This is the sign which Valencian children (and not a few grown-ups) have been waiting for. This is the sign which says that Fallas is really about to begin.
El día 2 de marzo se venden petardos. (On the 2nd March, we sell petardos). Which in plain language means, "Light the blue touch-paper..."
|No matter how hard you try, you can't avoid the noise of Las Fallas.|
Petardos are what I would've called (in my day) 'bangers'. Small fireworks which produce noise, but no light. And from the moment signs like these appear, all over the Valencian community, the blue touch-paper of another Fallas has been well and truly lit. As I lay in my bed last Saturday morning (the 3rd) I knew it had begun. The snap, crackle and pop from the parque below our sixth-floor window told me it had begun. And I knew that from that moment until the early morning of the 20th, it would only get louder.
Our parque is a treasure. It has six bars surrounding it, all with chairs and tables, perfect for breakfast at the weekend, a cold drink after school, a coffee after dinner, or the latest big match on a 'BIG-SCREEN'. But during the build-up to Fallas, our parque is a magnet for the petardo-chicos, groups of boys and girls with a bag of petardos and a lighter.
Even in my sixth year here, I still shudder at the sight of a bum-bag full of (albeit small) explosives, strapped around the waist of a seven year-old. How do I know he's seven? Because I know him. I know him well. He's in my class. His father laughs as I chat to him in a nearby café and (tentatively) express a modicum of fear for the boy's 'elf'n'safety'. "Sí, es peligroso, mira!" ("Yes, it's dangerous, look!") he responds, grabbing his lad's hand to show me a couple of scorch-marks on his small thumb. The message seems to be that this is the way he'll learn all about how dangerous it can be...
And he isn't even at the bottom of the pyrotechnic ladder. At the very bottom are 'Mini-bombetas', small twists of what feel like tissue-paper, filled with god-knows-what, that don't even need a light. You just throw them on the ground and they snap with all the explosive power of an average xmas cracker. You'll see mums and dads handing them out to toddlers who are barely able to stand, let alone throw them and have any idea of where they've gone, until they crack at their heels (or underneath the family pooch).
Enough messing around with xmas crackers, let's get back to the exciting tricks to be mastered with a bag full of petardos and a lighter (mechero) or, better still, a mecha (fuse-string) smoking moodily and dangling perilously close to the bag of explosives strapped around your waist.
Here's Juanito, (video, below) under the tutelage of proud padre, mastering the art of setting off two petardos at once in the parque below our flat...
Having achieved that, he now graduates onto the more difficult trick of dropping a (lit) petardo into a plastic bottle while escaping with all his digits intact.
And finally, (almost) the coup de grâce, as he nearly blows his mate's leg off, who arrives unawares and unannounced. Once he's mastered these tricks, he's ready to join all his mates in the happy pastime of lobbing petardos near any visiting foreigners.
If it wasn't so toe-curlingly dangerous, it would be funny. I dread to imagine the scenes in Valencian A&E departments as Fallas really revs up. Of course, as you might expect, the variety of fireworks available here is pretty impressive. I once spotted something called a Trueno Megatron No.4, promising a 'detonación, muy fuerte,' (very strong detonation). I didn't find it hard to imagine how thrilling this would seem to the average seven year-old Spaniard. I wasn't allowed 'bangers' when I was a youngster, which of course didn't stop me from getting hold of a few, most Guy Fawkes nights. But I never got my hands on anything so thrillingly named as a Megatron No.4.
My bangers we always simply called 'bangers'. I do a quick google now (hunting hopefully for a Megatron 5) and discover that Spanish youngsters can get something called Truenos TNT. Truenos TNT?! Somehow, 'banger' just doesn't compete, especially when the detonación promised by a Trueno TNT is of 'gran intensidad,' which is almost certainly greater than the previously rather impressive-sounding 'muy fuerte'.
Something you won't see kids messing around with here are Valencian Tracas. These are seriously impressive 'bangers' (I use the word with shed-loads of understatement). They come in 10, 20, 30 and 50 metre lengths and are often used on special occasions like birthdays, communions, or any day during the Fallas season. You will always get a kindly warning from whoever is laying out a traca. These things are not to be messed with. There's quite a small example below, probably 'only' a 10 metre job, but enough to give you a taste...
Of course, the pièce de résistance of Spanish bangers is the Mascleta, when umpteen thousand bombetas, Megatrons (probably including a fair few No. 6s) and what seem to be half the stocks of the Spanish military are set off in a five minute extravaganza of ridiculous noise and swirling dust. I'm sure, if Spain was a nuclear power, they'd be tempted to lob one in to a Mascleta just to round the whole thing off in style. If you're into fireworks, then a Mascleta is a must. (Just once in your life will probably be enough). They're a daily event during the Fallas in Valencia, and some of the surrounding villages also host them. I'm not daft enough to subject any of my electronic recording equipment to this kind of mayhem, so if you want an idea of what it's like, try this.
Mascleta 2011 Valencia
(But don't blame me if your speakers end up looking and sounding like they've been hit by a Megatron No.7).