Some recommend goggles, others swear by a change of clothes, but nothing, nothing at all can prepare you for 120 tonnes of ripe, juicy tomatoes. Imagine six dump trucks full of ripe, juicy red tomatoes. Picture 30 odd thousand excited locals and backpackers primed with beer and squeezed into small cobbled streets in a town in the middle of nowhere in Spain. If you can picture this you have arrived at the La Tomatina festival.
The trip to Bunol
My journey began in Barcelona, my destination the town of Bunol, the site of La Tomatina. A week to kick back, to see the sights, to catch up with old friends and to start a food fight. My travelling companions, the three Englishmen, were along for the ride. Now, three Englishmen and an Aussie (all jokes aside) are not likely to be the most organised bunch. Our weakness for enjoying Barcelona’s late night Jazz cafés, drinking numerous bottles of fine, cheap tinto (red wine) and not researching train timetables were not favourable to thinking clearly, rising early and catching a morning train to Valencia. So, instead of the morning train, we squeezed our way onto the last afternoon train and after cursing our carelessness for not buying our tickets the day before, thanked the patron saint of tomatoes for our luck as it was a bloody long walk otherwise.
Valencia is one of the closest towns to Bunol and where most of the revellers stay. Valencia is the home of Paella (a dish made from rice, among other things) and the legendary Holy Grail. I sampled plenty of the Paella but did not see the Grail. As Spain’s third largest city it is a friendly, eclectic and welcoming place. Whilst there, I’d recommend a visit to the 2 imposing twin-towered stone gates that are all that remain of the old city walls (Torres de Serranos & Torres De Quart). Up high you can still see the pockmarks left by French cannonballs during the 19th Century Napoleonic invasion. Another highlight is the Mercado Central — the food hall was built in 1928. It is a whirl of smells, movement and colour as your mouth waters over the foods on display.
Accommodation is plentiful in Valencia, although around La Tomatina in August and the Las Fallas festival in March, be sure to book ahead so you don’t get caught out. There are many great bars, tapas (Spanish bar food), cheap drinks, great shopping and history. Valencia is worth a stop in itself, but this time La Tomatina was our reason for being there. You can literally feel the excitement building the day before. Every traveller you come across seems to be headed in the same direction, like the pilgrims before us for the Holy Grail. Veterans talk about past years, newcomers look anxious and wonder what the next day holds. Everyone seems to have Bunol on his or her lips and excitement charges the air.
A melee of humans, trucks and tomatoes
To get to La Tomatina, you have to wake up early. In fact, I’d recommend that on the day of the festival you try to get the first train out. The three Englishman and I made the mistake of thinking 8.00am would be early enough. There was a stampede for our train and I am not ashamed to say that the three Englishmen and I used rugby ruck methods to push our way onto the train. Then we had to wait on board a fully packed train, standing up, for over an hour before we even departed.
After a further hour, stand up train ride, it was a relief to spill out onto the platform at Bunol and take a deep breath. Bunol, our destination. Make a small blink and you’ll miss the town that hosts the event. The locals are clearly amused and take great pleasure in dumping buckets of water into crowds of unsuspecting tourists passing. Shopfronts are closed and the locals set up camp on their balconies and the front of their houses. It seems like the town has the day off to partake in the festival.
You can tell when you have reached the action. There is a point where you can no longer move forward. The crowd is packed in to the windy cobblestone streets and you just come to a standstill. The heat is oppressive, the atmosphere like a rock concert.
OLE, OLE, OLE, OLE – Tomate, Tomate,Tomate- Aqua, Aqua, Aqua; All chants meld into one and an indecipherable roar rises above the masses. Water fights erupt and the local boys delight in ripping the clothes off tourists. Water and ripped t-shirts are flung through the air. Cannon shot heralds the start of the proceedings at 11.00am. The crowd sways and surges with climbing tension. The excitement is barely containable and you have to shout to the person standing next to you to be heard. Expectations rise and everyone is shouting, chanting, singing and whistling.
The first truck appears around the corner and I wonder how it will be possible for it to pass through. We are packed in so tightly, shoulder to shoulder. The crowd takes a simultaneous breath in and miraculously parts to let the truck through. A cheer erupts as the truck stops. A hush descends and all heads tilt up to watch the back tray of the dump truck creak and moan in protest, rising against the weight of the tomatoes and the locals who are holding on in the back. It stops at a 45 degree angle and the locals whoop as they open the back of the tray. Then, a sudden flood of tomato hits the streets. Pandemonium erupts and all I can see is red sludge, bent limbs, tomatoes flying mid-air and red, red, red.
Breathe tomatoes till you cannot stand to see them anymore
It is the only time in your adult life that you won’t get in trouble for pelting food at total strangers. The mood lightens as people seek targets and you pelt all around with as much force and conviction as possible.
I hold onto Englishman 1 for dear life as the tomato sludge rises alarmingly to mid calf. Being only 4ft 11 inches tall I am frightened of drowning in tomato pulp. I can see the headlines, “Tragic tomato incident – An Australian has been confirmed drowned at La Tomatina festival in the south of Spain” This is not how I wish to die or what I want to be remembered for ! Englishman 1 grabs onto me, promising not to let me fall to a saucy end.
As you inhale tomato pulp, you begin to wonder at the sense of the day. Your hair is a tangled mess of pulp, your skin is tightening from the acid in the tomatoes, clothes are dripping and the sweet pungent smell of drying tomatoes fills the air. As the flying tomatoes subside, and the red soup drains away, you are allowed to momentarily catch your breath. I look in envy at those around me that had listened and donned goggles. Their eyes weren’t smarting, whereas the two Englishman (we had lost one in the battle) and I could barely see ! You literally only have enough time to wipe the gunk from your eye, take a tomato-free breath before the next truck appears and the crowd prepares, crushed into one another, waiting for the pulp to flow forth once more. This process repeats, over and over until 6 trucks have emptied their load and 2 hours have passed.
At the end, we walk up the hill slightly dazed, confused but laughing. Everyone is smiling and joking. The scene is surreal with people covered in pulp as if a large blender full tomato has exploded over the town. The locals bring out the hoses and buckets of water and gladly wash down the masses. The Fire Trucks pull in and begin to clean up the pulp. The bars and cafes re-open, households are unshuttered, t-shirts and souvenirs are on sale and everyone, everywhere is smiling and laughing.
We asked the locals if they knew why, on this particular day at 11.00am they allow 30,000 people to hold the largest food fight known to the world in their town. Most of them just shrug and laugh. The origins are obscure at best, the guidebooks provide variations about the characters & events. The only constant is that it started with locals not so long ago. Whether they were protesting a political party an election, or started with a food fight by a number of kids, no one really knows nor do they really care !
It is a messy day and you cannot stand to face a tomato for a few days afterwards, but I can’t remember a day where I had so much fun and have laughed as much since. So if you are not doing anything on the last Wednesday of August next year, put it in your diary and head for Bunol. Perhaps I’ll see you there !!!
*Tomatina happens every year on the last Wednesday of August