“A traveller without observation is
a bird without wings.”
– Moslih Eddin Saadi
Periodic floods through the heart of the old city have plagued many ancient cities. Some city planners are outwitting Mother Nature in the way that Valencia has done, diverting the river to a safe distance. The former riverbed has been refitted with numerous parks, ponds and public buildings which create a wonderful green “stream” through the heart of Spain’s third largest city.
The most famous and striking part of the Jardines del Turia (named for the displaced river) is the newly constructed City of Arts and Sciences. Valencia’s own Santiago Calatrava joined with Felix Candela of Madrid to design the park and buildings. You have probably seen pictures of some of the buildings. The Hemisferic Planetarium and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Opera House are as impressive in person as they look in all the pictures. As my husband and I walked through the collection of amazing buildings, I kept asking myself, “How did they DO that?” The group of buildings certainly puts Valencia on the map as an architectural destination and will serve the city well attracting visitors.
In a small, square-ish (non-Calatrava) building across the street from the new park is the museum explaining the uniquely Valencian celebration called Las Fallas. This tradition began in the mid-1800s, in preparation for Saint Joseph’s day (patron saint of Valencia, March 19). People would construct large puppets depicting public figures or stereotypes deserving ridicule. The figures grew even larger over the years, were set on stages to make free-standing scenes, and became a source of competition between neighborhoods or civic groups.
To this point, it sounds a bit like a Rose Bowl Parade, doesn’t it? The difference is that rather than putting the ‘floats’ in hangars after the parade for later appreciation, these figures (called Fallas) are burned in the streets on the night of March 18! This must be some wild event to witness. The Fallas probably stand three stories high, on platforms set in the city streets. True, the surrounding buildings are mostly stone and brick, and the Fallas are not set up in the narrowest streets, but gee whiz!
Originally the more delicate parts of each display (faces and hands of people depicted) were made from wax, and later papier-mâché. Artists’ current preference is for plastic but it is more noxious to burn than the earlier media, so they can only use it for a small portion of the whole.
What is in the museum if the Fallas are burned at the end of each celebration? Each year a popular ballot selects a favorite construction. That designing artist extracts a group of figures from the winning Falla and these characters are “pardoned” from the usual destruction. This smaller display is like an icon of the larger construction. Continuing the Rose Bowl metaphor, it would be like taking the mice sewing Cinderella’s dress from the Disney float which told the entire story. These pardoned figures are called Ninot; the museum displays the Ninot which have been saved from fire for the last several decades.
The figures on display are about three-fourths life size and show amazing skill in caricature. Many figures are like three dimensional cartoons, poking fun at issues of their time. Occasionally the figures are well-known politicians or actors, but more often they are everyday people dealing with a problem which viewers must have felt sympathized with. The collected Ninot are a charming window into the sympathies of the city. Only in Valencia would you see this collection!
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
16 May 2013