The last Wednesday in August marks Spain’s messiest festival. Held in Buñol, 40km west of Valencia, La Tomatina is a tomato-throwing spectacle that causes the population to swell to more than 40,000 visitors in a town of just 9000 inhabitants.
The mayhem takes place on the town’s main square and Calle del Cid. At precisely 11am a large greased pole with a ham attached to the end of it is hoisted into the air, and there's a mad scramble as people struggle against each other to pull it down. Once this is achieved, a cannon is fired and over 120 tonnes of ripe, squishy tomatoes are tipped from trucks to the waiting crowd. For precisely one hour, everyone joins in a frenzied, cheerful, anarchic tomato battle until a second cannon fire signals the end of play. After being pounded with pulp, expect to be sluiced down with hoses by the local fire brigade.
Participation costs €10; if you want to be pouring them off the truck you'll have to fork out €750.
The crazy food-fighting festival of La Tomatina began in 1945, but it’s not known why. Locals have numerous theories, including the popular tale of disgruntled townsfolk attacking city councilmen during a town celebration. However, it could also be attributed to anything from an anti-Franco protest or simply a fun food fight between friends. Whichever way it started, the townsfolk of Buñol enjoyed it so much that it was repeated year after year, finally becoming an officially recognised celebration in 1952. Despite being canned briefly during the 1970s for having no religious significance, it has returned full-throttle every year.
The festival is now held in honour of the town's patron saint, St Louis Bertrand, and the Mare de Déu dels Desemparats (Mother of God of the Defenceless).
How to get involved
There are several ways to join the mayhem. Most people just come for the day, arriving on the morning train from Valencia and heading back in the afternoon. But if you want the full La Tomatina experience, stay in Buñol for the week-long celebration, which involves music, dancing, parades and fireworks. The night before the fight, a paella cooking competition is held where women traditionally dress in white, and men forego shirts altogether.
Often more convenient – and surprisingly affordable – is joining a tour. Dozens of companies offer everything from transport and entrance tickets to week-long extravaganzas. Among the best is Busabout (www.busabout.com), which offers one, three, four and five day packages including hostel or hotel accommodation, return coach transfers, entrance ticket, merchandise, additional activities including an after-party, and, comfortingly – safety in numbers.
- If you’re making your own way the festival, ensure you purchase your ticket in advance – they tend to sell out weeks before the event. Accommodation in Buñol also generally books out in advance, but while hostels will fill up early in Valencia, you can almost always find a last-minute bed somewhere in town.
- If you’re catching the train from Valencia, try to get to the station for 6.30am. If you get the 7am train, you'll be in Buñol for 7.45am and at the scene of the fight just after 8am. The crowds at this point are only just starting to gather, so you can get a good vantage point for the ham-on-the-pole. If you arrive any later, you'll struggle to get close to the action.
- Plan your outfit – wear old clothes and shoes and a pair of goggles to protect your eyes. As you're hosed down with water the fight, a change of clothes is a good idea, although the summer sun will dry you off in no time.
- What you don’t bring to La Tomatina is also important. The crazed tomato-throwers take no prisoners; cameras are seen as positive invitations to pelt the owner.
- Ensure tomatoes are squashed before you throw them to avoid injuring someone. But be warned that others wont be so kind.
- If you don't fancy being showered with soggy tomatoes, you can watch the spectacle in dry comfort on Canal 9, Valencia’s local TV channel. Or, you could avail yourself for the more painful orange-throwing festival, the Battle of the Oranges, held in the northern Italian town of Ivrea every February.
For more info, check out the La Tomatina website (www.latomatina.info).