La Tomatina: a guide to Spain's messiest festival
The mayhem takes place on the town’s main square and Calle del Cid. At around 9am a large greased pole with a ham attached to the end of it is hoisted into the air, and there's a mad scramble as people struggle against each other to pull it down. At precisely 11am, regardless of whether someone has successfully grabbed the ham (which is rare), a cannon is fired and over 120 tonnes of ripe, squishy tomatoes are tipped from trucks to the waiting crowd. For the next one hour, everyone joins in a frenzied, cheerful, anarchic tomato battle until a second cannon fire signals the end of play. Then it's a mad dash for the closest local wielding a garden hose.
Participation costs €10; if you want to be pouring them off the truck you'll have to fork out €750.
The crazy food-fighting festival of La Tomatina began in 1945, but it’s not known why. Locals have numerous theories, including the popular tale of disgruntled townsfolk attacking city councilmen during a town celebration. However, it could also be attributed to anything from an anti-Franco protest or simply a fun food fight between friends. Whichever way it started, the townsfolk of Buñol enjoyed it so much that it was repeated year after year, finally becoming an officially recognised celebration in 1952. Despite being canned briefly during the 1970s for having no religious significance, it has returned full-throttle every year.
The festival is now held in honour of the town's patron saint, St Louis Bertrand, and the Mare de Déu dels Desemparats (Mother of God of the Defenceless).
How to get involved
There are several ways to join the mayhem. Most people just come for the day, arriving on the morning train from Valencia and heading back in the afternoon. But if you want the full La Tomatina experience, stay in Buñol for the week-long celebration, which involves music, dancing, parades and fireworks. The night before the fight, a paella cooking competition is held where women traditionally dress in white, and men forego shirts altogether.
Often more convenient – and surprisingly affordable – is joining a tour. Dozens of companies offer everything from transport and entrance tickets to week-long extravaganzas. Among the best is Busabout (www.busabout.com), which offers one, three, four and five day packages including hostel or hotel accommodation, return coach transfers, entrance ticket, merchandise, additional activities including an after-party, and, comfortingly – safety in numbers.