La Tomatina: Spain’s Slippery Free-for-All

La Tomatina is the wildest, sloppiest and silliest event on the European festival calendar. On a day when restaurants in Spain must be scrambling to find tomatoes, this event is a lot of fun. And like all good and messy festivals, it takes place in Spain.

La Tomatina in Spain

The night he returned  to London, Kyle noticed something strange happening all over his body. “There was a rash, and welts, breaking out on my legs, arms and neck,” he said. “They started small, but by the time I woke up the next morning, I was covered!”

He went straight to his doctor, and both were baffled. As far as they knew, Kyle had no allergies, no prior conditions, he was not taking medication, he hadn’t switched laundry detergents, the weather in Spain was fine, and he was pretty sure there were no bed bugs in his house.

Tomatina Festival in SpainAn hour into the consultation, a thought occurred to him.“I just came back from La Tomatina the other day,” Kyle mentioned. “Think that has anything to do with it?” The doctor raised an eyebrow.

That was the day Kyle learned he had a mild allergy to tomatoes: something he might never have known, until he had 150,000 of them thrown at him.

Kyle is well over six feet tall, making him an irresistible target in the crowd. That, and he was wearing a pair of bright orange goggles, which didn’t help at all once the fruit started to fly. Within minutes, the lenses were an orange, pulpy mess, and, without being able to see a thing, all he could do was blindly grab the air, hoping to catch a stray piece to throw back at anyone within shot. He was knocked to the ground, sinking into a ragu quicksand, when, just in time, he was pulled up by a kind stranger, who he promptly thanked by squashing a tomato over his head. Luckily the weather in Spain was nice so he was no too cold.

It was the greatest hour of his life.

Tomatina Festival in SpainJust when you thought the Spaniards couldn’t get any crazier than being chased down the street by a herd of raging bulls, or setting their city alight during Las Fallas, they decide to gather tens of thousands of people on slippery cobblestone roads for the world’s largest food fight. And it all begins after a prized ham is snatched off the top of a greased pole. You know you’re in for a good time when…!

No one knows exactly when or why La Tomatina (which sounds like a restaurant in Spain) began. It is believed that it started around 1945, and several theories abound as to why; it was a harmless food fight between friends, it was started by a few bystanders showing their disapproval of a street musician, it was an attack on a city councilman by disgruntled locals. Whatever the reason, the result was a whole lot of fun. It has been re-enacted every year afterwards on the last Wednesday in August, with a short break during Franco’s reign, when it was deemed far too frivolous.

Whatever its origin, it’s right up there among the must-do experiences in Europe, drawing 40,000 participants last year. Not a huge number when you consider the million that attend the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, but for the sleepy town of Bunol, with a normal population of 9000, it’s a pretty big deal.

Bunol is 38km west of Valencia – a city that also gets its festival on every March, when it hosts Las Fallas. The city also has some of the great restaurants in Spain. The festivities start a week before the tomato fight begins, with nightly concerts, parades and fireworks. There is no better place to be on the night before the festival than in the little town, drinking sangria, and digging into platters of steaming paella, the traditional Valencian rice dish.

Early in the morning on festival day, the busloads arrive. Shopkeepers throw tarps over their doors and windows to protect them, while sangria vendors on the side of the road keep everyone quenched as they make their way to the centre of town, searching for the perfect spot. And, if you’re lucky, the perfect spot to start the day is right underneath the pole.

At around 10am, a cured ham, a Spanish delicacy, is placed on the top of a tall, greased pole. In theory, the first tomato is to be thrown only after the ham is snatched by anyone who dares to try.

In reality, the jamon is not easy to reach. The grease is several inches thick on the pole, which makes shimmying to the top a slippery, nearly impossible mission. Both men and women attempt the climb, wrapping their arms and legs around the pole and each other, while their legs are grabbed and their pants are pulled down from participants below, trying to use them as a ladder. When they finally lose their grip, they let themselves slide down the pole into the cheering crowd below and the next brave soul gives it a shot.

Whether the ham is reached or not, the food fight begins around 11am, with the firing of a water cannon. A lorry carrying 100 tonnes of tomatoes slowly makes its way down the narrow streets to the Plaza del Pueblo, with young guys sitting on the edges, launching tomatoes into the crowd.

It’s a free-for-all as the rules of the day implicitly state that the goal is to throw a tomato at “anyone that runs, moves, stays stills, bends down, or turns around”. Within minutes of the first tomato being thrown, the streets of Bunol become a giant slip-and-slide, your eyes sting from acidic tomato juice, you’re being pelted from every direction, and you’re laughing hysterically.

Tomatina Festival in SpainAlthough it is against the official rules, the riled-up crowds  often tear  the shirts off people’s backs in the name of revelry; it is advisable, if not only for the mess, to wear a bathing suit under your clothes. Wear white, for maximum effect, but don’t wear anything that you won’t be happy to throw straight into the garbage afterwards, because no amount of spot remover will get rid of that mess! Make sure to wear sneakers, rather than flip-flops which will get lost in the ankle-deep pulp, buy a pair of goggles from one of the many street vendors, and make sure to stash a change of clothes somewhere.

There is one section of the road that looks, at a glance, more narrow than the lorry itself. As the approaching truck gets closer, you feel certain that this is it: this is the year that too many people have crowded onto the road, the lorry will not have enough room to get by, and you’re going to be trapped between it, the people and the buildings and you’ll never be found in your tomato grave!

But, in the nearly 70 years since the festival began, no one has been seriously injured, and there are rules to make sure everyone stays safe, such as: “Tomatoes will be squashed before they will be thrown in order not to hurt any person” and “You must not take any bottles nor any kind of object that could cause any incident”. As a result, the atmosphere is happy, and, compared to the San Fermin festival – machismo incarnate – La Tomatina feels wholesome. It’s hilarious, wild, and good, if not necessarily clean, fun.

Tomatina Festival in Spain

And at the end of the hour, it’s all over. The cannon is fired again, signalling that no more tomatoes are to be thrown.

For some, that is when the real fun begins.

As bright red figures emerge from the warzone, tomatoes in every orifice, the locals hang out their windows, or stand at their doors, hoses in hand. They laugh, point, and cheer as they spray everyone within range. And you’re more than happy to be a target.

When you’re as clean as you’re going to get without a loofah and industrial soap, it’s time to join the party already in progress. Everyone is drenched, stained red, drinking beer and sangria, eating churros, listening to music, pulling tomato chunks out of their ears and hair. Grab a drink from one of the bustling bars, on of the great restauarants in Spain and walk through the streets, meeting new friends, telling tomato-themed jokes and enjoying the weather in Spain. Each story is better than the last, and through it all, everyone is smiling at the memories of that one hour that will last a lifetime.

Written by  Andrea McDonald for

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