Once a year, one particular street in this sleepy town becomes red from an ankle-deep tomato juice river, which flows with flip-flops, t-shirts, beer cans, and the occasional Afro wig. The event is called La Tomatina and is the world’s largest tomato fight.
Buñol, which is a one-hour train ride from Valencia, has been hosting La Tomatina since 1945. There are various theories about how it began. Some say a couple of friends got into an argument at a local restaurant, which eventually turned into a food fight. Others believe it began as an anti-Franco protest. And still, another explanation is that the tomato war began between two opposing groups of youths: Think the Socs and the Greasers from the book “The Outsiders.”
Regardless, what began as the flinging of a few tomatoes in a quiet and unassuming town, has grown into an annual festival on the last Wednesday of every August, to which nearly 20,000 white-shirt-wearing warriors flock.
My La Tomatina experience begins when I leave at 7AM to catch a bus to the Valencia train station.
After a bit of jostling at the ticket window, I make it onto a packed train bound for Buñol, which is 45 kilometres outside of Valencia.
I hop off the train at 8:30AM and greeted by the cheery beat of Latin techno music and stands with hand painted signs advertising 1-litre cups of sangria and beer.
I make my way through town, down narrow, winding cobblestone streets and stairs, passing rowdy groups of locals who have been partying all night long with even rowdier newcomers.
Meanwhile, Buñolites are sitting on their balconies and front steps, directing me with knowing nods and grinning at my liquid breakfast.
I can hear the echo of faint cries as I approach the tomato fight location, which rises to a deafening roar as I arrive at ground zero.
Naturally, the tomato fighters are wearing as much white as possible. Some look more like Olympic swimmers than food fighters, donning goggles, swimming caps, earplugs and diving masks. Most are carrying an alcoholic beverage.
A couple of hours before the tomato fight starts, the locals grease a 20-foot pole and tie a sack of ham to top. The first person to grab the ham is the hero of the day.
The expanding crowd watches with excitement as men, women and children scramble over one another to grab the ham thigh. Pants are pulled down, heads are smooshed and bodies are greased in the process. Minutes before the fight begins – as if on cue – someone claims the prize.
A couple of minutes later, the frenzied crowd begins chanting “Les Tomates! Les Tomates! Les Tomates!” and “Agua! Agua!” demanding that the water hoses be turned on so tomatoes can begin to fly.
The songs finally entice the truck drivers out of their hiding place and the crowd cheers frantically as the first dump truck comes into view. Everyone squishes together on either side of the road to let the trucks through and the effect is as crushing as a Metallica mosh pit.
Honking at full blast, the convoy of trucks crawls by, carrying an army of garbage-bag-clad soldiers armed with nearly 140 tonnes of tomato ammunition. My hands are stuck at our sides in the crushing crowd and the crimson mush splatters on our faces
Then, the games begin. The fight only lasts for an hour – enough time for five dump trucks full of waterlogged tomatoes to soak everyone and everything with seedy, red juice.
Locals dowse the crowd with fire hoses and soft wet, tomato pulp flies in every direction.
Regardless of age, gender, or height, everyone is a target.
During the chaos, a small contingent of locals hunts for t-shirts – while they’re still on people. They shout in a tribal chant “Camisetta! Camisetta! Camisetta!” as they make their way through the crowd ripping off dripping shirts as they go!
When the fight is over, the crowd eases, although some die-hard fighters are still engaged in tomato warfare.
The water-drenched, tomato-stained combatants waddle uncomfortably back through the tiny streets of Buñol. Locals lend a hand by hosing off visitors from their balconies and makeshift showers.
Some tips for the big day:
– Bring a disposable, waterproof camera.
– Do not bring anything of value
– Wear old shorts with zipper pockets and put money, train tickets and anything else in a Ziploc bag.
The 55-minute train ride home is a long, putrid one. There is nothing worse than the feel of dried tomato caked to my hair; and in other places tomatoes just don’t belong. The scent is enough to induce vomit.
One of the few negative aspects of La Tomatina is the shower that night. I spend 15 minutes picking chunks of fleshy tomato bits out of my dread-locked hair before I can apply shampoo and conditioner. To make matters worse, the stench of a thousand mushy tomatoes does not wash down the drain. It lingers in my nostrils long after I comb the last seed out of my hair.
The next morning, I buy tomatoes and cheese for my sandwich – and eat every last bite. That’s the beauty of tomatoes. No matter how many I’ve had to wear, I’ve just got to love ‘em.
More info: LaTomatina.com
To experience La Tomatina, be sure to book Valencia accommodation well in advance. There are some excellent last-minute deals on quality hotels within Valencia, so hunt for bargains. Tours are also available through Tomatina Tours, a division of Triangle Sports Social Club, which arranges the itinerary for travellers, including a stop in Ibiza.