La Tomatina is probably the worlds biggest and certainly the messiest food fight. So when I heard that thisisvalencia.com were organizing a coach trip, I jumped at the chance to go. I have never experienced anything like it in my life, up to 40,000 people crammed into tiny streets. Mental! I mean I've read about it in various guide books, but nothing prepared me for the real thing.
We meet up with the thisisvalencia.com party at 8:45 outside the Palau de Musica for the short coach ride to Buñol and arrived at about 9:30 in the morning.
We followed the crowd down to the town center, which was already heaving. It was like an invading army swarming down into the town, from every street and lane more and more people pilled into the crowd. The more experienced were wearing goggles. I even saw one person wearing a snorkeling mask.
All the buildings were covered in plastic (to protect them from the tomatoes). The locals were all on their balconies and rooftops watching the invaders.
Once we got into the main street things really started to heat up. The only relief from the heat was when one of the locals would throw a bucket of water on us from the safety of their roof. When this happened the crowd started to go mad, chanting Agua, Agua, Agua.
With so many people the buckets of water weren't really sufficient, some people had hooked up hoses and were dousing the crowd, that's when things really took off. Men started ripping off each others camiseta´s (t-shirts) and within minutes a fully fledged tee shirt war was underway. The sodden camisetas became the first weapons of the invaders.
The streets had lights strung across them, because La Tomatina is a week long fiesta. But within 20 minutes each string of lights looked like bunting, with more ripped t-shirts than light bulbs hanging from each string.
The smell of so many people was starting to really fill the air, but it wasn't possible to do anything about it, there was simply nowhere to go. It took my nervous band 15 minutes to move from the center of the road to the pavement. We did this in the vain hope of evading the growing Guerra de Camisetas. After about an hour, we were totally wrapped up in the fight, moving to stand under water when possible and throwing the Camisetas at everything and everybody. (This is strictly against the rules by the way, you are only supposed to throw squashed tomatoes).
Then the cannon sounded, this was the cue for the trucks bearing the tomatoes to fight their way through the crowd. Each truck carried about 25 people on the back of it and about another 10 people hanging onto the sides, trying to climb in. The people in the back of the trucks were throwing great handfuls of tomatoes at everybody they passed, no one was safe.
The crowd went wild, the ground was covered in slippery tomato puree and people were picking up great big handfuls and chucking at first nervously at the people they knew, but by the time the second truck arrived, it turned into every man for himself.
By the time the third truck arrived, we were standing in tomatoes up to our shins. People splashed it with there feet, picking it off their bodies, clothes, heads, other peoples backs and chucked it indiscriminately at everybody and everything.
As soon as the second cannon shot sounded people stopped, we were now barely able to stand. The crowd fell silent for about a minute and slowly the noise started to build as friends separated in the fighting met up and began to laugh at the ripped clothes and tomato covered people all around them. Some people lay down on the road reluctant to leave.
As we made our way back to the bus things fell silent again. Somebody stopped us to take a picture of us. I was drained, dazed dumfounded at what had just happened. I would have believed it was a dream if it wasn't for the tomato juice running down from my face and the tomatoes under my feet in my shoes squelching between my toes with each step.
I am looking forward to the next thisisvalencia.com outing. It is a good way to see the best that the Valencia region has to offer. Organized by people who know the region and all the great festivals.
BLOODY GOOD FUN
It was hard to believe there were going to be any tomatoes at all. The main street was rammed with muchachos and chicas, buzzing while they waited for battle, chanting
“Ag-ua!” to provoke the residents on the roofs, then “To-ma-te”, and of course the song “O-le, ole, ole, ole...”, as twelve o’clock approached. The crowd were strictly eighteen to thirty, thirty-five max down Calle de la Pueblo, the main road where the tomato fight was about to take place, wearing goggles round their necks, and clothes they were prepared to ruin. It was an international crowd, but the local boys were recognisable by their carefully sliced T-shirts, (think Morten Harket) and the chanting they intitiated. The careful nicks made earlier in the shirts of those that knew, grew in the water-sogged wait until the T-shirt became a soggy ball to be hurled around the crowd, or was torn and fashioned into a bandana and missile twinset. We crept further into the crowd. We hurled wet T-shirts when they came our way. In some pockets of crowd the throwing got quite over-excited. I kept my own clothes on - it was a men’s thing.
How else could it begin? Yup, a big bang, a classic Valenciano mascleta sounded 12 o’clock. Bless the tourist near me who jumped out of his skin and said breathlessly, “What was that?” (It’s always worth remembering that some of those Antipodeans haven’t seen fireworks for years. They’re illegal in New Zealand. Imagine, Fallas veterans.) We were all uncertain as to what to expect, though. There had been talk of trucks of tomatoes, but I just couldn’t see how that was possible. The crowd was too solid for that. Then someone said they would funnel themfrom the roofs. This seemed to be confirmed when, after that first bang signalled it was time to start, the water throwers on the roofs turned into tomato throwers. No funnels, just single handed hurling. I thought I’d never get my hands on one. Those media images that appear everywhere every silly season didn’t seem possible.
Then, the first truck chugged into sight. It was a huge tip up truck, full of plum tomatoes, with about twenty grinning men hurling tomatoes into the crowd. A couple of people on board were wearing masks, adding to the weirdness of the festival. Was that Jesus, or Ossama Bin Laden? The truck came slowly down the main street, and although it had seemed there was no way it could possibly get through, it did, leaving more room, and plenty of tomatoes in its wake.
When the second tomato truck came through, it tipped up just where we were standing. This was when we got abundance. I was up to my knees in them, bending down into the slush, standing up with full handfuls of red slushy hand grenades, pelting them any old which way. After a few seconds it was impossible to see anything through my goggles. I would wipe them away, get a sense of what was happening around me, then get covered again. A plum tomato can have a fair impact on your head, it can dislodge a goggle, but I don’t think they leave any lasting scars. And, the beauty of it is, even a girl can make them go quite far! I could throw! Delirious! Happiness! The sounds I can remember are the sounds I made: shouting at the men on the truck, screaming with delight as I lost my footing, but realised I wouldn’t get swept under the wheels, and that I was safe; hysterical giggling, the smacking of lips because you can’t help licking away that sweet and sickly flavour.... What an adrenalin rush.
A third truck came by, depositing fresh ammo on top of the now ankle deep gaspacho soup. It was at about this stage when all the floating flip-flops apppeared.
Wet T-shirts were no longer being thrown and instead they floated in the swamp. Reaching down you got the choice of T-shirt, flip-flop or tomato. Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes...
You know those rooms full of balls that shopping centres sometimes have as a play area for kids? Well, in the thick of the Tomatina, you get the feeling you’re supposed to get in one of those play pens. The idea that they intimate but fail to create. The point is to flail about, gurgling with happiness, like a baby. To submerge yourself, then fling frantically amongst those bare-chested tomato-lubricated hunks.
It’s a drug rush. It’s quite delicious, good humoured, hilarious, eccentric fun.
The story as to how it started, is that a fight broke out down the street many years ago. The protagonists grabbed tomatoes from a stall and began pelting them at each other, and everyone around soon joined in. The story goes, they had so much fun, they decided to do the same every year...
How Utopian is that? Is it just me, or does that sound like a society that’s getting a few things right? After the fourth truck we made our way out of the crowd. People were helping each other get something out of sogged cigarettes and dead lighters. I realised my mobile had gone to tomato hell and would vibrate itself to death. The pictures of the tomato throwing crowd are media favourites all over the world. Yet there is no sniffof a sponsor anywhere. There’s barely any recognition of an opportunity to sell: hotel owners very kindly held on to rucksacks for visitors for no charge, the high quality boccadillos and beers were served at every day prices. Just as a big bang signals the beginning, it tells the crowd when to stop. And they do. And on the walk to the station and on the train home, (which smells quite disgusting), the people that came in flip-flops are now wearing one of their own, and one of someone else’s. Or are those two that are new to those feet, united in the haphazard aftermath of a stream of tomatoes?
this article originally appeared in 24/7Valencia magazine