Deep in the old city, a family in traditional Valencian dress smile on the front porch of their happy home, located in the middle of a narrow intersection. In back, a pair of punks rummage through a trash dumpster while a third, Walkman headphones in place over his scarlet Mohawk, kicks back in bed on a balcony 10 feet above the street.
Across town, a sign next to a cannon in the street points to the figure of a "human cannonball" splattered against the second-story wall of an apartment building.
A couple of blocks away, two French soldiers who have stepped into 3-D life right out of Goya's masterpiece The Third of May take aim at the Spaniards lined up against the wall and fire a volley of . . . oranges!
Sorry, no hallucinogens involved or needed here -- it's all part of Valencia's annual Fiesta de Las Fallas, when, from March 12 to 19, the third largest city in Spain stages its own distinctive version of March Madness. All these images are fallas, satiric effigies made of wood or plastic -- some towering 60 to 70 feet above street level -- which, for the last four days of the festival, turn the streets and plazas of Valencia into a surrealistic, psychedelic Disneyland-on- parade swirl of Felliniesque images.
The word falla (think of the Ohio Players singing "Fire" for the pronunciation) means "torch," and fire is the ultimate fate of the fallas. Round 'bout the midnight hours of March 19 to 20, the fallas -- 380 of 'em in '98 -- are put to the torch in the street where they stand.
The festival may not match the sensual abandon of Mardi Gras or Carnaval, but it's hard to beat the visual spectacle of wandering through a city full of richly detailed and vividly colored monuments of disposable art. The atmosphere becomes so surreal that even the chains of plastic buckets that serve as four-story chutes for sending trash to dumpsters at street level begin to look like fallas.
BEFORE EVOLVING INTO A KIND OF guerrilla street theater in the mid-1800s, Las Fallas had roots in the city's renowned craftsmen burning their scrap wood to celebrate the coming of spring. Initially reviled as "tasteless" by the upper classes and actively opposed by the city government, the festival was being actively promoted as a tourist attraction by 1930. The Franco dictatorship transformed the event by introducing formal pageantry that paid homage to regional traditions, and shifted the aesthetic emphasis to formal European art values. The battles between tradition and satire, classical culture and this-here-modern-world remain recurring themes.
But neither the history nor the role of the neighborhood groups that form the backbone of Las Fallas rivals the raucous street-carnival aspects of this bop-till-you-drop festival, where there are fireworks every afternoon at 2 p.m., the rhythmic noise of the explosions building to an orgasmic climax. The women wearing the silk fallera dresses and gold hair combs with circular hair attachments around their ears all look like Mediterranean ancestors of Princess Leia from Star Wars. Turning a corner in the labyrinthine street maze of the old Carmen district after a night of barhopping can bring you to an intersection commandeered for an open-air disco pumping out high-volume techno . . . at 6 a.m.
The final night is a mad dash from falla to falla, through crowded streets filled with piles of gray ash and smoldering embers. A thick, smoky haze flavored by the pungent aroma of gunpowder hangs in the air, and the night sky periodically lights up with flashes from the fireworks that signal the imminent immolation of a falla. A sideways look down an alley finds one enveloped in a circular bouffant swirl like flame-colored cotton candy; a quick, over-the-shoulder look down another street reveals the fireball of another engulfed falla behind an illuminated street sign reading, "Happy Festivals."
There is something undeniably primordial about watching from a distance as the giant "clone" falla, surrounded on all sides by five-story buildings, burns until its superstructure spectacularly collapses to the pavement. It's even more jarring to watch close-up as the figures in a smaller falla are consumed by the flames, the grotesque faces gradually transformed into pain-racked gargoyles that bring Edvard Munch's The Scream to mind.
THE PARTY CONTINUES IN THE JAM-packed bars of the Carmen until the early morning, even as sanitation trucks carrying the charred remnants of the fallas rumble through the narrow cobblestone streets at 5 a.m. By the next morning, the streets will be cleared of all traces of debris, and the spectators who swell the city's population from 750,000 to nearly 3 million people will have faded away like magic in the night. And the people of Valencia will begin the yearlong process of preparing for the next edition of Las Fallas.