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Muixeranga in Algemesi

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July 2008 Email this to a friend
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Revel Without a Cause
For Valencians, fiesta runs in the blood
By Frank Laterreur

A constant schedule of fiestas is maybe the most striking characteristic of Valencia -- both the city and the Comunitat (the region). Valencia, you might say, is a culture of the fiesta. These are scattered through the year, both in town and countryside, most in veneration of the Virgin Mary or St. James (patron of Valencia) or St. John. These are no spectacles put on for tourists -- at many, one sees almost no outsiders. These are genuine local traditions, revered and enjoyed by the people themselves. Youths, strikingly, are not sitting out the festivities at home lost in MySpace or toying with their Game Boys -- they're are fully involved in the parades, the bands, the mummery. Fiestas are also when Valencians open up just a little -- they're the only time I've met strangers in cafes or the streets. And there's plenty to see in terms of male beauty and male bonding.

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Acrobatic wonders - One of the most remarkable of the fiesta traditions is the muixeranga of Algemes’, a small town about 45 minutes from Valencia by train. The muixeranga ("moo-ee-sheh-rang-gah") are "human towers" -- incredibly high living pyramids of men and boys standing on each other's shoulders, with the youngest at the top -- even babies sometimes. Always there's a boy of ten or so standing, arms outstretched, as the Christ figure at the very pinnacle, who becomes center of attention as the living tower ambles through the streets in front of a church. As well as the daring and dexterity, the physical closeness and intimacy is wonderful to see. A recent innovation is one set of towers that includes women and girls -- something introduced by Socialists about a decade ago. The muixeranga is usually during the first week of September.

Of wine and song -- Other fiestas worth seeing are the bacchanal of Requena (Fiesta de la Vendimia), held during the grape harvest and also at the end of August. It's a short train ride up mountains and through tunnels, just northeast of the city. At every corner in Requena's old town there are booths with wine. As locals of all ages parade around the streets, joining in ancient dances and songs, the wine gets shot down the throats of revelers from glass carafes.

Facing the bulls -- Even the smallest pueblo in the Communitat Valencia has some form of bull-running festival -- which means plenty of bare-chested young men. In several small towns on the beach, there's bull-running throughout the summer.

Crusading for fiesta -- Alcoy, a largish town, situated over deep river gorges amidst high mountains, is half-way between Valencia and Alicante. It hosts a Moors and Christians festival for three days in mid-April, with remarkable pageants, including mock jousting, with "Moors" brandishing scimitars and "Christians" their long swords. There's a constant din of fireworks -- or has war really broken out? Many Valencian towns and villages have such Moors and Christians festivals, including some where an effigy of the prophet Mohammed is burned on a pyre. (Al Qaeda has evidently not got wind of this....)

Fiestas phallic, fiery, saintly, and tomatoey -- Alicante itself, as well as virtually every community near it (including Altea and Benidorm) have festivals dedicated to St. John before and after June 23 (Alicante has a gay scene of its own, in El Barrio, its old city.) The Altea festival is notable for its phallic worship and bonfire of tall poplar trees, surrounded by dancing youths. Elx, near Alicante in the southern part of the comunitat, hosts in mid-August a series of mystery plays, dating from the Middle Ages.

The variety of fiestas is almost endless. There's the Tomatina of Bu–ol, where everyone present is pelted with squishy tomatoes for several hours before noon on the final Wednesday in August. At the fire festival in tiny Masamagrell, revelers ride flaming bicycles and twirl fire batons -- onlooking at you own risk. The Tomatina, it should be noted, is the most "touristified" of the festivals; its fame spread across European and American campuses. Jocks from all over come to join in the messy (and often bare-chested) fun.

The king of all Valencia festivals is Las Fallas, from March 1 until March 19. There are nearly 20 days of daily mascleta (fireworks) that are surely the loudest on earth. In addition to the official mascleta at 2 p.m. daily in the Ajuntament, there are fireworks in every park and neighborhood -- going on until about 4 a.m, and starting over at 8 a.m., when dour matrons lead equally serious small boys, who saunter down the streets tossing firecrackers into doorways to drive off night-time demons and to begin the day's cycle of blasts over again. Parties in the barrios go on also until about 4 a.m., with loud folk music, dancing, and feasting on paellas cooked over fires in the streets.

Las Fallas features elaborate paper-maché figures, always satiric and often erotic. These incredible constructions are designed by artists commissioned by neighborhood groups, and some cost hundreds of thousands of euros. They stand at least two, sometimes four stories high, closing streets and neighborhood squares to traffic for the duration and sometimes nestled in such narrow streets that fire hoses have to be used to keep nearby houses from being consumed at the time of La Cremà, the burning.

This year's central Fallas figures across from the City Hall were, as usual, a lot tamer than those in the neighborhoods; this year an Aladdin-and-genie theme. But a few streets away there were nudes and figures in sexy poses.

Bare-breasted woman and male frontal nudity appear to scandalize no-one. In one cavemen tableau, a little girl pointed to a boy with his hand groping at something poking out from his loincloth, with two observing women figures shown laughing. In El Carmen there was a cascade of nude merpeople, with no fig leaves.

There are over 400 of these Fallas figures scattered in neighborhood streets in and around the city. At the festival's finale, a select few are preserved at a city museum. The rest are burned in the streets from one end of the city to the other, with choking smoke filling the air. The Pakistani who operates the internet shop where I am typing this article commented to me, about halfway through the 19 days, "This is really more fiesta than necessary."

Yet another big Valencian holiday is October 9, celebrating the entry of King Jaime I into the city after the Moorish surrender in 1238. Parties and a six- or seven-hour parade of thousands wend through the downtown, with "Christians" and "Moors" in amazing finery, pyrotechnics (nothing's celebrated here without), stiltwalkers, galloping horsemen, and floats from every neighborhood and organization.

It's amazing there's anyone left to watch, so numerous are the participants.

see the next sections of our coverage of Valencia...
-- Not Always a Gay Time
-- A Paella for Ya
-- Beyond Quiet Matrimony
and the main article... -- Discovering Valencia

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