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Destination: Spain

Up in Smoke

An outrageous satirical street fair, climaxing in a blaze of glory

March 15, 1998|DON SNOWDEN | Snowden, who has written about pop music for the Times Calendar section, recently moved to Valencia

VALENCIA, Spain — A ponytailed Spanish mime in a traditional black fallero suit perches precariously on a bicycle seat and uses my left shoulder for balance. A young Englishman in a baseball cap zooms in with a video camera over my right side. Together, with hundreds of others jammed into a narrow alley near Valencia's central market, our eyes are glued to a 50-foot figure of Jose Maria Aznar, the neoconservative prime minister of Spain, out for a spin on his "Haley Davison" with his miniskirted biker-babe wife.

A hallucination? No, it's a falla (rhymes with "hiya"), one of the many fantastically detailed constructions of wood and plastic that lampoon Spanish politicians and mock pop culture. For four days every March, the streets and plazas of Spain's third-largest city turn into a surrealistic Disney-on-parade swirl of rude--and sometimes lewd--imagery.

Last year, early in the Fiesta de las Fallas, I had taken a particular fancy to the motorcycle caricature standing in the Plaza de Merced. Each day, I watched in amazement as more and more of these ornately designed satirical caricatures were added and swallowed up more space in the tiny square. Consumed with curiosity, I resolved to be here for the final night of the festival.

That is when, at the stroke of midnight, the fallas are set afire throughout the city. In 1997, 357 of them went up in smoke all at once.

I first came to Valencia--on the coast of the Balearic Sea, east of Madrid and south of Barcelona--four years ago when a sudden change in plans left me with a free weekend and a major city to explore. I was immediately captivated by the unguarded friendliness of the people, the vibrant night life and a comfortable ambience that managed to blend Mediterranean mellowness with high-energy urbanity.

I determined that Valencia is a city that is out of its mind in all the right ways. Though I returned for Las Fallas (The Bonfires), with a vague picture of what takes place, I wasn't prepared for its size, jaw-dropping visual spectacles and street carnival flavor. Think Brazil during Carnival, New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Pasadena's Rose Bowl Parade.

The elaborate effigies are a tradition throughout Spain, but the Valencia festival is the country's biggest celebration. It's little-known in the States, where Pamplona's Running of the Bulls is probably the best-known Spanish fair. Yet each March 12 to 19, people come to Valencia from all over Spain, Europe and Asia, swelling the city's population from half a million to 3 million, turning the city center into a 24-hour pedestrian zone.

Compact Valencia is a wonderland for urban wandering, and it only gets better during the festival, when turning a corner might bring you face to face with a giant satyr attended by punks in Mohawk hairstyles and a line of chorus girls. Or the Addams Family with The Thing perched atop Uncle Fester's bald dome. Or the Marx Brothers setting up for a jam session in a narrow alley. How can you not love a city that depicts its female mayor as a topless mermaid with protruding belly?

*

"It's the March of the Moors," my lawyer friend Lola Navarro announced as we walked through the streets a couple of nights earlier. Pounding drums signaled that something was coming our way. We ducked over to the takeout window of a corner bar to grab a cold beer.

Two dozen people, their faces painted black and green, marched into view dressed in black robes and wearing pointed shoes out of "Arabian Nights." They made mock-menacing feints with dime-store scimitars at the gawking bystanders as the band, featuring the eerie, bagpipe-like wails of Moroccan ghaitas, trailed behind. It was 3:30 a.m.

"A little Fellini-esque" Lola commented dryly. More than a little, I'd say.

The night wound down at a huge sculpture called "Na Jordana," the 1997 winner in the "Special Section" category made up of large, big-budget fallas. The caricature depicted two jolly, bearded giants in medieval armor hoisting their goblets in a toast. The scimitar, sword and fabric designs were meant to symbolize the Christians and Moors, the two mainstays of Spanish cultural heritage. Frolicking at the giants' feet were life-size figures of Spanish media personalities and celebrity couples depicted in bawdy, irreverent poses.

Meanwhile, Lola, her colleague Emilia Perez and I stuffed our faces at a huge food stand filled with enormous pans of fried squid, fried potatoes, every type of sausage imaginable, ham sandwiches stacked three high and rows of ripe red tomatoes lined up on beds of fresh green lettuce. Behind us, a carnival ride noisily whirled a few hardy youths through the air. It was now 4:30 a.m.

*

The fallas tradition began in the mid-18th century with Valencia's celebrated craftsmen. Needing light in order to work during the dark winter months, they built wooden frames from which to hang lamps. Come spring, they set the frames out in the street and burned them.

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