Outside of Valencia, this small village known as Bunol hosts something equivalent to Glastonbury, minus the music and, instead of mud, everyone is flinging tomato-bits. La Tomatina is otherwise known to the English-speakers of the world as “The Giant Tomato Throwing Festival in Spain.”
It’s hard to say how the festival actually began, some believe it began with one year of a horrible tomato harvest that turned into an actual pity parade that escalated into a food fight Other stories link the festival to something similar to the Boston Tea Party, in which the laborers chucked the tomatoes right back at the landowners. Whatever its origions, the festival was outlawed under Franco rule, since it had no religious function, but returned in the 70’s and has now grown into a complete chaos.
Picture 50,000 kilos of tomatoes, brought through the small streets by huge trucks. Did I mention the 40 or 50 THOUSAND people who begin crowding these narrow streets hours before the tomatoes even arrive? Most locals observe the tomato fanatics from their fourth and fifth floor balconies, armed with garden hoses and buckets to help those in the streets cope with the heat. All of the shop windows and doors are boarded up like they evacuated for a hurricane.
From 11am to 1pm, the streets are stuffed with tourists looking for the center of the action. It was more intense than a Nine Inch Nails moshpit. The direction of traffic was beyond our control, elbows to elbows and noses to backs, people moved with no turning back. Clad in white t-shirts and mostly bathing suits, everyone surrendered to the flow.
Even shoes couldn’t be contained in that tomato sludge (which was nearly knee level!) I was the only one in my group to actually wear shoes instead of flip flops. I still couldn’t figure out which was worse, being barefoot in the watered-down tomato soup or having socks and shoes to soak it all up. In the end I was the only one left with foot covering. But the second we were settled in a square I removed my Chuck Taylor’s, tomato skins and all, only to reveal very unhappy and pruney feet.
Goggles were common and snorkles were rare, but still existed on this day. Some inventive fanatics created the ultimate protective face gear from a surgical mask with an attached shield that did its best to keep the tomato guck out. Those unfortunate to get stung in the eye with tomato acid were left marked with something worse than pink eye. It was similar to the contagious “rage” from that zombie thriller “28 Days Later.”
A few litres of sangria and beer later, it was time to push on, but we still had a dilemma. Besides the fact that my Irish friends were becoming lobsters in the sun, they were also all barefoot and I was still refusing to put on those tomato infested converse sneakers. There was just one option, return to the streets to try and recover their lost flip flops, and for me to just suck it up and be uncomfortable.
Lucky for us, during the time we were basking in the sunny square with fellow fanatics, the town had already washed the streets clean. It was amazing what difference an hour and a few power hoses can do!
Then there were the flip flops. Hundreds of lefts and hundreds or rights, red, blue, yellows and blacks, big and small, all ready to be dumped into the garbage. I picked out the Brazilian-brand Havaiana left and a Miss Fiori right and said Adios! to my sneakers.
Even after the rush, when the locals provided free-of-charge-hose-downs, tomato seeds were stuck on limbs like freckles that had always been there and would never be removed. The stench of tomatos had already soaked into the threads of my clothing. No matter how many times in the washer, I knew they were hopeless. My friends were determined to keep their stained shirts as a memento. In the end I threw my clothes out, and they boys kept their shirts in plastic bags with very tight knots for the rest of our trip.
With random flip flops, awkward sunburns, and dried tomato guts still all over the place, we made our way back to the edge of town for the smelliest train ride back to Valencia, tomato skins and seeds and all.
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