Every year on the last Wednesday of August thousands
of Spaniards gather in a small town for a spectacular
rotten tomato fight. Does life ever get better than this?
Michelle O'Connor investigates...
Published: August 17th 2005
Dripping in red gunk, stinking of sweet, stale juice and beaten and bruised by soft-skinned fruit, all in the name of fun and games. Yes it's La Tomatina, the biggest and most renowned food fight in the world.
Along with my two friends, I had done nothing in the way of preparation for this brutal skirmish. Yet no amount of planning could have really prepared us for the battle that lay ahead on the last Wednesday of last August. As the taxi pulled into the usually sleepy industrial town of Buñol we found ourselves entering a world unknown to us...
The nearest Spanish city to Buñol is Valencia. Despite missing the last train, we were keen not to miss the penultimate evening of Buñol's seven day fiesta, so we had found a taxi to take us the thirty kilometres. Most people stay in Valencia and come to Buñol by train on the morning of the final day - the tomato fight itself - and then take a train home straight after. However Buñol hosts a week-long party in the run up to the tomato throwing frenzy - and if every night of that week is like the Tuesday night we experienced, this is one party it's not cool to arrive late to.
Once in Buñol we realised that hostels had been fully booked for months, there were no cash machines and no seats left in any of the restaurants. My advice to anyone that plans on taking part is to take money, a change of clothes and water. We had little of these and no change of clothes. However none of this seemed to matter, as everyone seemed to be having so much fun.
There are a number of explanations of how the festival began. The most plausible is that sometime in the 1940's a fight broke out in the town square, a vegetable stall nearby provided the perfect weapons, people got caught in the cross fire and soon joined in. The town brawl was remembered the following year and repeated. A tradition formed and in 1959 the fiesta was organised by the town hall. Nowadays people flock across the world to attend La Tomatina; however the locals capture the show with naked fights and the climbing of a greased pole, the prize being a ham perched on top.
The night we arrived the streets were lined with beautiful lights and cafes, people laughing and enjoying huge sizzling pans of Paella, washed down with beer and jugs of Sangria. Spanish guitar drifted through the little town. The locals and visitors danced in the road as the night fell. In the main square a huge party was taking place. Bands played out upbeat jazzy Salsa. People rammed against each other swigging beer from plastic cups and dancing, fairy lights illuminated the narrow cobbled streets. The cosy terracotta continental bars were bursting at the seams. Hungry, we scoured the streets for something edible. Finally we found a Chinese restaurant that had a table going free. The atmosphere was just as lively as the other Spanish restaurants and the sangria was flowing. The food was tasty and inexpensive.
We soon got talking to a friendly group of Australians and spent the rest night with them, soaking up the music, drink and atmosphere, eventually ending up at an open-air rave on the hillside. It was fantastic. The rave was next to a lake, free to get into, had a bar and went on all night. If you're planning on having little sleep and looking for somewhere lively, this comes highly recommended. Word has it that it takes place every year.
We awoke on a patch of grass on the roadside the next day to hoards of people wearing personalised t-shirts, flags covering up bits, bikinis and shorts and a gladiator. All were wearing goggles - recommended! - and swigging beer at 09:00, the sun had already climbed high in the sky.
The atmosphere in the town was manic. Boards were put up covering all the buildings; people were storing all their belongings in shops that offered temporary cloakrooms and generally immersing themselves in the party spirit. We crammed into the narrow main street, locals poured water over the crowd from the rooftops above them. Then the chanting began, "Tomate, tomate, queremos tomate!" Then the more worrying chant "Camiseta, Camiseta", at which point a victim would be chosen and tackled until their t-shirt had been removed.
At 12:00 a blast signalled the beginning of the fight. Six huge trucks the width of the street trundled through the town, inside of which were teams of men suspended on bungee rope and armed with stale, sour tomatoes that were then squashed (to avoid injury) and hurled at the crowd. At this point all former allegiances collapsed: the crowds went crazy chucking tomatoes at each other, squashing them on the head of their closest opponent. Water poured from the rooftops and we found ourselves swimming in a sea of red. It was fantastic. The trucks then tipped, spilled their contents and continued down the street. It was manic, chaotic, crazy, brilliant fun!
At 13:00 another blast signalled the end, the crowd of some thirty thousand slipped their way down to the muddy river and lay in it turning it red. For days after I was unable to remove the stench and little remains of tomato from my skin and hair; for weeks after I was unable to look at, let alone eat a tomato.
But it was without a doubt worth it.
© Michelle O'Connor, London, July 2005Michelle O'Connor is a London-based travel writer
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The crowd goes beserk as the biggest food fight in the world gets into full swing...