November 17, 2018
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Spain
Fiery Night

Valencia honors St. Joseph — or maybe just pyromaniacs — during this wild annual ritual

Fires are burning all over the city. I cannot glimpse an intersection that is not ablaze.

Bombaderos, firefighters dressed in black, stand by with tanker trucks and portable pumps. I inhale the acrid smoke with gusto, awakening the latent pyromaniac within.

My heart races as I head down Calle De Trafalgar. An elaborate archway of carnival lights, designed like the onion tops of a Russian Orthodox church, frames the narrow entrance to Falla Parotet.  The ninot at the end is smaller than most, but has not yet been lit. I push my way assertively through the crowd.

I want a front row seat. I want to feel the burn.

I am at La Nit del Foc, the night of fire, in Valencia. Called Las Fallas, it’s the culmination of a five-day festival in honor of St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, and celebrated here each March 15th. Huge wood, plastic and papier mache effigies called ninots are “sacrificed” at the end of the week, in a blaze called crema.

The tradition may have started as early as the Middle Ages, when carpenters habitually burned the poles they used to support their lamps each spring. At some point the poles were jokingly decked out as funny figurines. Now neighborhoods compete to see who can build the biggest, gaudiest, weirdest ninot.

Burnt in Effigy

An unseen hand tosses a burning carton at a 20-foot high purple-clad mermaid. The pack cheers and jostles forward. In minutes, the statue is in flames.

My face feels sunburnt, as I stare into the fluorescent orange serpent. It engulfs the mermaid’s blonde hair, and soon we see her timber skeleton. She bends forward, then crashes to the ground. The nearest spectators flinch from the sparking embers. The collapse sends a foehn wind rushing past me down the alleyways.

The crowd stays late, watching as the fire withers into embers. The dark of the night sneaks in and covers what was a roaring inferno.

I’d arrived in Valencia the day before, hoping to get to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento by 2 p.m., when the daily mascletas, the big firecrackers, are lit. At the Plaza de Toros de Valencia, the bullring, I join the mob. It carries me along, shoulder-to-shoulder, like a molecule in the ocean. I hear the pops, then the echo and rumble of the mascletas. I am still six blocks away.

Hundreds detonate at once. Then, silence.

I am too late.

As I dive further off the plaza, I discover the casals faller, the neighborhoods. Each quarter creates its own paper mache effigy. Some figures are traditional, some irreverent, and others politically satirical.

In one, a mutt mounts a coiffed poodle from behind, in a strict interpretation of screw-the-pooch. His eyes are crossed and his tongue hangs out, in an obvious grimace of pleasure.

Nearby, a slight bearded fellow with parsnip pointed nose and goatee is marrying a chubby older fellow with rouged cheeks.

Grids of twine crisscross the streets, and I realize that each neighborhood is hosting its own mascleta celebration. The secret to penetrating Las Fallas is leaving the main plaza, and probing these enclaves.

I return here early the next day. The Caballeros FX (the pyrotechnicians) deftly handle little explosive sausages, scissors in their hands and brown paper fuses in their mouth. They secure the colorfully-wrapped mascletas to the grid. These clotheslines drape across the streets, with barely enough room for cars and pedestrians to glide comfortably beneath.

Boys no older than eight kneel purposefully next to a car’s bumper, arranging fireworks of their own. They nervously use a piece of smoldering rope to spark the fuse. Then they take a few steps back; cover their ears.

On another corner, a lit cone erupts in a shower of sparks, while a teenaged girl stands nearby, nonchalantly sending a text message. A toddler in pink plays not six feet away.

The steeple bell strikes 2, and in seconds the ritual begins.

Loud as cannons, these are no ordinary firecrackers. Hundreds explode at once. I feel the percussion in my chest. The throng backs away - but I move closer. The pungent smoke fills the constricted streets and alleyways. The pyrotechnicians are just silhouettes against their ignition flares, as they walk from fuse to fuse.  I can no longer see the next intersection.

I’m inside an erupting volcano.

The skyline lights up in crimson bursts for over an hour, as the day yields to dust. The smoke eventually muddles everything to a pastel glow.

The city parties long after the echo of the last titanium report fades.

The next day I amble to the beach. The smoke has cleared, but in the air there lingers the sulphurous scent of gunpowder.

Visiting Valencia During the Night of Fire

Visiting Valencia Anytime

One comment about “Fiery Night”

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