Las Fallas: Valencia’s fire festival granted Unesco heritage status

Valencia’s colourful, noisy and explosive annual celebration of Las Fallas has been inscribed on Unesco’s ‘intangible heritage’ list.

Las Fallas: Valencia’s fire festival granted Unesco heritage status
One of the ninots representing Mariano Rajoy in 2015. Photo: Jose Jordan / AFP

The festival was granted its new status at a Unesco meeting in Addis Ababa this week alongside 15 other cultural traditions from around the world, including an ancient martial art from Egypt, breadmaking in Iran and a wine-growers festival in Switzerland.

Las Fallas is celebrated each March in Spain’s eastern city of Valencia with a week-long fiesta honoring Saint Joseph, the patron saint of the carpenter's guild.

GALLERY: Valencia's spectacular festival of fire

The festival, which dates back to the 18th century,  is marked with the construction of hundreds of giant wooden, cardboard, or papier-mâché sculptures, known as ninots.

These figurines are often satirical in nature and send up the politicians of the day.

Each afternoon during the fiesta, at 2pm, an ear-shattering display of colourful firecrackers are set off followed by parades and traditional dancing in the street

On the final day, huge bonfires are built and the ninots are burned while thecity sky is filled with fireworks.

The 2016 fiesta was one of the biggest on record with an estimated 1.5million attending celebrations in Spain’s third largest city.

Spain already boasts several other activities included on Unesco's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, including flamenco and the human towers of Catalonia.

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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.