Spain is known world-wide as a country of many fiestas - festivals of religious fervour like Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) and festivals of a more secular nature like the Feria of San Fermín (the "Running of the Bulls") in Pamplona. However, few festivals have the sheer fun value as one known as the Tomatina. This festival may be located a day's car-ride from most of Andalucia but for those of you who want to experience an event that is quintessentially bizarre, it is well worth the drive.
The Tomatina is possibly the world's largest food-fight. Every year, locals and thousands tourists alike meet in the Valencian city of Buñol. For over 60 years the town has been the site of a massive tomato fight in which over 100 tons of very ripe tomatoes are thrown during hours of mayhem in the streets of the small town.
The tomatina is actually a full week of celebrations which take place usually on the last Wednesday in August. Live music, fireworks, and cooking contests precede the actual tomatina tomato fight. During this time, Buñol's normal population of 9,000 people swells massively to well over 40,000 and due to the small number of local hotels and hostels, many aficionados commute from Valencia, some 40 km away and other nearby communities.
The day of the tomatina begins quite early. Many people without local accommodation catch the 6AM train from Valencia to take part in the festivities. At around 9AM, people begin attempting climb up a greased pole from which a cured ham is hung and take it down. Many people struggle to reach the ham in a comical attempt.
At 11AM, the signal for the tomato fight to begin is given in the form of firing off a rocket. Trucks loaded with tons of over-ripe tomatoes bought from the province of Extremadura are brought into the main Plaza del Pueblo. At the signal to begin, all hell breaks loose for the next 60 minutes. The tomato fight continues until 12 noon when another rocket is set off to signal the end of the melee.
As one would guess, the post-tomatina town centre looks like a war zone. The town's cleaning brigade come out in full force and hose down everything in sight. The participants, however, usually clean themselves up in the waters of the Buñol River or if lucky, they might get hosed down by kind-hearted local residents who are willing to help. Many shopkeepers prepare beforehand by protecting their stores with sheets of plastic, thereby saving themselves a great deal of trouble.
Although experts agree that the tomatina began in around 1944, no one quite knows the reason why. Various theories claim that it might have been a food-fight that was held among a group of juveniles. Others state that it began as a punishment for an exceptionally bad musician. One of the more plausible explanations claims that the tomatina began as a response to the actions of a particularly unpopular local politician. No matter what the original cause for the mayhem, the event was so well enjoyed that it was repeated year after year and grew in popularity. The tomatina did fall out of favour under the reign of Francisco Franco due to its lack of religious significance but it was re-instituted in the late 1970s after the dictator's death.
The tomatina has a number of rules so that everyone can enjoy themselves with the least possibility of injury or trouble. For example, although the tomatoes are extremely ripe, participants are still asked to squash them thoroughly with their hands before launching them. People are also told not to take any hard objects like bottles into the battle so that there is less of a chance of someone launching anything that is not a tomato.
The use of gloves and/or goggles is also encouraged. Ear plugs are also suggested because many participants find themselves visiting the doctor later to have bothersome tomato seeds removed from their ear canals. Finally, if you take a camera, take a waterproof one for obvious reasons and people are advised not to climb tall objects for a better photographic vantage point - it will make you a "sitting duck" to the 40,000 or so people looking for a target.
The local government's site on the tomatina sees this bit of local craziness as more than just a fun time and not only because of the massive injection of cash that the tomatina brings to Bruñol. It also claims the existence of a Tomatina Effect. Not only do the tomatoes have a positive effect on the skin of the participants, making it ".soft and cleansing it of impurities." but it also has a positive advantage on the sidewalks and streets of the town, ".leaving the paving stones whitened and cleaned and thoroughly disinfecting their surfaces. No matter what the long-term effects of the festivities, Buñol's tomatina still remains one of the most bizarre festivals in Spain and perhaps in the world.