On the last Wednesday of August every year, the small town of Buñol transforms from a tranquil, picturesque Valencia province, into a tomato war zone. La Tomatina has become a world famous festival, people travelling from all over to take part in the one hour of tomato chucking tradition.
Uncertain rumours suggest the food fight begun in 1944: a group of young men were upset they were not allowed to participate in Spanish festival, Gigantes Y Cabezudos, so in retaliation began to chuck tomatoes at the entertainment. Eventually the fight spiralled out of control as more locals joined in, until it was halted by police, however the same group of men decided to pull the same stunt the year after. The brawl continued to be repeated the same time every year, finally receiving deserved festival status in 1959. No matter how the festival began, more and more people joined the fun throughout the years, until approximately 50,000 people were turning up at the event. La Tomatina is now restricted to 20,000 lucky ticket holders, so book your place in advance!
Locals, workers and tourists arrive in Buñol bright and early Wednesday morning to enjoy the prior festivities leading up to the main event. A desert- sized coach park is completely full with tourists, and Buñol train station cannot be detected through the thick streams of people congregating outside. As you walk through the streets of Buñol with the sun beating down, loud percussive music can be heard from every direction, shop keepers are hard at work covering their buildings in plastic sheeting, stalls are set up determined to bombard you with novelty key rings, jewellery, and T. shirts, and then of course the atmosphere is electric with the avid festival-goers. Making our way to the heart of Buñol where the action takes place, everybody has a glass of Sangria or a portion of paella in hand. Accepting the fact they would be soaked in tomato juice in a few hours anyway, a lot of people even start fights instantly with sangria- majority of shirts are stained with purples and reds before the tomatoes have even been let lose!
Feeling giddy with adrenaline and warm Spanish wine in your bloodstream, it is time to get a good spot in the crowd and prepare for the festival. Goggles on- check. Hair up- check. Tickets at hand- check. Already by 10am the streets were flooded with people ready and raring to begin 11 on the dot, so it is crucial to get into the allocated tomato zone as quickly as possible and weave to the centre of the crowds. Here people are dancing, singing, chanting, getting to know the surrounding faces which will later become their victims. While waiting in anticipation, the locals pour buckets of water onto the crowd from their balconies, this was more than welcome under the sweltering sunlight and body-to-body heat.
To signal the beginning of the fight a male supposedly must climb and reach a ham placed at the top of a slippery pole, but this requires sheer strength and agility, so defeated, the competing men most usually return to the ground empty-handed. The definitive signal of the fight beginning is a cannon’s boom shooting through the streets, followed by immense cheering. Within fifteen minutes the street changes from a few individuals chucking tomatoes to and fro, to being swamped in tomato juice. I could not even see my shoes. Vans carrying thousands upon thousands of slightly squished tomatoes parades down the cobbled street, locals perched on top of the open-roofed vehicle chucking tomatoes onto the screaming abyss of people below. The streets were so narrow the van took up its entire width, so people were pushed back into walls of surrounding buildings. We were helpless as tomatoes fell on us from the laughing and jeering volunteers above.
The van weaved its way through the site about six or seven times, every time leaving the place more and more drowning in tomato juice. Tomatoes were being lobbed from every direction, people were sat down rolling in the red remnants, abandoned clothing and shoes were drifting alongside the kerb, and because I am so short tomato juice was constantly being poured over my head.
It only felt like a minute had passed once the second canon boom erupted, signalling midday and the end of the fight. Thankfully the day did not end here! People continued collecting tomato juice by the handful and chucking it into the air, but if you were fed up with the stench of tomato, people living in the area used hoses and buckets of water to spray people down. As travelers returned to buses, party music was once more thumping throughout the buildings of Buñol, while celebratory food and drinks were being consumed and complete strangers would come together, whooping, high-fiving and cheering.
The weirdest and messiest morning you will ever experience, La Tomatina is a festival that is not to be missed.