got serious. As the second hand swung over the crest of the hill and down the other side, the show got under way. Things started out simply enough. Firecrackers arched into the sky and left behind a steady stream of pops and bangs similar to the sounds of a fireworks show in the States without all of the fancy lights and fluttery designs. This was a fireworks show for people who loved fireworks. You didn’t come to this show to watch the sky light up in color, you came to this show to lose your hearing. The pace quickly built as the explosions blended together and all other noises disappeared. The drone of the helicopter overhead went silent and the hollering faces around me appeared like scenes from a silent film. The noise level only continued its rise, passing the decibel level of heavy metal concerts and jet engines until finally the glass storefronts began to shake and quiver. The 3 year old girl on her fathers shoulders to my right looked unfazed, a blank expression on her face, clearly a Valenciano through and through. The smokey explosions rattled my ear drums until they finally reached a crescendo that sounded something like a tribal drumbeat. Duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh-DUH. Then it was over, ending as quickly as it began the whistling and cheering of the crowd returned to my ears as I stood in wonder.
Ahead of us stood a giant falla, towering over the town square like a sentinel on watch. Its figurines painted in exquisite detail, reaching out over the crowd as splashes of day glow colors shone in the sun. The explosions were over and the crowds were once again drawn to the monuments of art that defined this festival. It was only Friday at 2:05 pm and the entire weekend stood before us but I still couldnt help but think of what lay ahead for this unsuspecting sculpture. On Monday night he would join the rest of the fallas in a giant display of destruction. At the stroke of midnight his body would be set ablaze, the fireworks in his chest tearing through his fragile shell while flames ate away at his frame until he had nothing left to give. The millions of dollars and thousands of hours spent building over 500 fallas would be reduced to ashes as the sculptures burned to the ground, making room for next years fallas to be even louder and hotter.