On the last Wednesday in August each year , the Spanish town of Buñol finds itself under siege; doors and windows are barricaded as thousands of people descend on the sleepy town ready for a war in which everyone and no one will win.
After just an hour of fighting the streets will flow crimson … and the smell of tomato juice will fill the air.
La Tomatina—the world’s biggest food fight—has been held in the Valencian town of Buñol since the mid 1940’s, although no one is completely sure on how the event began; some believe it originated as a food fight among friends, a class war or a volley of tomatoes thrown by bystanders at a carnival parade while others think it was a practical joke on a bad musician, the anarchic aftermath of an accidental lorry spillage or that disgruntled townspeople attacked city councilmen with tomatoes during a town celebration.
However it started, it was clearly enjoyable because the food fight was repeated the following year and so on until it was briefly banned by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco due to its lack of religious significance before undergoing a resurgence following his demise in the 1970s.
These days the week-long festival features music, parades, dancing, and fireworks and on the night before the tomato fight, participants of the festival compete in a paella cooking contest.
Five years ago I was lucky enough to be in the sea of more than 30,000 people who had squashed onto the Plaza del Pueblo ready for the food fight of our lives.
Although I didn’t have a specific ‘bucket list’ when I moved to London, there were a number of festivals or events I wanted to attend including Anzac Day in Gallipoli, Running of the Bulls, Skiing in the French Alps, a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and La Tomatina.
Having already ticked the other items off my travel list, I was pretty excited when mum called with the news that her and Dad would pay for my trip to Valencia, as long as I covered the spending money.
Naturally, I immediately began saving (ie. went to buy new summer clothes to take on my holiday) and keen to make the most of the trip and have a true ‘mini break’, I added a few extra days on to the end.
After surviving the Running of the Bulls (and not because of any encounter with the bulls), I knew that the Spanish loved their festivals and that when push invariably comes to shove they’ll force their way into the party arena, no matter how packed it already is.
Thankfully, the crowd at La Tomatina seemed a bit more chilled and by 10am, thousands of ‘Fanatics’ as well as other tourists and locals had poured into the centre of Buñol and, armed with plastic cups filled with sangria, we made our way down to the street to wait for the unveiling of the ham.
What’s a ham got to do with it, you ask? I have absolutely no idea except to say that the festival doesn’t begin until someone has climbed to the top of a two-story high, greased-up wooden pole to reach the coveted ham at the top.
I myself wouldn’t really like to eat a ham that’s been sitting on top of a pole in full sun for more than an hour, but we cheered in anticipation as guys in board shorts struggled to climb over one another in order to reach the prized piece of pig.
After much wrestling and sliding, someone eventually reached the chunk of meat and the firing of a cannon, along with the rumbling of the first of the lorries, signalled the start of the battle. And then we waited and waited as the convoy of trucks carrying the tomatoes to the square struggled to find a way through the revellers eager to start throwing their fruity ammunition.
Having lost my group of friends while the ham was still on the greasy pole, and being slightly wary of being caught in another group of crazy Spaniards, I made my way towards the open end of the street and bunkered down with another group of Aussies, just in time for the tomato-laden dump trucks to begin their slow roll through the streets.
Chaos reigned for the next hour and laughter, squealing and yelling rang out as thousands of people grabbed for the tomatoes as they were tipped off the back of each truck by a team of locals. The sheer volume of people meant that not only was it hard to find space to bend over to scoop up more tomatoes, but the easiest target was often someone else’s head—which could explain why protective goggles are recommended!
One of the rules of La Tomatina is that all tomatoes need to be crushed in your hand before they are thrown to minimise the chance of injury and, thankfully, most people made sure to squeeze before throwing.
It’s also forbidden to tear someone else’s clothing, this tends to be ignored and ripping shirts is fair game—whether on a man or a woman—which is why I was wearing a pair of Speedos under my singlet and shorts. I figured if someone ripped my top layer, I could at least prance through the streets in my swimmers, goggles and shoes (although I’m pretty damn happy that didn’t happen!).
Before long I was caught in a stand-off with one a local teenage boy and with tomatoes in hand, we were both ready to fire.
As his tomato caught me in the chest, it was clear he won the battle but the war was far from over with more than 100 metric tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes thrown, chucked, pegged, lobbed and pelted at everyone, by everyone.
Exactly one hour after the fight began, the tomato fight came to an end and everyone was left standing in ankle-deep tomato slush. It was squishy, cold and pretty damn pungent. Like being bathed in a bloody Mary.
Within minutes, the clean-up was underway as locals who had been safely tucked away in the homes emerged armed with buckets, hoses and even inflatable pools ready to wash down the revellers and the streets.
Because I’d positioned myself towards the far end of the street (further away from the greasy pole) for the fight, we weren’t as crammed in as those who were down near the greasy pole, but I walked down there after everything had finished and it was still pretty packed and I found myself being pushed and pulled in all directions, even losing my footing at one stage only to again be saved by another Aussie!
After being hosed down by the locals a few times, we chilled out in Buñol for the afternoon before heading back to the campsite to hit the showers and although I’d managed to get all the lumps and chunks off me before I getting back on the bus, I still found squashed tomato pieces throughout my swimmers – including a tasty little morsel in my bellybutton … saucy!
While food fights aren’t for everyone, I had an absolute ball and although I wouldn’t have expected to be keen to eat tomatoes after being coated from head to toe in tomato juice, I still found myself ordering a tomato and soft cheese plate at tapas the following night.
I booked my La Tomatina trip, which included a return coach ride to Buñol for the event, through the Fanatics. Our beach campsite was located just outside Valencia and was just a short walk from the local (normal and nudist) beach … and I tell you, you can’t truly appreciate a country until you’ve seen their senior citizens playing beach badminton in the nude!