This year I was fortunate to be based in Valencia as the city descended into its special kind of mayhem, celebrating Las Fallas. I knew Las Fallas only for its iconic sculptures — set on fire at the week’s climax - but as I learned, it is not just the sculptures that are spectacularly transformed during this chaotic week.
My weekday alarm had gone off early, and I peered out the 2nd floor window of my apartment in disbelief to see a parade of nine orange-clad invaders proudly beating their drums as they trampled on my sleep cycle.
Where there had once been dreary corner shops and cafes, there were now bustling tiendas de petardo. Where children had once played football in the streets, they now shot fireworks. Where junctions had once stood forgotten, they were now ornated by ribbons, beer tents, and food trucks. Fiesta had truly submerged the city.
At first, Las Fallas can appear chaotic to an outsider like me. Set at unease by the sporadic explosions and unsure what to make of the polarised opinions of the locals, I visited the various sculptures with a sceptical curiosity, trying to work out what all the fuss was about.
Messi and Ronaldo played football on a pitch of euro bills. Trump sat at a chess board, which concealed a pile of dynamite. The mermaid of Brexit was stuck to the seabed. Some sculptures carried iconoclastic messages in the way only brash 10ft paper machés can, while some were clever calls to arms on themes such as climate change and materialism.
Eventually, predictably, they merge and blur into a memory of icons and bright colours. It’s certainly hard not to be impressed, but before long, the overbearing aesthetic qualities feel somewhat superficial. It’s the community around these fallas which really peaked my interest.
As the week progresses, the pattern of celebrations becomes clearer. Each neighbourhood of Valencia is responsible for its own falla, so each holds its own distinct celebrations. At night there is a real community feel in the beer tents and around the stages. Nonetheless, there is still plenty for the wandering tourist to indulge in this sleepless week of street partying.
As darkness falls on the March 19, Las Fallas prepares to go out with a bang. Communities gather to watch a final fireworks display, marking the moment in which their sculpture is to be set on fire. The smaller sculpture is to be ceremoniously set on fire by the Princess, and the larger sculpture by the Queen.
Setting the Falla alight is a momentous occasion for the princess, who has been centre of proceedings for the week. As soon as the sculpture goes up in flames, the celebrations come to an end and normal life returns — it is her parting act as princess. In this image we see the gravity of the moment in her expression. She looks at the torch carefully, with a tangible reluctance, fighting tears. The eye is drawn to the princess’ face, but the disembodied hand cuts through the fantasy.
Meanwhile, silhouettes towering over the girl results in a surreal and symbolic moment that strikes the same tone as Las Fallas as a whole.
Yellow is the fire and intense energy at the heart of Las Fallas. Purple, the colour of royalty, represents the element of tradition, but also that of the magical and the mysterious. The two complementary colours fill the frame here in an image that gives us a sense of awe experienced by the crowds who flock to watch these fantastical sculptures burn.
The lasting impression that Las Fallas gave me was the centrality of community to a celebration that can first appear hedonistic and chaotic. Communities gravitate around their sculptures throughout the week; sharing drinks, cleaning the streets, shooting petardos. People of all generations adorn traditional costume and come together. There are few things in life more valuable than belonging, and as this UNESCO world heritage festival grows further in stature and commercial value, it is this evident sense of belonging that will continue to give Las Fallas its unique flavour.