Forty thousand revellers. One hundred and fifty thousand tomatoes. Thirty five degrees Celsius. A lot of beer. One small town. A recipe for one hell of a good party.
La Tomatina is billed as the largest food fight in the world. Given that I’m still picking bits of tomato out of my ears several days later, I tend to agree. Held on the last Wednesday in August every year and dating back … well, only about sixty years, the festival has grown steadily and is now firmly ensconced on the European summer backpacker circuit.
The small town of Bunol bursts at the seams for a day and water, tomato juice and beer seems to flow through the streets in almost equal measure. It’s a massive, crazy, crowded, messy and stupidly fun day.
After flying from Thailand to Spain and spending a couple of days operating on the perfect combination of minimal sleep and excessive drinking (not that I’m blaming anyone in particular here) while exploring my new favourite city of Valencia, the big festival day dawned hot, sunny and at least four hours too early for my liking.
Several other travel bloggers were in town and most of us had arranged to take an organised day trip out to Bunol as public transport is renowned for not coping with the numbers. Talking to a few people who did brave the trains and public buses, however, it sounds like they were very crowded but manageable.
Other than transport, a dodgy t-shirt and the opportunity to share a pub crawl later in the day with a few hundred of your closest Australian backpacker mates, the only benefit of taking an organised trip is the chance to leave a change of clothes on the bus. When you’ve finished the festival and are covered from head to toe in water and tomato pulp, getting changed is quite an appealing option. If that doesn’t bother you, save yourself sixty euro or more, get up early and join the masses at the train station.
Bunol is only about 40km from Valencia so the trip out there took less than an hour. The party was already starting by the time we arrived just before 9.00am, with the beers, food and sangria in full flow. Nothing says good times like a cold beer for breakfast.
Thousands of people were walking down the hill towards the town centre, dressed in everything from sailor suits, to life rafts, to virtually nothing at all. The sun was already beating down and a huge buzz of excitement was in the air. You could just tell it was going to be an incredible day.
After a few drinks and a bit of a wander around Bunol, we made our way into the main town centre about an hour before the cannon sounded to signal the start of the festivities. Given the claustrophobic crush that ensued before we even got anywhere near the starting point, apparently we should have got there a little sooner.
Not that it mattered much – there was plenty of singing and dancing, refreshing buckets of water being thrown from the balconies and thousands of smiling backpackers. As 11.00am approached, excitement rose to fever pitch until suddenly a cannon shot rang out above the mayhem. With a huge roar from the crowd, La Tomatina was underway.
As we were a bit further back than intended, it took a while for the first of the huge tomato-laden trucks to make their way to where we were standing. With a huge shove everyone squashed up against the walls of the narrow street to allow the trucks to lumber past while their passengers threw fistfuls of tomatoes at all and sundry.
While we managed to get hold of a few of the pulpy fruits from the first four trucks, it wasn’t until the final one that we really got into the thick of the action. Within minutes there were tomato seeds in every orifice and huge smiles on every face. Anything and anyone was fair game, especially if they happened to be holding a camera.
All too soon the second cannon shot fired and the festival was over. All that remained was to fight our way back through the crowds, get hosed off by cheerful locals and grab one last beer before jumping back on the bus and heading to Valencia exhausted, half-drunk, sunburnt and with a smile that couldn’t be wiped off our faces for days. Not to mention a strange hankering for a margherita pizza.
La Tomatina, you rocked my world.
– Get there early. Crowds grow extremely quickly from about 9am onwards once the tour buses start rolling in.
– Grab a large plastic bottle of your favourite beverage (anything else will be taken from you by security) and make your way to the centre of town quickly. The closer to the starting point you are, the more red squishy things are going to come flying your way. If you’re too far back, you may barely see a tomato at all – and that would just be no fun.
– Wear enclosed shoes or at least decent sandals. Flip flops won’t cut it. With that many people standing on your feet, a pile of tomato pulp up to your ankles underfoot and surging crowds pushing you in all directions, the last thing you want to do is slip and fall. You can buy canvas shoes for 10-15 euros in Valencia – they’ll probably be unsalvageable after the festival so the cheaper the better.
– Take as little with you as possible. Electronics are in serious danger with the amount of water and tomato flying around, so if you’re going to take a phone or camera be sure to cover them in a zip-lock bag or similar. Throw some euro into a plastic bag instead of taking your wallet. Anything that can be left at the hotel should be.
– Clothes will be pretty much destroyed. Don’t wear your favourite t-shirt to La Tomatina.
– Arrange a meeting place for when you lose the people you are with. Yes, that’s when, not if. There’s virtually no chance of finding each other again in the seething mass of humanity on Bunol’s main street once the party starts.
– Be prepared for huge numbers of people. You will be squashed, pummelled, stood on and pushed in every direction. Go with the flow, as there’s not really any other option. You’re at one of the craziest parties in the world – make the most of it!