Festival Les Falles: a mirror of Valencia

Jorge Guarro
Jorge Guarro

If the eyes are the mirror to the soul, the festival of Les Falles could easily be considered the mirror to Valencia’s soul. Recently included in the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Valencia’s world-famous festival tackles this year’s celebration with batted breath, aware that it will be very much in the public eye all over the world. This is largely thanks to people like Jorge Guarro, a person so profoundly in love with his city and Les Falles, that he worked tirelessly for years to give it the recognition it deserves. Brussels Express sat down with Jorge Guarro, coordinator of the technical group of writers of the candidacy of Les Falles for its declaration as Intangible World Heritage by the UNESCO. 

Dates:  from March 15 until March 19, 2017.

Can you tell us about the history and origins of Les Falles?

It is really difficult to date exactly when the Falles Festival started to be celebrate as we know it now. There are stories or legends that say that in ancient times people celebrate the coming of the spring or summer by lighting bonfires. However, the written documents we have dates back to the 18th century and from them we can say that the fiesta has lot of similarities as how we celebrate it nowadays.  The origin is completely linked to a social group related to the different neighborhoods of Valencia; quite different of the mostly widespread romantical theory of being a festival related to the carpenters’ guild.

les falles trumpLes Falles, Valencia’s world-famous festival of art, fire, and music is, since December 2016, part of UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. What does this recognition mean to the city and the region of Valencia?

The UNESCO recognition has had a big effect on the Valencian people and especially to the falles members. First and foremost, the inscription of the Falles Festival in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has helped boost our self-esteem. Moreover, the recognition will make the city of Valencia and the Falles Festival much more visible and well-known mainly among different circles of culture and cultural events lovers. As a result of the international recognition of the Falles Festival there will be an increase in the number of people interested in the festivities.

When did you submit the festival for UNESCO recognition, and who were the main backers of this initiative?

The idea that the Falles could be declared Cultural World Heritage was first launched in January 2003 by the rector of the Polytechnic University of Valencia during his speech in the Homage of the Valencia Falles Queen for that year. It was not till 2009 when the Falla owned by the Polytechnic University took up the torch and started to follow the idea of preparing the way to get the inscription of the festival in the UNESCO’s Representative List of World Heritage. After several meetings in the headquarters of the Valencia Falles Festival Organizing Committee, the consent of the City Hall officials and the 380 Falles presidents approval, the long journey started.

How would you describe the journey between the initial contact with the UN and the final seal of approval in Addis Ababa two months ago?

As a famous song of British group The Beatles says, it has been a really long and winding road. From the end of 2009, when we started working on the UNESCO file, till November 2016, when the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage that took place in Addis Ababa approved the inscription of Les Falles, lots of ups and downs and delays in the stablished procedure to follow occurred..

The final file was presented by the Festivals and Folk Culture Counsellor of the Valencia City government to the Annual Meeting of the Council of Spanish Historical Heritage celebrated in Tarragona in March 2012. The candidacy of the Valencian Falles Festival was approved and elected by the Council to be the one who present Spain to the UNESCO for being approved in November 2013. Lots of changes happened to the procedures and finally with 3 years of delay the Falles festival was approved and inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Les Falles is a major tourist attraction, and yet it has stayed relatively unknown to tourists outside of Spain. What would you say is the most defining element of the festival?

Valencian people and specially the falleros always boast of their festival saying proudly that the Falles Festival is the best festival in the world and have the idea that everyone knows it, which is not true. Actually, the reality is quite another and as you said the Falles is one of the less known festivals amongst the big ones in Europe.

Valencians are fans of the Falles Festival because it is a festivity inherited from our ancestors which reflects universal values that must be. We love the values of citizen participation, sociability, the popularity and spontaneity, multiculturalism and social integration, the intergenerational transmission of technical knowledge, the intergenerational coexistence, etc. All those values come true in the Valencia Falles Festival. The Falles Festival did a lot in the maintenance and survival of our own language, the Valencian. Thanks to the Falles Festival, with its own satirical literature and unique publications that went on existing even though during Franco’s dictatorship when the use of Valencian language was officially prohibited. Traditional craftsmanship professions involved in the Festival, whose knowledge are transmitted from generation to generation in the workshops through the master-apprentice relationship. Tabal i dolçaina traditional music and the skills of how to play these typical musical instruments are transmitted across generations within the falles groups headquarters. The Falles Festival also involves other skills such as dance, theater, traditional sports, rituals and festive events, knowledge about traditional clothing, etc.

Some 1.5 million people attended the 2016 edition. This had an enormous economic impact on the city. What would you say are Les Falles most lasting  benefits in terms of culture, legacy and social integration?

The Falles Festival is probably considered the biggest outdoor ephemeral art exhibition in the world. Art and all kind of cultural activities are organized all over the year by the fallas groups.

Also Valencia is considered to have one of the more efficient social integration system for newcomers to the city. The importance of the huge social network formed by the fallas groups as well as all the social, solidarity, cultural, sportive or just leisure activities organized by them is the most effective way to help foreigners or newcomers to the city to integrate within the neighbourhood society.

falles VLC

When is Les Falles held?

March is the month when the falles are set in the streets of Valencia. The falles should be completely finished at 8 o’clock of March 16th and will remain for a public exhibition for 4 days until midnight of the 20th

However the fiesta happens all around the year. Falleros gather in the casals, the headquartes of the different groups, and there during the whole year lots of varied activities are done. From traditional music or traditional dancing classes, to sporting activities, from charity actions to theatre playing, from children poetry recitation classes to cultural or gastronomical excursions.

And last question: After a year of hard work building Les Falles, why do you burn them?

It is not a matter of why we burn Les Falles or why they are burnt every 19th of March. The Falles, from their origin, let’s say from the very beginning, even before the first idea in the fallas artist’s mind appear, even prior to start drawing on a paper the final burning is present. In the Valencian people collective unconscious fire is always present and everyone will answer the same, we burn the Falles because they were born to be burnt. That’s the end of thiskind of ephemeral art.