Las Fallas: Red hot satire at explosive spring fiesta

This week will see the noisy finale of Las Fallas in Valencia when hundreds of satirical scupltures will go up in flames to celebrate the start of Spring.

Las Fallas: Red hot satire at explosive spring fiesta
One of the ninots representing Mariano Rajoy. Photo: Jose Jordan / AFP

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.

“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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In Pictures: Spain’s Fallas festival returns after pandemic pause

Valencia's Fallas festival wrapped up with fireworks and the burning of colourful sculptures on Sunday after returning to the eastern Spanish city following a pandemic-induced hiatus.

In Pictures: Spain's Fallas festival returns after pandemic pause
Ninots (cardboard effigies) burn as one installation of the Fallas Festival is set alight in Valencia on September 5, 2021. Photos: José Jordan/AFP

The five-day festival is traditionally held in March but was cancelled last year as the Covid-19 pandemic swept Spain. This year, officials postponed the start of the UNESCO-recognised event until September 1st.

It was the first time that the festival was suspended since the end of Spain’s 1936-39 Civil War.

Each year, residents make hundreds of colourful puppet-like sculptures — some as big as a four-storey building — out of wood, plaster and papier-mache for the festival.

Called “ninots”, the sculptures depict fairytale characters and cartoonish effigies of politicians and celebrities.

One ensemble from this year’s event was inspired by the hit Spanish Netflix series “Money Heist”. It depicted several people wearing red overalls and Salvador Dali face masks like the main characters in the show.

The ninots are displayed in the streets of the Mediterranean city and then burned on the last day of the festival — in a bonfire called the “Cremà” — in a centuries-old tradition honouring St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

Fireworks lit up the night sky as this year’s bonfire, which features about 750 sculptures, was held without the thousands of spectators that the event usually draws.

The bonfire was brought forward by two hours to allow festivities to end before a nightly virus curfew came into effect at 1:00 am (2300 GMT).

After much debate a customary flower offering to the Virgin Mary was allowed to proceed — but without people lining the route, as is tradition.

“These are not Fallas as such, more like Fallas-related events that comply with health regulations,” said Valencia mayor Joan Ribo.

The Fallas festival is believed to have originated from pagan rituals marking the end of winter.

The pandemic has forced the cancellation of many of Spain’s most famous fiestas, including Pamplona’s bull-running festival and Seville’s Holy Week processions.