La Tomatina: The Ultimate Food Fight

Before any of you think ‘what a waste of tons of perfectly good tomatoes’ let me tell you that these pomodoros would ruin your marinara, while some were a little sweet, they all seemed to have a musty odour to them, that I won’t soon forget.  About 150,000 tomatoes are trucked in from a nearby town because they are poor quality and therefore cheap.

And if you think La Tomatina was all fun and games, the first words out of our tour guide’s mouth were ‘I don’t want to scare anybody, but…’  and then she proceeded to run down a litany of things to do, things not to do and things that can go wrong at this tomato throwing festival.  “Don’t stand up against the buildings, you’ll get crushed by the crowd when the trucks come through; Go past the Ham (more on that later), it seems a lot of people get to the street and stop but it’s near the end of the route so the crowd becomes so thick you can’t move even to pick up tomatoes, plus since it’s at the end of the street, most of the tomatoes will be dumped before this point.

Valencia is famous for La Tomatina, the tomato throwing festival, but it is actually held in the town of Bunol, about 40 minutes away. Bunol has a population of about 9 thousand but between 40-50 thousand tourists descend on the town every year at the end of August for La Tomatina. It only started in the mid 1940’s but no one is quite sure what sparked it. Some believe it was just a group of young men who started throwing tomatoes at each other, others say it was directed at a bad street musician, but the most common belief is that townspeople began throwing tomatoes at local politicians during a festival. The next year another tomato fight broke out at the same time but city officials tried to block it. When they realized they couldn’t stop it they decided to make it an official festival.

It was a last minute decision for me to attend La Tomatina. While I thought it looked like fun I wasn’t sure I wanted to be pelted with tomatoes by a bunch of strangers. I could just imagine the burn as tomato juice gets in your eyes, ears and every other orifice, not to mention any cuts you might have. But when a fellow travel blogger,  BAbackpacker, encouraged me to do it, I made the decision to attend… the day before. I booked the train, bought  some cheap clothes that I knew would get ruined, booked a hotel (I ended up booking a tour because everything in Valencia was sold out – and as it turned out PP Travel out of London was the best tour organizer I have ever dealt
with), packed my bag and was on my way. I didn’t plan to bring my camera with me unless I could find an underwater housing for it so I began my search in Barcelona for the housing or for a disposable underwater camera. I had no luck so I continued my search in Valencia, and couldn’t find either anywhere. One shopkeeper told me he hadn’t seen any for weeks. I bought a regular disposable camera so I had something to take photos and luckily when I got to Bunol there were tables full of disposable waterproof cameras everywhere. I also discovered that while there isn’t much in the way of accommodation in Bunol some people were able to pitch a tent in the local parks. You leave very early to get there for the 11am kick-off because of traffic. It seems every available train is put into service, running continuously from Valencia, there are also dozens of buses (motorcoaches) heading down the highway to the festival. Residents had set up tables all along the main road through town selling Sangria, beer, Paella,  chorizo on a bun, T-shirts, hats, water goggles and waterproof cameras. About an hour before the tomato tossing begins some people take part in a ‘Go For The Ham’ competition. A large ham is tied to the top of a 10 meter pole that has been greased down with lard and people try to climb the pole to grab the ham. It’s not as easy as it sounds, some people team up and try to form a human pyramid to get higher up the pole but others try to drag them down, battling for glory. When someone gets the ham it is supposed to signal the tomato trucks to start moving down the street. Nobody was able to get the ham for the past 6 years so they usually end the competition just after 11am and sound a watercannon to start the trucks moving. This year someone did manage to scramble up the pole and grab the ham, despite the efforts of a few to pull him down before he got it. All this time a water fight is underway  along the street, with residents dumping pails of water from balconies or aiming their water hoses at the participants, then when the cannon fires, the real fun begins. The trucks roll down the street with people in the back of the trucks throwing out the tomatoes at everyone lined along the route, and occasionally the truck stops, the back opens up and the truck dumps piles of tomatoes to let everyone get in on the action. I had goggles on to start (as  did many participants) but quickly took them off because they are hard to see through, they get steamed up in the humid heat and get splattered with tomato, so the best advice is to keep your head down. You get pelted from every direction as it turns into a free for all. Most people squish the tomatoes in their hands before throwing them, but some just throw the whole tomato and if it is still a little green, it feels like you are being hit by a baseball. I slipped and slided around the slimy tomato pulp trying to reach down and grab a handful to throw. As each of the five trucks move through everyone pushes back to let it pass, and it becomes almost impossible to move as we were all squished together. It is a lot of fun and hard not to laugh… everyone around me was giggling as they threw the tomatoes or got plastered by a handful of juicy tomatoes. An hour later another cannon is fired to signal the end of the food fight. Everyone is supposed to put down their tomatoes but there is still the occasional fruit flying past you. This is when residents really start to dump water on the crowd or come out of their houses with their hoses to wash  everyone off. You are not allowed to board the tour buses if you are covered in tomato goo so you are told to bring a full change of clothes. I have never seen so many creative ways to get changed while trying to maintain your modesty. I stood behind a car to change and of course just when I stripped down the people came back to their car… oh well, we all had a good laugh. There are also piles of clothes left along the sides of the streets that town workers pick up, along with all the trash after everyone has left and the residents get their town back. It’s pretty funny though when you get back to your hotel and have a proper shower, as you start to find pieces of tomato in some pretty strange places… I think I could have planted a garden full of tomatoes with all the seeds I picked out of my ears. After everyone gets all cleaned up there was a great after-party on the steps outside the Valencia Art Gallery that was so much fun with several deejays spinning the music while the Tomatina survivors compared war stories and danced the night away.

La Tomatina is not for everyone, if you are claustrophobic or you have panic attacks when stuck in the midst of a big crowd or if you just don’t fancy getting pelted with tomatoes then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are looking for some adventure and a festival that is unlike any other in the world, then head to La Tomatina  in Bunol for a food fight you won’t ever forget.

 

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3 Responses to “La Tomatina: The Ultimate Food Fight”

  1. Jaime
    September 11 at 10:47 am #

    I love the warning you give at the end. I am so glad you came down here and did it as well. I had so much fun… but hated it at the same time.

  2. Linny
    September 11 at 11:21 am #

    this is amazing! so glad you got to experience the fun!!!! hope you ate chorizo on a bun for me…yuuuummmmmy!

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