If you’re looking for a street party with a slightly tangy twist then Valencia in August is the place to be, where you’ll certainly see red at the annual Tomatina festival. Us Brits like the think we’ve got sole rights to eccentricity when it comes to festivals what with our cheese rolling and bog snorkelling and such like, but the Spanish can truly give us a run for our money with their bull runs and this, Tomatina – where the streets run red with squashed tomato.
A food fight to end all food fights, Tomatina takes place in the Valencian town of Bunol on the last Wednesday of August each year where the townsfolk gather in the streets, armed to the teeth with ripe, red Spanish tomatoes and ready to pelt all and sundry. It’s pure, pureed madness as the tomatoes fly, turning everything and everyone in the vicinity red and decidedly juicy. If you don’t like the taste then don’t take to the streets.
Tomatina has been a staple on the Valencian calendar since 1945. Legend has it that the mayhem began when a participant of a Giant Heads parade fell from his podium following the over-zealous actions of a group of adjoining youngsters.
So enraged was he by the tumble that in his rage he set about a market stall, assorted vegetables and, in particular tomatoes flying into the air. This in turn – in true Bugsy Malone style – led to those in the area to begin pelting each other with the veg.
As you do.
A year later and the youngsters of the town, who’d found such fun in the previous year’s carnage, decided to re-enact the events, bringing their own tomatoes to pelt, lob and generally decorate the streets. The police, however, didn’t see the funny side of the actions and soon went about breaking the party up. But this did little to discourage the growing number of folk who were taking tomatoey arms.
Despite the authorities best efforts – including imprisonments and banning orders – the tomato pelt grew and grew in popularity over the following decade. By 1957 the local authorities made the event an official festival – albeit with some strict rules with which to abide.
Since these unruly beginnings the festival has grown and grown in prominence, becoming one of the biggest, if somewhat weirdest, festivals in all of Spain.
By the turn of the century the festival was attracting upwards of 40,000 to the streets – and a whole lot of tomatoes to go with it. However, concerns over public safety led to restrictions on numbers being imposed in 2013, limiting the participants to 20,000.
The main part of the festival lasts for about an hour on the streets of Bunol. Participants gather at around 11am. Officially the food fight shouldn’t begin until one participant has scaled a two-storey high pole, although rarely does anyone manage the feat so the mayhem begins regardless.
And mayhem it is.
The tomatoes fly and the air goes red; every person fending for themselves in a battle royale which sees pavements, walls and people completely covered in the seeds and juices of thousands of locally produced tomatoes.
At the end of the hour, giant water canons burst into life to signal the end of events and the beginning of one great big shower. Hosing the streets and washing away the remnants as the participants stagger, bleary eyed to their own hose down and maybe a refreshing Bloody Mary!