La Tomatina, is actually held in the town of Bunol, about 40 minutes from Valencia. Bunol has a population of about 9 thousand but between 40-50 thousand tourists descend on the town every year in mid-August to take part in the food fight.
It started in the mid 1940′s but no one is quite sure what sparked it. Some believe it was just a group of young men who started throwing tomatoes at each other, others say it was directed at a bad street musician, but the most common belief is that townspeople began throwing tomatoes at local politicians during a festival. The next year another tomato fight broke out at the same time but city officials tried to block it. When they realized they couldn’t stop it they decided to make it an official festival.
About an hour before the tomato tossing begins some people take part in a ‘Go For The Ham’ competition. A large ham is tied to the top of a 10 meter pole that has been greased down with lard and people try to climb the pole to grab the ham. It’s not as easy as it sounds, some people team up and try to form a human pyramid to get higher up the pole but others try to drag them down, battling for glory. When someone gets the ham it is supposed to signal the tomato trucks to start moving down the street. Nobody was able to get the ham for the previous 6 years so they usually end the competition just after 11am and sound a watercannon to start the trucks moving. In 2011 someone did manage to scramble up the pole and grab the ham, despite the efforts of a few to pull him down before he got it.
When the cannon fires, the real fun begins. The trucks roll down the street with people in the back of the trucks throwing out the tomatoes at everyone lined along the route, and occasionally the truck stops, the back opens up and the truck dumps piles of tomatoes to let everyone get in on the action.
I had goggles on to start (as did many participants) but quickly took them off because they are hard to see through, they get steamed up in the humid heat and get splattered with tomato, so the best advice is to keep your head down. You get pelted from every direction as it turns into a free for all. Most people squish the juicy tomatoes in their hands before throwing them, but some just throw the whole tomato and if it is still a little green, it feels like you are being hit by a baseball.
An hour later another cannon is fired to signal the end of the food fight. Everyone is supposed to put down their tomatoes but there is still the occasional fruit flying past you. This is when residents really start to dump water on the crowd or come out of their houses with their hoses to wash everyone off.
There isn’t much in the way of accommodation in Bunol some people were able to pitch a tent in the local parks. You leave very early to get there for the 11am kick-off because of traffic. It seems every available train is put into service, running continuously from Valencia, there are also dozens of buses (motorcoaches) heading down the highway to the festival. Residents had set up tables all along the main road through town selling Sangria, beer, Paella, chorizo on a bun, T-shirts, hats, water goggles and waterproof cameras.
After everyone gets all cleaned up there was a great after-party on the steps outside the Valencia Art Gallery that was so much fun with several deejays spinning the music while the Tomatina survivors compared war stories and danced the night away.
La Tomatina is not for everyone, if you are claustrophobic or you have panic attacks when stuck in the midst of a big crowd or if you just don’t fancy getting pelted with tomatoes then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are looking for some adventure and a festival that is unlike any other in the world, then head to La Tomatina in Bunol for a food fight you won’t ever forget.