Spain is a country that has a passion for food. Sure the French are proud of their haute cuisine, the Italians are brought up on Mama’s al dente pasta and the number of big boned Americans… well they’re no strangers to the feed bag. But Spain is another plate of tapa altogether. From leisurely lunches that span hours to sunset-tinged paella at a beachside café, the gastronomic splendour of Iberia is tantamount to a spiritual discovery. The place even has a Museo del Jamón (HamMuseum)!
But what happens when that passion gets mixed in with a generous portion of crazy? Two hours of sleep deprived, cerveza fuelled, tomato propelled shenanigans; evoking a kind of surreal landscape that resembles the bastard union of ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ and ‘Animal House’, with a splash of spaghetti western thrown in for good measure is what. Welcome to La Tomatina.
For 364 days of the year, Buñol is a typical sleepy Spanish village of around 10,000 residents. Not exactly on the tourist trail, the hordes choose to blaze a trail to nearby Valencia or frolic along the Costa Blanca en route to the Balearic Islands. Come the final Wednesday in August however, the hamlet becomes the focus of food-flinging fever for 40,000 frenzied fruit fiends.
Although the choice is available (albeit in limited quantities) to stay in Buñol prior to the event, the more popular option is to base yourself in Valencia and take the pilgrimage on the Toma-Tren. Running at 30 minute intervals from 7:00am to 10:00am, the Tomato Train ferries carriage-loads of white t-shirt wearing revellers direct to Buñol. Be warned though, each of the trains are packed to the rafters with as many people as you would find on the 8:35 to Churchgate in Mumbai. It’s therefore advisable to bring some provisions for the 50 minute trip; some jamón y queso, or perhaps a backpack of beer. It may be only 7:30 in the morning, but it’s 5:30pm back home and besides, it‘s probably only six hours or so since your last beer anyway! Salud!
Once you arrive at the train station in Buñol, the herd of people carry you along narrow cobbled streets such as Blasco Ibáñez and Ruiz Pons. You find yourself at a stall selling novelty T-shirts, where you buy one showing two tomatoes running away for fear of pureefication. You sidle yourself towards the first of many roadside barras and purchase the first of many litros de cerveza in a plastic cup; all the while making your way downhill towards the epicentre of activity, the Plaza del Pueblo.
During the next couple of hours you mingle with like-minded souls from every corner of the world; English and Dutch, New Zealanders and South Africans, Germans and Spanish, Japanese and Americans. And Australians, plenty of Australians! The Plaza starts to fill… well the narrow street that doubles as the Plaza starts to fill. Further beverages are consumed, and in fact cups full of sangria are flung in a precursor to the main event.
As the increasing Spanish heat heralds the introduction of strategically located water cannons, a roar emanates from the middle of the Plaza. Moving forward to make sense of the commotion, you notice that people are attempting to climb what seems to be a greased pole with a large ham atop it (what did I say earlier about the Spaniards and their jamón?). One brave soul reaches a couple of metres up and scrapes off layers of grease before sliding back down, only to be replaced by another. Soon enough some semblance of teamwork is incorporated into the task at hand; as larger folk are used as stepladders for smaller comrades to advance the forward position, bringing still greater roars of appreciation from the expectant hordes. From here it’s only a matter of time before what appears to be an out-of-work jockey, using his t-shirt to great effect, ascends to the summit to rescue the jamón from its lofty precipice to the uproarious delight of the 40,000 onlookers; and believe me it’s hard not to get caught up in the euphoria of it all. This however is but the support act for what’s to come…
Four hours, forty kilometres, several litres of beer and many more of high-pressure water after stepping onto the Toma-Tren in Valencia, a rocket is fired into the sky over a plastic-covered Buñol now resembling your Aunty’s good sofa. Anticipation that has been building as steadily as the crowds reaches critical mass, as the first of many lorries meanders its way through the packed Plaza. Initial sorties are undertaken by locals riding shotgun atop the truck. These ‘instigators’ are the first to provide the ammunition that the masses have come so far for, propelling them back towards the trucks and, more commonly, each other.
Before too long the conveyance will come to a stop, as the truck offloads its cargo of what is soon to be tomato salsa. From here it’s on. Things get down and most definitely dirty. Tomatoes are flying everywhere, as those not fully prepared for the onslaught are caught in the crossfire. The lorry ambles off up the Calle del Cid, only to be replaced by another; more instigators stoking the scarlet flames of tomato pulp with another truckload of fruity fuel. The fire hoses meanwhile are providing the yang to the instigators’ yin; washing the crowd off, albeit temporarily, before the next barrage of tomatoes arrives.
It is at this point where… get this… tomato throwing etiquette comes into its own. You see, nobody likes getting hit with a full tomato that’s not quite ripe so tomato throwing etiquette dictates that before throwing a tomato you must squeeze them in your hand a little bit to make them kind of mushy before piffing it at that Pom near the palm tree. That way the impact of the tomato doesn’t feel like a cricket ball. On a related topic, don’t throw cricket balls disguised as tomatoes at people. They really hurt.
By now you’ve lost track of time. Truck after truck, tomato after tomato; this primeval paintball continues unabated for what in reality is only about one to one and a half hours but feels like all day. Eventually another rocket explodes overhead, signifying a cessation to hostilities. Or at the very least an end to the supply of tomatoes; as the crowd, now being hosed clean along with the Plaza, begin taking off their newly-ruined t-shirts and start throwing them about as surrogate tomatoes. The wet and exhausted, yet somewhat giddy crowd soon grow tired of this, and slowly make their way back towards the train station. Many stop in at the roadside barras they frequented earlier in the morning for an après-festival cerveza, or perhaps some tapas. Eventually you catch the return Toma-Tren back to Valencia, where a well deserved siesta is in order before heading to the Barrio del Carmen to see the night off in style.
So that’s La Tomatina. The World’s largest food fight, a crazy festival por excelencia, and perhaps the only chance in your life where you can paint the town red… literally! Nowadays if anybody asks me what my favourite fruit is, I’ll have no hesitation in saying… tomate!