See how clean we started out?
There are a few events that pop up again and again on travellers’ Must Do lists: A full moon party in Thailand. Bastille Day in Paris. Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Sydney. New Year’s Eve in Times Square. The Up Helly-Aa Fire Festival in Scotland.
And, judging by the 40,000 or so people who tried to crush the life out of me in Bunol, Spain a couple of weeks ago, La Tomatina.
La Tomatina is called the biggest food fight in the world. Thousands of participants (at least half of whom had to be Australian) infest the tiny town of Bunol on the last Wednesday of every August. Depending on who you ask, the Tomatina started in the 1940s for religious reasons, or political ones, or because some kids started throwing food at each other. However it started though, now it’s a full-on party/rugby scrum/international madhouse.
I joined up with a group of four Aussies and an Englishman (which sounds like the beginning of a bad joke) and we started off early in the morning. Bunol is a 45 minute train ride from Valencia and the trains are packed, so get to the station around 7a.m. to get your ticket and get in line.
The dress code is whatever you don’t mind throwing away later. In that sense, this event is Al Gore’s worst nightmare. Aside from the tomatoes, there are piles of lost and trashed clothing and shoes all over the streets in the end.
Some people showed up in full costumes but most, including us, showed up in t-shirts, shorts and cheap shoes. We found cheap shorts and tank tops at H&M the day before and bought white espadrilles for 4 Euros at a cheap souvenir shop. The shoes worked well, staying on our feet (unlike flip flops, which become useless within seconds) and providing the added benefit of us all matching, which was just fun.
You should also wear layers. Guys lose their shirts pretty quickly, by choice or by rowdy, shirt-ripping hooligans, and girls, you’ll probably just want to be able to strip off your outermost, dirtiest layer in the end. You can give your shirt to a topless guy, who is required to wear a shirt to get on the train back to Valencia.
Once you get to Bunol the party is already started. The locals are ready for business, selling beer, sangria and sandwiches from the train station all the way down the hill to the main square where the tomatoes will start to fly. We got some kind of sausage sandwich with fried potatoes in it, and from now on I will require all of my sandwiches to have french fries in them. Brilliant.
Already, at 9:30 in the morning we could see that some people had been partying for hours, maybe all night. At least two people had passed out on sidewalks and plenty of others were dancing in the streets to music being blasted from local shops.
We also noticed big groups in matching shirts. Just three years ago when my friend, Amanda, attended the Tomatina she said there wasn’t any help in figuring out which train to take from Valencia. But this year, not only did the train station have big “Tomatina This Way” signs and station workers to help direct traffic, there are also companies offering Tomatina day tours. So the event has become much more accessible, more popular, and much more crowded, just in the last few years.
Once you’re all the way down the hill you can start winding your way to the main square. My advice: Don’t wait. Don’t stop to go to the bathroom no matter how badly you have to go *cough, Amanda, cough*. You’ll know you’re close when you see buildings covered in massive tarps. It felt a little like being on a Hollywood lot of a fake town.
The square is small and a lot of people want into it. If you arrive close to the starting time your only option is to push your way through. If you’re a tall guy, not so hard. If you’re short and female, get aggressive.
Once you’re in the thick of things you might find that you go between having an awesome time and fighting off a panic attack. Warning: If you are claustrophobic, don’t like crowds or tend to be easily freaked out by large, drunken mobs, the Tomatina is not for you. You might want to hang out in a side street until things are over, then you can walk around and see the wreckage.
Once the cannon goes off to signal the beginning of the fight, things go from crazy to insane. Fire hoses are shot at the crowd to keep things cool, and they do help. Tomatoes are thrown from roofs at first, then the big trucks start rolling through. So as tightly packed as you already are, you get pushed together even more. I took elbows to the head and neck, knees to the back, and got pushed up and down some small steps again and again as the tide of people moved back and forth.
When the tomatoes really start to come down, grab and throw at will. This is where goggles come in handy, because you will have them thrown in your face. You’ll probably get some of those discarded and soaked t-shirts smacking into you as well.
Interesting how my disposable camera (dont' even think about taking a good one) made everything look just as fuzzy as it did through my goggles
Being just under 5’2″ there were times I thought I was going to get swallowed up by the crowd and never be seen again. Just keep your wits about you, try to stay steady on your feet, and do your best to stick with friends. Most people are there to have fun, but some people do get overly aggressive and it can be dangerous when they start to push and shove.
The pandemonium lasts for exactly one hour. The cannon sounds again and within minutes the police and cleanup crews start to come through, hosing down buildings which really just creates more sludge.
As you head back up the hill, some of the locals leave their garden hoses out for you to rinse off with, and one very helpful man kindly used his hose to carefully rinse our girls’ tops for them. It was pervy, but we were so gunked up with tomato juice we didn’t really care.
The Life photographer got a much better shot of this, but you can see that once the square clears out a bit there's more room to squish around and play in the tomato sludge
Hang out in Bunol for a few hours and have a drink because the wait at the train station is forever, and you’re just going to be crammed into cars like sardines. May as well relax for a bit before you head back to town.
So. I don’t think I would ever do it again, but I’m really glad I had the chance to experience it once. Sure, we were all bruised and battered the next day, and we lost the key to our Valencia apartment and were locked out for hours, left to wander Valencia in a stinky stupor and eat at McDonald’s, and I lost my phone and my driver’s license and had to replace them, but hey, if you can’t get disgustingly dirty with friends and have strangers press themselves against you in highly intimate ways, then what’s the point of going at all?