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Las Fallas: Red hot satire at explosive spring fiesta

AFP · 17 Mar 2015, 08:43

Published: 17 Mar 2015 08:43 GMT+01:00

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A grinning Barack Obama in a white tutu kicks Vladimir Putin in the privates. Angela Merkel bends and bares her bottom.

These are just three of the hundreds of satirical effigies mounted at the Fallas festival in Valencia, Spain, which celebrates its noisy finale this week.

Politicians, celebrities and fantasy characters star in the colourful, often grotesque "ninots" -- groups of cardboard and polystyrene models built by local artists and placed in the streets.

See our gallery of ninots showing politicians as you have never seen them before.

For nearly three weeks, giant firecrackers have boomed around the city and the smell of fried pastries and paella have filled the air, leading up to Thursday's finale when about 760 ninots will be burned in a last night of revelry.

"The Fallas are a way of life for me. It's practically a religion. It's an act of devotion," says high school teacher Vicente Rodriguez, 26.

Like his father and grandfather before him, he is a "Fallero" -- a member of one of 380 local Falla committees.

"I am happy to work all year just so I can burn a Falla," he says. "Then I cry and I start all over again."

In a country with many quirky folk festivals, the Fallas is one of the most popular. It coincides with the start of the bullfighting season but utterly upstages it.

More than a million tourists come to the eastern seaside city to see the extravagant sculptures -- some of them more than 20 metres (66 feet) tall -- before they go up in flames.

Crudeness and humour reign -- in one sculpture, the leader of the rising left-wing party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, sits on a lavatory holding toilet paper printed with the face of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

But some exhibits are more darkly topical: in one, a yellow pencil stands in red spilt ink in a homage to the victims of the extremist massacre at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

All but two of the ninots will burn -- the winning pair voted for by the public will end up in the local Fallero Museum.

With likely roots in pagan springtime rites, the Fallas in their current form are traced back to the 18th century when carpenters would burn the offcuts from their workshops in the street, said Ximo Palomarez of the Fallero Museum.

The satirical flavour took hold when locals began using the discarded wood to make torches in the form of dolls representing well-known figures.

"It was a way for the people to humorously criticise and ridicule the powerful who abused their power," Palomarez said.

"From the very beginning they were a way of attacking the authorities and
the Catholic church, which tried to ban them."

After an opening early morning salvo on the last Sunday in February, more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of giant firecrackers are detonated each afternoon, draping the city centre in white smoke.

The final day's mega firecracker storm on the city's main square is a deafening event known as "the earthquake".

Local Fallas associations typically spend tens of thousands of euros building the effigies to compete with other neighbourhoods. In 2009, during Spain's economic crisis, the most expensive cost €900,000 ($950,000).

This year's Fallas budget is €6.9 million, organisers said.

The 380 Fallas committees run prize draws and other events throughout the year to raise money, to boost the subsidy granted by the city hall.

Story continues below…

"It is a way to teach small children how to organise a party and share with others," says Carmen Sancho, a member of one of the oldest Fallas families in Valencia.

She was preparing to join 100,000 others on Tuesday for one of the festival's highlights -- a parade to lay flowers below a statue of the city's patron saint, Our Lady of the Abandoned.

Like countless other women and girls in the city, Sancho will wear an ornate crinoline dress, hand-embroidered in 19th century style.

After burning the other Fallas on Thursday, revellers will then head to the city's main square to see the biggest of all, a 22-metre high lion, set alight.

"Some people from Valencia leave town during the Fallas because they don't like it," said Hector Sebastia, 29, a local welder and Fallero.

"They say its just firecrackers and drunkenness all day. They just don't
get it."

By Ingrid Bazinet /AFP 

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