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City on Fire (Part 3)
From hellish hangovers to hunchback virgins – it can only be the concluding part of Craig Scott’s Fallas Trilogy.
LIKE all Spanish cities, Valencia is awash with tree-lined avenues, charming bars, and buzzing high-streets. But for me, the city’s ancient “old town”, is its non-plus-ultra.
Forget space-age museums and walloping Bioparcs - the gurning gargoyles and gothic turrets give Valencia an enchanting, fairytale-feel. Indeed, with more old-world charm than a Horace Walpole novel – nobody does Spanish tradition quite like the ‘City of Bats.’
For instance, as dusk fell around me – I got caught up in the Ofrenda de la Flores – a tribute to the town’s “Hunchback Virgin” (….no wonder she never popped her cherry!) For miles around, all you could see were “Falleras”, stunning, heavily-made-up women – in enough satin and lace to make Laurence Llewelyn Bowen wet his velvet jompers. They looked magical, like princesses from the past, who’d just hitched a ride in Bill & Ted’s time-travelling phonebox. The illusion became shattered, however, when I started to notice Marlboro packets, Amstel bottles and smartphones swaddled beneath their bouquets. Falleras indeed… more like Fag-eras!
Dead on 8pm, the band broke into a sombre ditty and a 60ft mannequin appeared on the horizon. It was the hunchback! The statue’s hands and face were frighteningly realistic, and from where I was standing – she looked like the lovechild of Gloria Estefan and Barry Manilow. The sight of the Virgin (or “Barry Estefan” – as I liked to call her) sent the crowd into a frenzy, and I nearly got trampled by stampeding Flamenco shoes. As the Virgin drew closer, however, I noticed gaps in her body – revealing a mass of wooden crates. Disappointing really, if you’re going to go to the trouble of making realistic hair and eyelashes, at least chuck a bit of cloth over the pallets.
Anyway, after an hour of dodging spike-heels and fireworks, I decided to take refuge in a nearby Irish bar. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, I’m supposed to be covering a quintessential Spanish fiesta, not getting trolleyed in a plastic, Paddy pub. But I couldn’t help it. As second-generation Irish myself (or “half-bogtrotter” as my dad would say), some of my happiest hours have been spent in these dark, wooden caverns.
After a few moments propping up the bar, the landlord informed me that a group of “chicas” had invited me over for a drink. Feeling suave and James Bond-like, I said I’d be “delighted” to join them. Although we spent a few hours necking booze together, the “craic” was minimal. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get them to understand my rare form of Español, known in some territories as “talkinbolloxio”.
Luckily, one of their friends turned up who spoke English like an Oxford professor. It transpired she was off to Sheffield University in September – to start a language course. When she asked me what the Steel City was like – I lied and said it was “nice”. After a while, she asked if I was interested in going somewhere quiet – y’know – for a bit of “one-on-one“. “But I’m married”, I spurted out – in very un-Bond-like fashion. “Relax”…. she replied. “I only want to test my English.” Crumbs, not long ago – travellers would cruise these types of taverns – in search of cheap beer – and even cheaper sex. These days, however, you’re more likely to get offered “inter-cambio” than no-strings intercourse.
I stumbled out of the drinkery at 2am – lost and inebriated. Lesser explorers would have baulked at the prospect of finding their way home from an alien city, especially post-witching-hour. But, as the saying goes: “everybody’s good at something” – and for me – it´s getting back safely after a night on the lash. Seriously, if you laced me with absinthe, and dumped me on a Polish pig farm, with nothing but a compass and packet of pork scratchings – I reckon I’d still be home for afternoon meriendas!
As I waltzed past whores and hobos, I began to realise why they say don’t tramp these streets after 10pm. After creating a makeshift shank from an Ikea pencil, stick of gum, and some rusty nail clippers, I stumbled into an unlikely oasis. It was a packed, circus tent – serving free ale from giant kegs. In the middle, stood a porky Spaniard, wearing a red-fleece and a glass eye. Obviously three-sheets-to-the wind, he was spinning around to Sash’s ‘These are Mysterious Times’. Caught in the moment, I decided to crash the party. Under strobe lighting I gave “One-Eyed-Juan” a high-five. It was euphoric!
I spent my last day in Valencia nursing the madre of all hangovers. I’d gotten so steaming at Nit de Foc (Night of Fire), I was, well… “focked”. I can’t really explain the intensity of my illness – but it was similar to the ´Cold Turkey´ scene in Trainspotting. You know, the one with slutty schoolgirls, deformed babies, and threatening Glaswegians? Still, what do you expect from a €30 hostel?
Fortunately, my condition improved and I made my way downtown – slovenly and unkempt. Slumped against a shop window, I witnessed hundreds of ninóts set alight. Watching these buggers burn was a surreal and haunting sight. As their faces melted – they looked demonic – with eyes that seemed to say: “You’re gonna regret this”. As I pondered what affect “La Cremá” was having on the ozone-layer, Miguel was wittering on about “symbols of purification” and how the bad spirits of winter had now been banished. “Sod that,” I thought, the only thing I wanted purifying was my pickled liver.
Overall, I’d liken Fallas to a three-week Bonfire Night – only with tabs of acid mixed into the treacle toffee. With flames, explosions and billowing palms – I honestly felt like I’d stepped into the blood-soaked boots of a Vietnam vet. I wouldn’t necessarily call Fallas “life-changing”, and I don’t feel compelled to climb another Aldi sign. Still, I enjoyed the experience and I’m ready to boil that sexless kettle (see part 1). So, if you see someone with a Kajagoogoo mullet – doing cartwheels down Carrefour’s cheese aisle – you’ll know it´s the “Mad Dog”… and his reclaimed mojo.Craig Scott is a former BBC journalist - currently living in the wilds of Spain. To contact him - please email: [email protected] Alternatively, you can follow him on Twitter: @mad_dog_column
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