Once a year, thousands flock to the Spanish town of Buñol and the streets run red.
It’s an unforgettable scene, but not the bloody spectacle of the country’s famous bull fights. The phenomenon in Buñol has more in common with spaghetti bolognese or a Sunday morning Bloody Mary than the gore of Pamplona.
That’s because the red is the pulp from millions of overripe tomatoes and the event is La Tomatina, the world’s largest food fight. This year La Tomatina celebrates its 70th anniversary, and it promises to be messier than ever.
“Shopkeepers and business owners on the battlefield cover their windows and doors in preparation for the brawl.”
To-may-to, To-mah-to, Tomate
No one is sure how the pulp-pelting fun got its start. The most popular version of the story says it began during the 1945 festival of Los Gigantes, a parade of giant papier mâché puppets. Exact explanations vary, but all end in a rowdy pack of locals poaching tomatos from a vendor’s stall and pummeling each other.
The instigators were punished, but the following year saw a repeat of the saucy situation. A tradition formed over the next few years. The festival gained popularity and participation steadily increased, despite objections from authorities.
In the mid-1950s, the event was banned with threats of serious penalties. A group planned to celebrate “the tomato’s funeral” in protest, complete with a large tomato in a coffin and bands playing funeral marches. Confronted with the festival’s fierce popularity, the town had no choice but to embrace the bizarre tradition.
Rules and restrictions were set in place, and La Tomatina became an official event in 1957. The town hall is now responsible for organising the fiesta and supplying the edible ammo, and La Tomatina has been declared a Festivity of International Tourist Interest by Spain’s Secretary Department of Tourism.
The Pulpy Proceedings
Today La Tomatina is held every year on the last Wednesday of August. A week of festivities precedes the epic battle. Parades, fireworks, food and street parties honour Buñol’s two patron saints, while the town’s population more than doubles in size.
On the night before La Tomatina, Buñol’s narrow streets fill with the smell of tomatoes. Giant pans of traditional paella are cooked over wood-burning fires, each vying for the top spot in the annual paella contest. When the winner has been crowned, celebrations continue until the wee hours of the morning. Then it’s time to prepare for war.
Shopkeepers and business owners on the battlefield cover their windows and doors in preparation for the brawl. Tomatoes are trucked in from Extremadura, where they are less expensive and cultivated specifically for the festival.
The revelry kicks off at 10 am with the “palo jabón,” in which participants race to grab a ham fixed atop a two-story, greased wooden pole. Technically La Tomatina does not begin until one brave soul has completed the task, but the process is so challenging that the festival often starts despite no one reaching the meaty prize.
The chaos begins with the firing of a rocket. Tomato-laden trucks roll slowly through the crowds, while townspeople in the back begin tossing their sloppy cargo at eager participants. After that, it’s every man for himself. From long distance lobs to point-blank kill shots, anything goes.
Exactly an hour later, the action stops. A second shot announces the end of the fight and participants obligingly put their produce projectiles down. Rivers of salsa flow through the streets. In the aftermath, a massive cleanup operation is launched. Firetrucks hose down the cobblestones and revelers rinse off in makeshift showers erected for the occasion.
Rules Of Engagement
La Tomatina may look like mayhem, but there are a few rules in place to ensure maximum enjoyment and minimal injuries.
Do not bring bottles or other hard objects that could hurt other participants. Tomatoes are the only weapons allowed, and they must be crushed before throwing to reduce impact.
Keep clear of the vehicles transporting the tomatoes.
Throwing must stop as soon as the second shot is heard.
Up until a few years ago, the numbers visiting La Tomatina were large but manageable. More recently, upwards of 50,000 visitors tried to cram themselves into the small Iberian town. Buñol was forced to limit the number of participants over security concerns. Now only 20,000 are allowed to partake each year.
If taking part in the systematic slaughter of thousands of tomatos is your idea of a charming Spanish holiday, plan ahead.
You must purchase a ticket for €10 if you want to take part. They can be reserved online and printed at home. When you arrive on the day of the event, you’ll be asked to show your ID and exchange your printout for a bracelet.
Buñol is a relatively small town with few options for accommodation. Most visitors stay in Valencia, which offers a range of options to suit all budgets. Alternatively, more adventurous types can stay 10 km away at a campsite called La Granjita in Chiva.
To get to Buñol on the big day, you can arrive by car, bus, or train from Valencia Central Station. Come early, as the trains can get full.
As to your suitcase, wear only what you’re happy to have destroyed and pack a change of clothes (in a tomato-proof plastic bag) for the journey home. Many wear white for visual impact. Protective eyewear is a must, and gloves aren’t a bad idea. Don’t bring valuables or passports into the fray.
Finally, if you plan to photograph the melee, make sure your camera is sealed in a waterproof container. The high acidity of tomato juice can cause serious damage, and carrying a camera automatically makes you a target for overzealous fruit flingers.
Cross this food fight off your bucket list, then head over to Italy for the citrus-soaked Battle of the Oranges.