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Spanish 'Fallas' festival postponed on virus fears

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Madrid (AFP)

Officials in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia debated Wednesday what to do with large sculptures set up on its streets for its annual "Fallas" festival after the event was postponed due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

Called "ninots", the sculptures made of wood, plaster and papier mache -- some as tall as a four-story building -- depicting fairytale figures and cartoonish effigies of politicians and celebrities are brought out into the streets of the Mediterranean city and then burned on the last day of fiesta, held every year on March 15-19.

The UNESCO recognised festival, a centuries-old tradition honouring Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, is believed to have evolved from pagan rituals marking the end of winter and usually attracts one million people to Valencia.

But late on Tuesday regional authorities decided to postpone the event to a yet to be determined date to try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus in Spain, which has recorded over 30 deaths from the disease so far making it one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe.

The problem is that many sculptures, which are made by groups of artisans over several months, have already been set up in the streets.

Valencia's mayor, Joan Ribo, proposed that the "ninots" be temporarily stored in the city's congress centre.

But the association representing the artisans who make the sculptures advised its members not to take down works already in the streets until it was clear who would be responsible for the cost of this operation which it estimated would be "high".

The "ninots" are made by 380 associations of locals who this year spent an estimated 7.8 million euros ($8.8 million) on the works.

In the square in front of city hall locals placed a large face mask on a giant sculpture of a woman's face with her eyes closed.

The Valencia city councillor in charge of culture, Carlos Galiana, said the only solution was to burn the works as is done every year.

"We just have to decide when and how," he added.

The sculptures are traditionally exhibited beforehand for the public to vote on their favourite with two saved from the bonfire on the last day of the festival and stored in a permanent collection at the local Fallas museum.

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