La Tomatina festival in Spain gives new meaning to the expression ‘playing with your food’. For most of the year Bunol is a ho-hum industrial town, 40km (25mi) from Valencia, quietly going about its own business. But come the last Wednesday of August, the town’s streets turns into a salsa riot, with over 20,000 revellers pelting each other with large, red, squishy tomatoes.
There are lots of theories on how the festival started; one is that it began in 1945 with anti-Franco protests, although any link between Franco and tomatoes remains ambigous. Another theory is that it started when two friends had a stand-up knock-down argument while sharing a meal.
The argument quickly reached food-throwing proportions, infected acquaintances and nearby diners, moved out into the street, spread through the suburbs, progressed to neighbouring towns and eventually wound up as an annual event that attracted ‘mata throwers from all corners of the the world.
At around 10 a.m., the first event of the Tomatina begins. Many trucks haul the bounty of tomatoes into the center of the town, Plaza del Pueblo. The tomatoes come from Extremadura, where they are less expensive. Technically the festival does not begin until one brave soul has climbed to the top of a two-story high, greased-up wooden pole and reached the coveted ham at the top. In practice this process takes a long time and the festival starts despite no one reaching the meaty prize.
The signal for the beginning of the fight is firing of water cannons, and the chaos begins. Once it begins, the battle is generally every man for himself. Those who partake in this event are strongly encouraged to wear protective safety goggles and gloves. In addition, they must squish the tomatoes before throwing for safety precautions. Another rule is that no one is allowed to bring into this fight anything that may provoke someone into a more serious brawl, such as a glass bottle.
Although it is forbidden to tear someone else’s clothing, the crowd tends to ignore this and invariably will rip the shirt of any clothed person, man or woman. After exactly one hour, the fighting ends when the water cannons are fired once more to signal the end. At this point, no more tomatoes can be thrown. The cleaning process involves the use of fire trucks to spray down the streets, with water provided from a Roman aqueduct.
The authorities seem more concerned with cleaning the town than cleaning the visitors, so some people find water at the Buñol River to wash themselves, although some kind residents will hose passers-by down. Once the tomato pulp is flushed, the ground is clean due to the acidity of the tomato.