I had read and heard about it, something I can’t identify. “The time of your life,” “Like nothing else,” “de puta madre.” Of course I was geared up. But nothing opened the book for me – I did not catch a glimpse of the plot. It was all vague, more-or-less wordless trailers with a burning background and a bold, stone-set release date.
The first hints were the mascletà – from the first of March and the opening of the season, every day at 1400, in the municipal square Plaça de l’Ajuntament would come the call in their language – Senyor pirotècnic, pot començar la mascleta! And so he did.
For five minutes, the fabric of the air was ripped loudly by increasingly well-engineered explosions and other such fireworks. The pyrotechnic master was the conductor who scored the production – each day a different conductor, and so different rhythms and music were pounded out with genius precision by so many kilograms of gunpowder, with a greater and greater audience. The great crescendo at the end threatened to throw off pacemakers and shake shelves from their fixtures, and every time my own heart swelled and matched the thousand fists pounding against it. When it was over, great cheering and calls of bravo! were minuscule in the presence of the subsiding echo.
This happened twenty times.
Rumors built and built, until the time had come for all to break loose – maybe it was Thursday, maybe it was Wednesday, but when it came it came without a real announcement, just the general pervading understanding that the time had come. Perhaps the only indicator was the unveiling of what was being constructed all along, with hundreds of thousands of Euros and a year’s worth of fundraisers, paella, and fallera-electing come to pass. When I saw them for the first time I realized what kind of madness and primeval flailing of enjoyment was about to ensue.
The falle (torch in Valencian) is one of about three hundred and fifty gigantic – gigantic – expertly crafted “floats” that are painstakingly painted and given such detail not only in their artistic presentation, but also in the selection of what subject will be lampooned – the mayor of the city holding her husband on a leash as a dog? – Michael Jackson (’nuff said)? – A menu of the unjust American wars with a dessert of petroleum? – and nothing is sacred, everything is beautiful. The institutional casals falleres (Houses of the Falles) are the central organizations that come together to contest at this time with their elected falleras – something maybe like a debutante, except with much less aristocracy and much more cultural purpose (or purpose in general) – who has the most outrageous, flamboyant, ingenious falle.
Together with the parades, the traditional music and dancing come the nightly verbenas that are myriad open-air parties with stages, rock bands, and DJs that see the swelled populace of Valenica party for about five days straight. Every morning (four in the afternoon, eight A.M. despertà be damned) as I awoke I would hear my roomate Raul: “Prosequito, vamos a fiesta!” The truth has rarely been such a dichotomy of sweet and sour.
There was a special consistency, one I’ve not witnessed before – that of a war zone. The amount of petardos (firecrackers) that were exploded in Valencia that weekend, if piled together as gunpowder, would have ended the Iraq war once and for all time. With my blue-checked scarf and my pack of 100 large firecrackers, Raul told me I had changed into a Valencian. That’s pride. The explosion of firecrackers never, ever stopped – the same at noon as at midnight as at five in the morning, all over the entire city. Here is a city so obsessed with fire and pyrotechnics that a flood fifty years ago being their most deadly disaster is divinely ironic. Not a few hands were blown off during the course of the festival.
The episodes were to venture to the ciutat vella (old city) and explore the various fineries, falles, and falleras. This was not so hard in the first episode, because it took place on a Thursday and so there was more time for the plot to escalate and the situations of would-be tourists working was a factor. I managed to get in a fair bit of Valencian-ness this day, which began in the center at about one o’clock. Just as I arrived came the sound of the drum and the triple-oboe-like-instrument-attack of traditionally dressed dudes in their Saragüells. They were accompanied by people wearing falle-style heads and most interestingly a giant “costume” of a woman, thrice as tall as I.
Naturally, I followed them, as the woman danced and twirled to the music of the small band and the people with the falle-heads whacked bystanders on the head with their straw brooms. The procession grew as more people followed and we made it finally right next to where mascletà would take place. There was more playing for the thirty minutes leading up to that day’s “musical selection.”
The day continued as I ate paella in my favorite square and drank some delicious orxata (horchata in Spanish) to wash it all down at the legendary Horchateria del Siglo (Horchateria of the Century!).
The weather was nice and the people were too many to make it back to the piso, so we took our siesta right there in the plaza. That night began the insane cycle of starting out with castillo, the most spectacular fireworks display I have ever seen, followed by attending various verbenas and, like every other Valencian there, enjoying ourselves with a bottle of whiskey clandestinely snuck from a corner store that wasn’t supposed to sell after midnight. Later, at the imploring of my roommate and his girlfriend, we went to some discoteca – a negative scene in an otherwise great episode. I’m surprised the cigarette smoke, not so glamorous as a Bogart-esque moment, did not blind me for the rest of the festival. Bed at 7 AM.
Episode two was similar, except more people came to enjoy themselves during the day. I actually felt a little annoyed that all these tourists were crowding up “my town.” The firecracker explosions escalated in amount, size, and proximity. It took me a while to get used to not having to duck what I expected to be bullets or shell fire. Castillo was bigger, and so were the verbenas. Bed at 6 AM.
Episode 3, as in any archetypal five-part production, was packed with action and plot twists. The center was packed beyond belief – how could the very ground not collapse under the weight of these people? For this reason, mascletà had to be watched from much farther away than normal. I intended to grab a quick bite after that, but nix that idea – even Burger King had a line that would probably take an hour and a half to wait through. Too bad I couldn’t take part in the lunch of the casals falleres.
It was in this disappointed and hungry situation in which I called my Mexican friend Marianna and asked her what she was doing. She replied that she was in a restaurant just of Plaza de Virgen and on Carrer d’Cavallers – the absolute last place I would expect to find a restaurant with reasonable waiting time.
“My friend is the cook – do you want to come in and have some paella?”
The place was only full of people who knew the owners or cook. The paella was delicious, the conversation humorous and in Spanish among what Marianna called hostal de Valencia, since the approximately fifteen people eating with us were either her roomates or friends who were crashing at her piso. As we left we got a picture with a real fallero. That was a good thing.
I woke up at four in the afternoon to Raul’s call. I didn’t drink anything in episode four or five.
Episode four was generally the same thing with Erasmus students. We thought we were going to see a bullfight that night, but it turns out it was just some other bull exposition where people in the audience come down and taunt the bull as he chases them with flaming horns. So no matadors – that was disappointing.
Afterwards we left for the last castillo. The firecrackers came about every second now, and the craziest thing was watching the people move through the avenues as someone would throw one of those fireworks that shot out huge white sparks and jetted around in mad spirals, forcing everyone to scream and run away. I got a feeling of what Tiananmen square might have been like, except without tanks and death. Unfortunately because we left a little late and there were so many people the majority of the fireworks were obscured by buildings. Went to bed about four.
The fifth and final episode came at the purpose of the whole event – Saint Joseph’s Day. Not so many tourists today, they all had their day jobs. This was the finest day to be a Valencian. A perfectly festive number of people in the city, a final great enjoyment before the namesake of the event took place. For at midnight, all of the falles would become torches.
First, at nine in the evening, came the ninots – smaller, cheaper falles that lacked the satirical concepts of their big brothers, which are especially for children. Each neighborhood produces one falle and one ninot. The only structure spared is the ninot that is voted to be the best of the bunch, which is then put in the Falles Museum. Everything else meets the demise of flame.
We chose a ninot very close to the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, so we could be near to watch the final act of the burning of the municipal falle.
We then chose a falle close to that one as well to watch burn at midnight, when all the falles everywhere are put to flame. This one was as tall as the buildings around it, and the bomberos (firemen) had put flame-retardant tarps on the sides of the buildings and were hosing down the facades. I happened to be surrounded by a bunch of American idiots from Clemson (duh) who were drinking heavily and yelling things like “When Americans go abroad, we’ll do stupid things, it’s what we do!” I was quite embarrassed. But the burning falles made everything better.
Finally, it came to waiting in the ungodly huge crowd in relative silence for one AM to come. The main falle, which I estimate was about twenty-five meters tall, stood as the symbol of everything that had come to pass, good or bad, in one’s life over the past year. Thousands of Valencians stood watching, mixed anticipation and sadness evident on our faces.
The winner of all the mascletas put together a final overture, the most magnificent of them all. The symphony lit up the dark sky of the plaza, and we all watched what played out on the screen of black. When the last note had been played, there was a moment’s silence before the finale exploded in our eyes.
The infernal pillar grew in form, defeating a defiant statue of a monster that had awed and plagued the millions. Our faces fixed unwavering as the deep flame reflected in our pupils. It was at once deeply satisfying and a reluctant close. I found myself at the end of a film with no conflict but replete with action. The black smoke billowed to the east.