On the last Wednesday in August, every year for roughly the last 70 (save the Franco years), the small town of Buñol, Spain, with a population of roughly 9,000 people, has swollen to an estimated 90,000 (as of 2012 count) for one day, as more than one hundred metric tons of tomatoes are thrown in the streets in the worlds largest food fight. Long known as La Tomatina festival, its origin is as shady as the vines from whence the tomatoes themselves come from. Some say it started as a small food-fight, others as a practical joke on bad stage performers; some even suggest that it began as class warfare between the farmers and the city councilmen. However it started, one thing is clear: despite the fact that people now come from far and wide to participate, this annual tomato celebration remains one of the best kept secrets in Spain.
Though many people by this point may have vaguely heard of this tomato pelting fest, I have never actually met anyone who has done it, save for myself and the handful of friends from that day. So with a whimsical tomato-stained and nostalgia-filled tear dropping from my eye as I type, I will work to give you the experience first hand:
My group and I opted to stay in the small town of Requeña just a few short kilometers East, in order to save on both money and be out of the crowds a little bit. Arriving late the day before, we were all set to head out the next morning. As we planned our wardrobe for the day with all the pomp and stoicism of an army about to enter the fray, we adhered to the strict guidance of the ever present word on the street, normally uttered in hushed tones, from another all-knowing alum of the event: “don’t wear anything you are not prepared to burn after.”
The following morning, after a brief taxi ride onto a highway, and off onto a country road, we arrived on the outskirts of the town where throngs of people were all marching, in their summer gear of little-to-no shirt or bathing suits. If you saw someone in a pair of flip-flops you would scoff to yourself, as if you had seen a camper in a cocktail dress: clearly this person did not know what they were getting themselves into! Once you get to the city center, the crowd siphons into a narrow Spanish street of no more than 20 meters in width. Crammed like sardines in a can, all you can do is wait and cheer in anxious anticipation.
In the center of the crowd sits a two-story greased-up pole with a ham at the top. Technically the festival does not begin until someone has scaled the pole and removed it. In reality, however, this takes a very long time to happen and is normally just a litany of close calls, as people fall off or slide back down. Next, water cannons shoot-off and it officially begins. In the distance, all you can see above the many waiting heads is a dump truck coming down the street; this turns out to be one of about ten that will follow down the street in succession. That these oversized trucks can fit their way down a street that is so densely packed with people that you could not fit a bicyclist through, is testament to how safe and slow the trucks roll on.
On top of them, like the only armed troops in a battle, fortifying their position on a garrisoned wall, sits normally about 10-20 people per truck, throwing down tomatoes as hard as they possibly can at the crowd below. Every 50 yards or so, the dump trucks bed tilts back about 30 degrees pouring out tomatoes to the crowd below—finally we are armed!
As all out anarchy breaks out into the street, an ‘every man for himself’ mentality takes hold: you are getting hit in the face, you are throwing with all your might, you are laughing like a little kid at Christmas. The kinetic energy and adrenalin that results from such an all-out free-for-all is infectious: you may find that you need more of this. If you are a kind soul, you will break the tomato by squeezing it a bit first, this becomes especially important when the odd unripe tomato makes its way into the onslaught, as they are about the only ones that actually hurt. You form teams, you trade allies, and you get lost in the crowd and a collective mentality much bigger than yourself. Slowly, all of the tomatoes hurled starts turning into a soupy gazpacho mixture beneath you: first ankle, then knee, and then seemingly waist deep. And as you slip and slide through the mixture of tomato sauce fit for a king, it is hard to not reflect on the beauty of it all.
The only time anything remotely bordering on negative happened was when the tarp, which drapes down from a roof at 3 stories up, meant to protect the buildings and windows, gets slightly pushed open, resulting in the breaking of a huge window. Quickly the crowd in this small section of the fight essentially called an audible timeout while it was covered up. That our small corner obliged with nary a word needing to be said to control the crowd was amazing; my jaw dropped in envy of the full respect and cooperation of all involved. Just as quickly the time-out is over and you are back in the battle.
A short one-hour later, and the tomato chucking is over. One big collective exhale happens as we all fall into the soupy mix beneath us. Then, we file back out of the city center back down the individual roads from whence we came, locals standing in front of their houses offer to spray strangers down with a hose, to help them clean off; just one more in a long day of kindness bestowed by strangers. In the short half hour it takes us to return to our hotel room, it appears they are almost finished with clean up. On the news they are showing how they basically just pull up the plug in the big city drain and all the tomato juice falls down with help of water from the Roman aqueducts.
I did burn all my clothes. It was necessary. For the next month I left tomato remnants all across Europe. I still can’t hear out of the ear on my left side…but it was worth it. War is hell.
La Tomatina Festival happens in Buñol, Valencia Spain on the last Wednesday of August every year. It is not too late to get your trip planned for this summer!