Buñol is a small, quiet town about 38kms from the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Valencia. It has a population of about 9,000 souls. Every year on the last Wednesday in August it goes crazy with an influx of mainly British, French, German and Spanish tourists who come to indulge in a tomato fight of epic proportions. This year the tomato-fest is on the 28th of August.
The tomato fight started in 1945 when a group of young men were not allowed to participate in the local festivities, which involved costumed figures of gigantes y cabezudos, or “Giants and Big-Heads.” They staged an impromptu tomato fight in the Plaza del Pueblo. This was instantaneously popular; repeated the next year and has been carried on till today becoming a traditional, free-for-all, fun sport with an international flavour and participation.
In 1980 it became an official event with the local authorities organising the spectacle. In 2012, about 40 tonnes of tomatoes were trucked in from the Extremadura region as ammunition for the festivities. La Tomatina has even acquired religious sanction. The tomato throwing is now done to honour San Luis Bertrán and the Mother of God of the Defenceless (Mare de Deu dels Desemparats- another attribute of the Virgin Mary), patrons of the city of Buñol.
La Tomatino begins at 10am, with a greasy, two-storey pole climb. The pole is coated with soap and a ham tied to the top. Whoever reaches the ham gets to keep it! As the climbers attempt to slither up to the prize, the crowd sings and dances, all the while being showered with water. Once the ham prize has been acquired, the tomato fight begins, signalled by a loud shot.
That is the ideal situation but most times it takes too long to get to the ham, sometimes not at all. So the fun part – throwing the tomatoes – begins regardless. There are no teams and each man has to fight his own tomato battle. The pandemonium lasts for an hour when another loud shot is fired to signal the cessation of the tomato war.
By this time the whole town square is a gory, pulpy scarlet and so are the participants, of course. Fire trucks shower the players and the streets to remove the tomato paste. A side effect of the festivities is that the cobblestones in the square and surrounding streets become spotlessly clean because of the tomatoes’ acidity!
You would think that indulging in the messy pleasure of throwing tomatoes would be a simple affair. Well think again. There are rules, instructions rather. They are:
- The tomatoes have to be squashed before throwing to avoid injuries.
- No other objects except tomatoes are allowed.
- Participants have to give way to the trucks.
- The festival doesn't allow ripping off T-shirts. (This one is seldom adhered to. The players will often tear each others’ shirts off – man or woman.)
- After the second shot signalling the end of the tomato battle, no tomatoes should be thrown.
Here are couple of tips when going into this purée making battle. One is – wear goggles to protect your eyes or take a cloth to keep them clean. The other is – for heaven’s sake; don’t take your camera in to the square.
Last year some 50,000 people showed up for the festival. That was a tad too many for the limited confines of the square. So this year (2013) the town authorities have limited the number of entrants to 20,000 people and are issuing entry tickets to the square. The town residents get 5,000, while outsiders get 15,000.
The tickets are not free, of course! They will cost €10 each. Tickets can only be bought online from the town’s official website. The ticket will take the form of a wristband.
I wonder if a few rebellious souls will stage a parallel red war to protest the regulations and limitations placed on them. Will 1945 repeat itself?