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La Tomatina. The Questions You Want to Ask

La Tomatina. The Questions You Want to Ask

story by: Anna Sarjeant

It’s fair to assume that if you’re not a fan of tomatoes - on your plate or otherwise, you won’t be comfortable with a few pelted in your face.

And yet that’s exactly what 40,000 people descend on the Spanish town of Buñol for…. Every. Single. Year.

For what, you ask. For the infamous La Tomatina festival, that’s what.

Say again?

Yes, La Tomatina festival – and to put it in no simpler terms, a gigantic tomato fight. The world’s largest actually.

How did this come to be?

Located in Spain’s East, in a small town called Buñol, La Tomatina’s been an annual event since 1945 (or 1944, the locals can never quite agree), albeit for a short time between the 1950s and 70s when Francisco Franco banned it for having no religious significance, but then he died and the Bunol inhabitants swiftly started it up again.

Residents can’t decide – or remember – the exact reason for La Tomatina’s existence. Some argue it was started by teenage boys hell-bent on causing ruckus, others say it was the consequence of an over-turned tomato lorry. Either way, while the rest of Europe was in the midst of war, Buñol was enduring a battle of its own; a tomato one.

But no one’s quite sure why there’s a ham joint involved.

A ham joint?

Yes. The festival doesn’t officially start until a hock of ham has been successfully retrieved from the top of a two-storey wooden pole. No easy feat, the pole is also pre-greased so the chances of making it to the meaty summit are slim at best. In most instances, it takes too long and the crowds get bored; leaving said ham-retriever to go on alone. By which time it’s usually around 11am and the real fun begins.

*It’s worth noting that you get to keep the great leg of ham if you successfully straddle the post and catch the prize.  

What next?

The streets of Buñol, like many in Spain, are narrow and cobbled. And yet come festival day, huge military style trucks will begin to trundle between the shop facades and resident walls; loaded with 100,000 tonnes of ripened tomatoes. Water cannons signal the commencement of the fight and then an hour of sloppy tomato throwing ensues - squelching, squashing, hurling and launching. The only rule is that you must squish before you throw. Comprende? Good, let’s get lobbing. 

And the locals are okay with this?

They love it. Some residential owners will cover their property with plastic sheeting, but for the most part they embrace the debauchery. In fact, the acidity in the tomatoes acts as an effective cleanser, so really the town benefits from an annual deep clean.

And then what?

The cannons blast again and that signals the finale. By which time the town of Buñol is awash with tomato juice. The streets are no longer streets but rivers that run red with pulp. And thousands of tomato-throwers stand drenched, covered from head to toe in massacred fruit. At this point, gleeful locals will wash you down with industrial-sized hose pipes, taking great delight in pouring buckets of cold tap water over your head (well you have just plastered their home in rotting tomatoes). Or you can take a brisk walk to Buñol River and bathe yourself clean.   

What else do we need to know?

An unfortunate sign of European times, the good folk of Buñol have had to impose a ten euro participation fee since 2013; tomatoes don’t come cheap, especially not in a recession. But the good news is, that’s only a mere $16 for a whole morning of fun. As an additional bonus, they’ve also capped the number of partakers to 20,000 which means it’s mostly the tomatoes, not you, getting squashed.

You’d be wise to pack a pair of goggles and don’t wear your finest threads. Jandals are ill-advised; you’ll have lost at least one by 11.05 and get this for an insider’s tip – tuck your tee into your shorts and you’ll have a clean edge of fabric for wiping your eyes. Genius. 

Where do I sign up?

Firstly you need to get to Buñol, but it’s a tiny town by any standards, with only 10,000 residents for 364 days of the year. Accommodation therefore is limited. You’re best staying in Valencia, 38km west of Buñol and taking advantage of one of the many 3-4 day tours that include La Tomatina in the package. Beautiful Valencia is also worth a few days of discovery.

La Tomatina is scheduled for the last Wednesday in August every year, so it’s an easy one to remember.

May the tomato bloodbath commence!

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