Buñol: La Tomatina
Fancy going to the world’s biggest food fight? Do you love Sangria and siestas and olives? Have you ever wished you could have been a Gladiator? If the answer is yes to two or more of the questions above, then you should get yourself to Spain. Pronto. Spain is an amazing place to explore, full of beaches, little markets, cheap beer and wacky festivals. Ahh yes, those crazy Spanish sure do like to indulge in some unique fiestas and believe me, La Tomatina is a festival that everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime.
Tomatina takes place on the last Wednesday in August in the small town of Buñol, which is around 38km from the hiving city of Valencia. La Tomatina is an annual event and the highlight of a week-long local festival which honours the town’s patron saint, San Luis Bertràn, and the Virgin Mary. The world famous tomato war begins at 11am and lasts until 1pm.
During the week of the festival, the usually sleepy Buñol comes alive with parades, fireworks, music, dancing and, of course, a paella cook-off. On the dawn of the great battle, locals cover their shop fronts and houses with sheets of plastic before twenty thousand locals and visitors flood the streets and wait for the trucks loaded with around 125 000 kilos of ripe tomatoes to descend on the Plaza del Pueblo (Town square). For the next two hours, you become a walking Bloody Mary as you quite literally paint the town red.
La Tomatina has seen as many as 50 000 people crammed into the Plaza del Pueblo but, since 2013, there has been a limit of 20 000 lucky ticket holders. The festival officially kicks off when one brave soul makes his way to the top of the Palojabón (a two-story high, soapy wooden pole) and grabs the much sought after Spanish ham at the top. This process in itself is worth the trip to watch, but it takes a long time and the festival starts despite no one ever really reaching the tasty trophy. The firing of water canons marks the start of the fight, and after that it’s pretty much every man for himself!
Once those canons start to fire, the madness ensues. My friends and I decided to start drinking before the food fight for “Dutch Courage”, and I guess it worked because the minute we picked up our first tomato, we became like Game of Thrones characters. We found ourselves squashing tomatoes and rubbing them in strangers’ faces, rolling around topless in a pool of tomato pulp and screaming offensive slurs at our opponents in Spanish (which we’d memorised on the train there). We somehow ended up making an alliance with two German girls and together attacked hoards of Spaniards screaming and sliding and having a great time. At one point, I found myself pulled to the ground by a Spanish guy before my friend jumped on him, squashing tomatoes into his chest; the next thing we knew, he was naked and the Germans were licking tomatoes from his body. The atmosphere was electric and adrenaline was pumping through our bodies, making us unaware of all the bruises and cuts we were accumulating through our tomato warfare. We got tired after about an hour of tomato throwing and joined another group who were sliding stomach first along the ground. We joined in and took turns at being spun around in circles by our new friends until the alcohol threatened to resurface. All the while, people around us were deep in tomato conflict or indulging in some baser pleasures.
Once the siren signalling the end of La Tomatina sounds, operation clean-up begins. The water canons are fired again and fire engines spray the streets – until there is almost no trace of the day’s chaos (thanks to the acidity of the tomatoes). It all happened so quickly: we found ourselves covered in tomato juice and pulp and despite managing to get a quick hose down from a local, we were still covered in tomato! A group of us decided to head to the Buñol river and went skinny dipping and canon balling until we were chased by local police and forced to get the train back to Valencia, still soaking wet and smelling like a bottle of ketchup. We kept the party going on the train with a big group of other tourists drinking and laughing about the madness of the day. That night we went to the after party in Valencia, screaming with excitement every time we recognised someone from the food fight minus the coat of tomato. The whole night topped off an amazing day and was very Spanish between the cheap Sangria, cheesy music and the overactive hormones.
La Tomatina is one of the very few non-religious festivals in Spain so take full advantage and unleash your inner gladiator! Despite the chaos, there are some rules that you must follow at La Tomatina. Don’t bring any glass bottles or hard objects that can harm other food fighters and don’t rip other people’s t-shirts (although most people, especially the locals, tend to ignore this one). You must squash the tomatoes before you throw them and you must stop throwing tomatoes as soon as the second signal is fired. In the heat of the moment, things do get a little crazy but just remember to always squash the tomatoes first and don’t get too close to the tomato lorries – they don’t like that!
My top tips for enjoying the craziness of La Tomatina:
- Go for the day and stay in Valencia for the rest of your trip. You can get the train to Buñol on the day of the food fight. Buñol is a pretty small town and you may find there isn’t a whole lot to keep you occupied once the food fight is over. Accommodation is also limited around the time of the event and will be much cheaper in Valencia.
- Wear old clothes – they will get ruined and also find a pair of closed shoes that you don’t mind throwing away afterwards. I also wore an old bikini underneath so that I could jump in the river afterwards. Be prepared to get messy and don’t take it personally if you get accosted with tomatoes: the Spanish get pretty into it.
- A lot of people wear goggles to protect their eyes. I felt like an idiot so just tucked my t-shirt into my shorts and kept a clean rag in my pocket to wipe my eyes with during the fight.
- Take a waterproof or disposable camera if you want to get some pictures – don’t bring anything valuable. I literally brought my train fare, some beers and some water. Handbags and anything else will get ruined and just get in your way.
- Go to the after party! In 2011 the official La Tomatina After Party was created in Valencia with over 2000 of us dancing, drinking cheap booze and buzzing after the day’s bizarre events. (You can follow The Tomatina After Party on Facebook).
- Just go with it: get into the spirit, whip off your bikini top, get saucy, roll around on the ground and just generally enjoy being a freak for the day!