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Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Mascletà: A Celebration of Crowds and Noise


The faithful cram into the square every afternoon.

The Mascletà: A Celebration of Crowds and Noise

The craziest thing about Valencia’s Fallas festival, at least for this outsider, is the daily ritual of the Mascletà. This is a daytime percussion fireworks display that happens every afternoon during Fallas beginning precisely at 2 p.m. and lasting only a couple of minutes. They are held at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and every single day there are tens of thousands of people who show up to have their collective senses of hearing assaulted and they all do it with great pleasure. This is during the middle of the afternoon so there are no rockets lighting up the night sky; there’s just lots of really loud explosions. The louder the better as far as the locals are concerned. The craziest part about the Mascletà is that I have grown to love it as well. I make try to make it down to the plaza every single day for my dose of noise. You get sort of addicted to the crowds and noise like you get addicted to eating spicy foods; it hurts a little at first and then it's fun.

Valencianos joke that the Mascletà is the only thing in town that is always on time. Indeed, you can set your watch to the warning rocket that is sent up ten minutes prior to the main show. The square starts filling up more than an hour before the blast off as people jockey for the best places to hear the explosions. There is a big area in the middle of the square with a 20 foot fence around it where they set off all of the rockets. Anywhere close by is considered a valued piece of real-estate. On the most popular days there can be as many as 100,000 spectators on hand, all for a bunch of explosions that last only a five minutes.

How loud is it? Newcomers are cautioned to keep their mouths open during the explosions as this is supposed to keep your ear canals open so that you won’t burst an eardrum. I’m no ear, nose, and throat specialist but I figure it’s better to be safe than deaf so I look up at the rockets in slack-jawed marvel. I do know for a fact that the explosions are so powerful that you can feel the sound waves vibrating your clothing. It almost like getting a massage if you are standing close enough to the action. At the end of each show there is a tremendous flourish and the noise is so devastating that I can’t help but to burst out in crazed laughter every time that I go. I can’t explain it but there is something truly joyous in being completely overwhelmed by the thunderous explosions.

It all ends incredibly abruptly and there is a huge ovation from the mob. Everyone almost immediately thereafter does an about-face and goes on to do whatever it is they are going to do. For most Valencianos this is when they have their big, midday meal so getting a table in a restaurant is like being in a 100 meter dash with 100,000 hungry Spaniards.

The best thing about the Mascletà is that it adds a lot of life to an already very vibrant city. There is an electricity generated by crowds of people. Crowds aren’t in any shortage during Fallas. The whole festival is more or less predicated on the assumption that there will be tremendous crowds everywhere in Valencia during these first few weeks of March. The Mascletà is sort of the daily christening of the festival but instead of breaking a bottle of champagne they set off a few thousands pounds of explosives.

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