I like festivals that don’t make any sense.
I had heard of La Tomatina through the backpacking grapevine and thought it sounded like fun. I was headed to Spain to have a holiday with old friends and I managed to convince my travelling companions, the three Englishman that La Tomatina would be a great addition to our Itinerary.
We commenced our journey in Barcelona. Where we enjoyed 3 days soaking up the sun and sites. Like the start of a bad joke, three Englishman and an Aussie on holiday are not the most organised bunch of people on the road. Barcelona’s fantastic bars, clubs and late night Jazz cafés combined with numerous bottles of fine, cheap vino tinto and not spending enough time researching Spanish intercity train timetables are not favourable to thinking clearly, rising early and making sure we have a seat on the morning train to Valencia the day before the festival.
Our laid back approach to planning saw us squeeze our way – just – onto the last afternoon train to Valencia and we thanked the patron saint of tomatos for our luck as the following days trains were fully booked and it is a long walk to Valencia from Barcelona.
After a 4 hours train ride, the three Englishmen and I check into our hotel and set out to discover the city. Accommodation is plentiful in Valencia, although around La Tomatina in August and the Las Fallas festival in March it is wise to book ahead. The city has many great bars, tapas, cheap drinks, good shopping and enough history to keep you interested.
Valencia is a beautiful city. It is one of the closest towns to Bunol (38kms) and is where a lot of travellers going to La Tomatina stay. A quick scan of the guide books tells me it is the home of Paella and the Holy Grail. It is Spain’s third largest city and over the next few days we find it a friendly, eclectic and welcoming place, where you can shop, sightsee and soak up the sun on the beach, but that is another story.
Englishmen 1 and I visit the two imposing twin tower stone gates that are all that remain of the old city walls and fortifications. They are called Torres de Serranos & Torres De Quart. Up high you can still see the marks caused by Napoleon’s cannonballs during the 19th century French invasion. Today it is peaceful and there is a lovely view from the wall where we stop and watch the kids playing football in the empty riverbed below us and take in the lovely view.
Next stop is the Mercado Central, a food hall which was constructed in 1928. It is one of the oldest running food markets in Europe and it is an intoxicating assault on the senses with pungent smells of cheese, meats and fruits. It is blur of movement and colour of food and people.
We spend the night wandering around the streets of Valencia and we can literally feel the excitement building. Every traveller we come across seems to be headed to Bunol tomorrow, like the pilgrims before us for the Holy Grail. Veterans talk about past years, newcomers look anxious and wonder what the next day holds. Everyone seems to be talking about Bunol and excitement charges the air.
Festival day arrives and we wake early. We have been told it is best to get the first train to Bunol. We arrive at the train station at 8.00am and it is jam packed. When the doors of the train open, there is a stampede and I am not ashamed to say that the three Englishman and I used rugby ruck methods to push our way onto the carriage. We then wait, packed in like sardines, standing up, in the heat for over an hour before we depart.
The train ride takes an hour and it is a relief to spill out onto the platform at Bunol and take a deep breath of fresh air. Bunol is a small town that you would only think of visiting for the festival. Walking down to the town square, we pass bemused locals who are taking great pleasure in dumping buckets of water onto unsuspecting passing tourists. Shop fronts are shuttered and closed. The locals have set up camp on their balconies and the front of their houses. The town has closed down to partake in the festival.
We follow the crowd until we reach a point where you can no longer move forward. The crowd is packed in to the windy cobblestone streets and we come to a standstill, the heat is oppressive, the atmosphere is electric, like at a rock concert.
It is loud, people are singing “OLE, OLE, OLE, OLE” and chanting “Tomate, Tomate,Tomate” or “Aqua, Aqua, Aqua”; All chants meld into one and an indecipherable roar rises above the masses. The place is buzzing.
Water fights erupt and the local boys delight in ripping t-shirts off tourists. Water and ripped t-shirts are flung through the air and the pulsing chanting vibrates more feverently.
Shortly before the tomato fight, groups of tourists and locals try to shimmy up a “soaped” up pole in the town centre to try to knock down a ham that has been tied to the top. Anyone who succeeds gets to keep the ham. At around 11:00am a canon heralds the start of the festival. The crowd sways and surges with building tension. The atmosphere is barely containable and I have to shout to the Englishmen standing right next to me to be heard. Everyone is shouting, chanting, singing and whistling.
The first truck appears around the corner and I wonder how it will be possible for it to pass through. We are packed in so tightly, shoulder to shoulder. The crowd takes a simultaneous breath in and adjusts and miraculously the truck pushes through.
A cheer erupts as the truck stops. A hush descends and all heads tilt to watch the back tray of the dump truck creak and moan in protest rising against the weight of the tomatoes and the local “instigators” who are holding on for dear life in the back. It stops at 45 degrees and the locals whoop as they open the back tray and a sudden a flood of tomato hits the streets. The crowd hushes for a moment, then in slow motion pandemonium it erupts into battle as tomatoes begin to fly and all I can see is red sludge, bent limbs, and tomatoes flying mid-air and red, red, red.
It is amazing. It is so liberating and the only time in your adult life that you won’t get into trouble for pegging food at total strangers. The mood lightens as people seek targets and the Englishman and I declare war on all around with as much conviction as possible in the sludgy red slime.
I hold onto Englishman 1 for dear life as the tomato sludge rises alarmingly to mid-calf. Being only 4ft 11 inches I am frightened of drowning in tomato pulp. I see the headlines “Tragic tomato incident – An Australian has been confirmed drowned at La Tomatina festival in the south of Spain” This is not how I wish to die or what I want to be remembered for. Englishman 1 grabs onto me promising to not let me fall to my saucy end.
As I inhale tomato pulp, I begin to wonder if this food fight is such a good idea after all, it is tangy and stings. I am a mess, my hair is a tangle of pulp, my skin is tightening from the acid in the tomatoes, my clothes are dripping and the sweet pungent smell of drying tomatoes fills the air. If I wasn’t laughing so much I would definitely be concerned.
The crowd pauses and the flying tomatoes subside, the red soup begins to drain away, and the crowd momentarily catches its breath. I look in envy at those around me that have donned goggles, their eyes aren’t smarting, whereas I can barely see.
The respite is brief, we wipe the gunk from our eyes, take a tomato free breath before the next truck appears and the crowd prepares, crushed into one another, waiting for the pulp to flow again. This process repeats, over and over until 6 trucks have emptied their load and amazingly 2 hours have passed.
As the last truck disappears and the crowd begins to thin, we walk up the hill slightly dazed, confused but laughing. Everyone around us is smiling and joking. The scene is surreal, the crowd is covered in pulp and the town looks like a large blender full of tomato has exploded over it. The locals bring out the hoses and buckets of water and begin washing down the streets and people. Temporary showers are set up and the Fire Trucks pull in and begin to clean up the pulp. Shutters rise as the bars and cafes re-open, households are unshuttered, t-shirts and souvenirs stalls have sprung up as and are being sold and everyone, everywhere is still smiling and laughing.
As we freshen up we ask the locals if they know how La Tomatina began as the guide books give vague or obscure origins and only offer up various theories. Most locals just shrug and laugh. Nobody seems to know or care, it just is.
It is a messy day and you can’t face a tomato for a few days afterwards, but I can’t remember a day where I have had so much fun or have laughed so much since.
So, if you are not doing anything on the last Wednesday of August next year, book your flight to Spain and get to Bunol, perhaps I’ll see you there !!!
Info and stuff to get you there
How to get there:
You can fly from Sydney to Barcelona directly.
Or you can fly to London and find are many ways to get to Valencia from there. Easyjet fly from London Stansted, London Gatwick to Valencia. Ryanair fly from London Stansted, Liverpool, East Midlands and Dublin. Clickair fly from London Heathrow. Iberia fly from London Heathrow.
The train from Valencia to Barcelona takes about 3h:15 mins and prices vary, at the time of writing it cost about 50 euros approx.
Valencia Tourist Information
French Invasion of Valencia
Getting to and From Valencia to Bunol
Buñol is just 45-60 minutes by train from Valencia, Renfe often provides extra services services for the day.
Get to Valencia Sant Isidre train station early. The first train is usually around 7.00am. At the time of writing there was a 6.48am train, which gets you into Buñol for 7.30am. It is a short walk to Bunol’s town centre and the crowds are only just starting. If you go early enough you can get a good view of the ham up the pole. If you go later like we did, you’ll struggle to get close to the action, but it is still awesome.
You can , buy your ticket from the ticket machine at the station to avoid the queues. Take coins – the machine does take notes. Unfortunately, you can’t buy your tickets in advance.
La Tomatina Facts
- La Tomatina is celebrated on the last Wednesday of the month of August.
- It is one of the world’s biggest food fights
- There is no political or religious significance to La Tomatina, it’s just good, messy fun.
- The tomato fight has been a strong tradition in Bunol since 1944/ 1945
- Approximately 20,000-50,000 people from around the world visit each year to take part in the fun
- Approximately 150,000 tomatoes or 120 tonnes of ripe tomatoes are used !
- Bunol holds a week-long festival which features music, parades, dancing, and fireworks. On the night before the tomato fight, participants of the festival compete in a paella cooking contest.
La Tomatina Tips
- Take goggles, snorkel mask
- Wear old clothes, or anything you don’t mind throwing away
- Better year, hire a bear suit or wear a pair of old swimmers.
- Don’t wear thongs, you will lose them
- Book your accommodation in Valencia well in advance.
- Take an underwater disposable camera to take photos
- Err, don’t’ wear white ?
La Tomatina Organised Tours