A falla, of a girl with pigtails and dressed as a sailor, is burned during this year’s cremà

Studio: The “Fallas” of Valencia

The port city’s festival of fire and light is a sight to behold

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At the heart of Valencia’s March feria are the “fallas”: fantastical painted dioramas, made of wood and papier-mâché, standing as high as houses and depicting allegorical themes. Hundreds of guilds, representing different districts of the town, spend all year labouring over them. For a week, they are displayed on street corners, rated and judged. 

Then, on the night of 19 March, to mark the feast of St Joseph — the ultimate carpenter — they are put to the torch (the cremà). As the effigies turn to ash, Valencians are reminded of the grimmest of truths: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

On the last night, townspeople march as horned devils

One of the hundreds of fallas — this one commemorating famous artists

Valencia’s bullfights are integral to the festival of the fallas, and they, too, are based — as perhaps all great art is — on a sense of loss and melancholy. The drama in the arena is essentially a tragedy. But, unlike the fallas, it is also redemptive. When a great bull sinks to the sands, still lunging as the blade reaches its heart, a sense of purification, of catharsis, spreads through the stands. No other Spanish feria matches what is happening in the ring so wistfully to what is happening outside it.

Of course, you need to be primed to watch the bullfight as a tragedy. If you go expecting only a gruesome spectacle, then that it what you will see. The same is true of what is going on in the surrounding streets. You need to look with open eyes.

Valencians mark the week with numerous ceremonies. Members of the guilds parade in modified eighteenth-century dress, men in knee-breeches, women in brocaded dresses whose skirts flare out like those of Velázquez’s meninas. Every day, the main square hosts a series of body-shaking explosions known as the mascletà. A vast statue of the Virgin is bedecked with flowers. On the last night, townspeople march as horned devils, spraying light from industrial-strength sparklers.

A creature seen during the Parade of Fire (Cavalcada del Foc) in Valencia. This is the prelude to the night of the burning of the fallas

To those of a sardonic disposition, these traditions can seem childlike. Some of my Protestant friends find them hilariously kitsch. But that is because they are not looking with open eyes. In the ear-splitting thunder of the mascletà, in the colourful riot of the Virgin’s flowers, in the pyromaniac frenzy of the parades, there is a determination to make our moment count — to rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A man with bull horns holds fireworks during the Parade of Fire

Talking of light, the main drawback is that Valencia’s feria takes place too early in the year. As the old saying goes, “el sol es el mejor torero”. Valencia’s final corrida was rained off and the event that preceded it, horseback bullfighting known as rejoneo, ended in conditions that recalled King Lear Act III, Scene 2. The previous evening’s did go ahead, but with wind that made artistry almost impossible. Wind is the bullfighter’s worst enemy — a sudden gust can pull the cloth onto his body, and the bull’s charge with it. 

The first matador, Diego Urdiales, is a consummate professional, capable of extraordinary deeds in front of even the most unpredictable breeds. That night, he stayed in the most sheltered part of the ring; yet, even so, was caught from behind when, as he adjusted his cloth, a sudden movement caught the animal’s eye.

A fireman spraying water on a burning falla

The second, José Mari Manzanares, son of a famous father whom he has comprehensively surpassed, is a master swordsman, who has single-handedly restored the art of killing recibiendo. Instead of going in to kill over the horns, he holds his blade still and incites the bull to impale itself upon it. This bravest and loveliest way to kill was already going out of fashion by the 1920s. But Manzanares has made it such an elemental part of his routine that ambitious youngsters now copy him. That night, though, the Alicantino’s wrist failed him. Even in the lee of the wind, he could not get his bulls to move.

The youngest of the three was the Peruvian sensation Andrés Roca Rey (see The Critic, April 2021), who planted himself in the centre of the ring, far from help, in the howling gale. He worked as calmly as if there had been no breeze, passing one of his bulls eight times without rising from his knees and later taking it 360 degrees around himself without shifting his feet, a gorgeous pass known as a “circular”. There was, in Roca Ray’s casual courage, something that recalled Dylan Thomas’s line about “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight”.

Several falleras walk during the floral offering to the Virgen de los Desamparados

In today’s plazas, we hear the last echoes of the rites of Mithras, the primordial bull-killer who was also associated with the sun. His worshippers were widespread across Roman Hispania, and their practices inflected early Christianity. They held sacred the day of the sun — Sunday — at a time when most Christians still observed the Jewish Sabbath. 

They turned the slaying of the bull — the so-called tauroctony — into a belief that a single sacrifice had redeemed mankind. Carl Jung became obsessed with Mithras’s role as “sacrificer and sacrifice” — an obsession that ended his friendship with Freud and so, as Jung saw it, caused him to slay his own bull.

Valencia’s handsome, curiously under-visited bullring

Now, again, a festival of fire and light is combined with ritual bull-slaughter. I don’t mean to suggest that there is any conscious paganism: most Valencians would be nonplussed at the idea that their fiesta was anything other than straightforwardly Catholic. But, deep down, they know that the drama in the ring brightens their humanity, even as darkness falls. And that is what keeps the rest of us coming back.

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