As the end of August approaches, in the little town of Buñol, Spain, residents are busy boarding up shop fronts, draping plastic sheeting over balconies and bracing themselves for the arrival of more than 20,000 people from around the country and across the globe. It’s time for La Tomatina – the town’s annual binge of tomato-throwing madness.
The greasy pole
Early in the morning on the last Wednesday in August, the hoards begin to arrive, jostling for a position in the main square or the Calle del Cid. It’s not an occasion for high fashion – most participants wear shoes and goggles with their oldest shorts and t-shirts, in anticipation of stripping off and throwing away their clothes when the mayhem ends.
To start with, the main focus of attention – apart from the beer and sangria – is a ham at the top of a greasy pole. Many attempt to climb the pole and retrieve the ham, but few succeed: this has happened only once in the past 12 years. Meanwhile, locals throw buckets of water over the onlookers so they are soaking wet well before the real entertainment gets underway.
Let the madness begin …
Eventually the canon sounds, six huge tomato trucks arrive, and the mayhem begins. On the trucks, tomato chuckers, knee-deep in ripe tomatoes, throw the fruit into the crowd. Tomatoes must be squished first (to reduce injuries) and then can be hurled onwards at others. This is when the goggles come in handy. It’s hot, crowded, wet, and … well, tomato-ey! Everyone is soon bright red from head to toe, and by the end, most are ankle-deep in the juice of tons of tomatoes. A second cannon signals the end of the fight.
After the mayhem
After the mayhem comes the clean-up. Fire trucks hose down the streets, leaving them bright and clean after their drenching in acidic tomato juice. People head for makeshift showers or rinse off under a hose offered by helpful local residents. Experienced tomato-fighters stress the importance of showering: sitting in tomato juice on a long bus ride home can be very painful, they say.
It may seem a lot of trouble for just a couple of hours of play. Many people find accommodation in nearby towns and come to Buñol for the day, returning on buses with seats covered in plastic against the red mess. However, for locals and those lucky enough to secure a room in the town, La Tomatina is a week-long celebration with music, dancing, parades and fireworks. There’s a paella-cooking competition the night before the big event, when locals move tables and chairs into the streets and party with their families all night long.
How did the festival begin?
La Tomatina has been a tradition since 1945 and nobody really knows how it started. Some say some local lads got into a fight and picked tomatoes off the market stall to use as ammunition. Others say the tradition began with some disgruntled townsfolk throwing rotten tomatoes at town officials during a town celebration. Whatever the reason, La Tomatina has become more and more popular, growing so big that more recently the organisers have put a limit on the numbers attending.
When does it take place?
It’s on the last Wednesday in August every year. This year it is scheduled to take place on Wednesday 30th August.
Finally, the big question: why do they do it?
The answer, they tell us, is just to have fun!