I sometimes find myself doing things that are just, well, plain old weird. Things that beggar belief, defy any rational justification, and which afterwards leave me wondering: “What on earth was I thinking?”
This pretty much describes my visit last week to the small Spanish town of Buñol, for the Tomatina, an annual event where people throw tomatoes at each other. It is billed as “the world’s largest food fight”, and has been on my personal bucket list, God only knows why, for the last twenty years.
Once upon a time (OK, it was actually in 1945, but let’s not spoil it) the good citizens of Buñol were celebrating their yearly fiesta. Some young men wound up in a drunken brawl in the main square, and began using tomatoes from a nearby vegetable stand as weapons. After a while, the police arrived, broke it all up, and everyone went home.
The following year the young men got together again in the same place and on the same day, for a repeat brawl. This time they brought tomatoes with them from home. Again, the police intervened. But the tomato was out of the bag, so to speak, and the tradition of an annual tomato fight in Buñol’s main square took hold.
For the next decade it was on-again-off-again, sometimes tolerated, sometimes unsuccessfully banned. But each year the fight got bigger, and, most unexpectedly, an otherwise entirely forgettable Spanish hamlet found its tourist niche. I mean, apart from this, nobody in their right mind would ever visit Buñol, which in every other respect is a complete shithole.
So in 1957 the town authorities relented. They declared the annual tomato fight to be an official festival, named it La Tomatina, and drew up a set of governing rules. Since then its scale and popularity has grown exponentially. At first it was locals only, then it began attracting attention across Spain, and then internationally. Nowadays a veritable United Nations of food-fighters turns up each year, from across Europe and from as far away as Australia, South Africa, Japan, and Brazil. In 2012, the biggest Tomatina yet, there were 40,000 participants. This year, to ensure safety, participation was limited to 20,000. Even so, that is a pretty big crowd of tomato throwers.
So what is it all about?
Well, there are a lot of “traditions” involved – so many in fact you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an ancient Spanish ritual, loaded with religious and cultural meaning, as opposed to a creation of the last half century born of a drunken brawl.
To start with, the Tomatina always takes place on the last Wednesday in August. On that day, an eight metre high pole is erected in the town square, and a ham is hung at the top of it. The pole is then thoroughly coated with a thick layer of pig fat, until it is as slippery as a wet eel. Anyone is now welcome to try scaling the pole to retrieve the ham. The Tomatina does not officially get going until someone succeeds at this task, which despite sounding simple is incredibly hard. It takes many attempts over many hours until enough pig fat is wiped away to allow someone to shinny their way to the top, and bring the ham down.
This is the signal for some enormous open-top trucks to drive through the square. Handlers standing inside the trucks toss ripe tomatoes out as they pass along. About forty tonnes, in fact, which is a lot of tomato, trust me. Enough to fill two dozen Olympic-size swimming pools with fresh tomato puree, for example.
Once the tomatoes have been distributed, everyone is supposed to wait patiently until a cannon is fired at 11am. This is the official start of the fight, and anyone still stupid enough to be on the street becomes both assassin and target, and is free to pick up the nearest tomato and hurl it at anyone they please (trying to avoid getting hit at the same time).
The merriment continues for an hour, and then at noon a second shot is fired, marking the end of the fight, after which no more tomatoes can be thrown. All fighters are then supposed to lay down their produce, clean themselves up, and go home.
So that is what happens. Or at least that is what is supposed to happen, according to the tourist brochures. But as descriptions go, this is woefully inadequate, and barely begins to describe the complete, utter, unmitigated carnage of the Tomatina, which I assure you is not like anything you have ever experienced before.
So I invite you to step through the day with me, one tomato at a time…..
6am to 9am: Preparing for War
Buñol is about a forty-five minute drive from the nearest sizeable Spanish city, Valencia, which is where almost everyone who comes to participate in the Tomatina winds up staying. As a result, in the days leading up to the event, Valencia’s hotels, hostels and guest houses fill up. The old town of Valencia, over-run with tourists at the best of times, is packed with armies of wannabe tomato warriors, from every corner of the globe.
From before dawn on Tomatina morning, thousands of people fill the streets on Valencia, making their way towards the fleet of buses that will transfer them to Buñol. Most Tomatina visitors sign up with a local tour organiser, who will provide a bus ride to and from Buñol, entry tickets, snacks and water, and a paella lunch for after.
And, most important of all: a team T-shirt. The tour operators each design their own eye-catching Tomatina tees for the members of their group to wear. It’s kind of like a uniform of sorts, immediately identifying you and your tomato throwing affiliation.
My T-shirt, for example, was a simple white design with the words “Keep Calm & Throw Tomatoes” printed in red, in homage to the predominantly English, slightly older crowd that my group comprised. Other notables were team “Let’s Throw Some Fucking Tomatoes” (a bit crass, but what do you expect from Americans); team “SPLAT” (largely tall, blonde and self-evidently efficient Scandinavians); team “Outdrink, Outthrow, Outlast” (super-fit looking English university students), team “Viva La Tomatina” (stylish, incredibly good-looking Italians); and many teams from Japan and Korea, each wearing different coloured kimonos, matching bandanas wrapped tightly around their foreheads.
But by far the largest team was “The Fanatics”, decked out in bright yellow t-shirts with the logo of a Heinz ketchup bottle on the front. From their accents, I knew immediately they were almost all Australian, not to mention that “The Fanatics” is a well-known Aussie cheer squad that began life following the national cricket team around the world. But the dead giveaway that these were Australian youngsters on tour in Europe was the fact that even at 6am in the morning, most of team “The Fanatics” was already blind drunk.
As we set off, a young fellow in a red shirt stood up at the front of the bus, and explained the (worryingly limited) Tomatina rules:
- Tomatoes must be squashed before throwing to avoid injuries
- No projectiles other than tomatoes are allowed
- Participants must give way to the tomato trucks
- You are not allowed to rip off anyone else’s T-shirt
As he spoke, another fellow walked down the aisle, passing out swimming goggles. Perhaps I looked reluctant, because he paused to explain: “There are a lot of tomatoes, and when the juice runs into your eyes, it hurts. In a few hours from now you will be thanking me for these goggles”.
We arrived at Buñol, and our bus parked in an open field on the outskirts of town. We joined a trickle of Tomatina participants making the walk into the centre of the village, which quickly become a steady stream, and then a river of thousands. Along the way, the sidewalks were lined with local residents and spectators. Some had set up stands selling sandwiches and soft-drinks. A few enterprising storekeepers had hired DJs, who were blasting out ear-splittingly loud dance music. But most were simply observing the spectacle, as people from all over the world descended on their town.
Then there were those for whom travelling halfway around the world to throw tomatoes was clearly not odd enough, and who had felt the need to come in fancy dress, as well. Like the pair of Samurai warriors from Japan walking just ahead of me; the couple in matching lion outfits; the group from New Zealand in pink wigs and oversize heart-shaped sunglasses; and the five men in sombre black suits and hats, carrying toy machine-guns, and with the words “Reservoir Poodles” written across their backs.
Eventually we came to a barrier, someone checked the red entry bracelet on my wrist, and then I was in the town square. But whereas I had been expecting it to be a large open space, the Buñol “town square” is actually just a slight widening of the street in front of city hall, at the point where two long, narrow alleys, each coming from the opposite direction, meet. The alleys are lined on each side with three-storey buildings, all of which had been rather ominously covered in thick sheets of plastic, creating a long narrow canyon of sorts. So this was the “battlefield”, although it felt much more like an abattoir tunnel, into which we were being herded like cattle on their way to the slaughter.
Perhaps now was a bit too late for me to start thinking: “What have I got myself into?”
9am to 10.47am: Waiting for the Ham to Fall
It was only 9am but already the crush of the crowd was unbearable. And as more and more people packed into the “square”, it got worse and worse, until eventually everyone was jammed into the narrow alleys so tightly it was almost impossible to move.
Right in front of the town hall, and about eighty metres from where I was standing, was the greased pole and ham. I began weaving through the crowd in that direction. It took about fifteen minutes to shove my way through, but I eventually finished up about twenty metres away from the base of the pole, which was a heaving mass of people, all scrambling to try to reach the pole and then climb it.
As soon as someone began climbing the pole, others would immediately attempt to use them as a human stepping stone. Impromptu human pyramids formed, with those at the bottom unwittingly acting as support for the weight of all those above, encouraging ever more people to throw themselves into the chaos. This would go on until someone near the top would lose their grip on the pig fat coated pole. The pyramid would collapse, often quite spectacularly, legs and arms flailing as all those at the bottom got trampled, squashed, or kicked in the face.
A few seconds of stunned silence followed, and then it would all start again.
It was mostly men engaging in this sheer stupidity, although occasionally a woman would join the fray, which always got an appreciative cheer from the watching crowd. But woman or not, no quarter was given, the girls being pummelled, grabbed and stomped on with the same ferocity as the guys.
What fascinated me most was the faces of all those trying to scale the pole, scowls and loud grunts of exertion twisting them into expressions of pure savagery. As if the simple act of trying to climb a greased stick had allowed these people to shed any semblance of civility, and reduce themselves to a more lowly, animal form of being. It reminded me of the group of young boys in of “Lord of the Flies”, as they descended into brutality, ultimately turning on each other in a frenzied orgy of bloodletting.
From time to time someone standing on a rooftop overlooking the square would throw a bucket of water over those below, and the crowd would convulse like it was a single living organism. Beach balls were being batted back and forth across the sea of people. Every now and again someone would break into a chant, and start jumping up and down on the spot, and this too would ripple through the crowd, until eventually 20,000 people were jumping up and down in unison and the ground was shaking.
In the middle of all this, it rained. A bit unexpected, given that the Tomatina takes place at the height of the Spanish summer, and in the event’s fifty-six year history it has never so much as drizzled. But this year a torrential thunderstorm quickly turned the town square into a swamp. No-one had come prepared for inclement weather, and so as the rain bucketed down the crowd progressively morphed into a shivering blob of wet flesh. The crush suddenly became welcome, and groups of complete strangers joined together in huddles, gathering in close while jumping up and down and singing songs, so as to stay warm.
Finally, at exactly 10.47am, a lithe Japanese man made it to the top of the pole, and touched the ham. The crowd went completely wild, cheering and whistling and clapping. The ham didn’t fall, but the fact that someone had reached it was evidently enough, because a fleet of six huge trucks parked at the far end of the crowd now revved into gear. Each truck was loaded to the gunnels with ripe tomatoes, and without so much as a second’s hesitation, they drove straight towards the crowd.
Remember though – the crowd was packed into the narrow alley between the solid walls of buildings, so tightly I could barely breathe. “Seriously – are they just going to run people over?” I thought to myself, watching in horror as the trucks ploughed directly into the mass of people in front of them.
Handlers in the back of the trucks began throwing vast quantities of tomatoes over the sides, while green-shirted officials formed a human chain in front of the trucks, pushing the crowd back to try clear a path for them to pass through. This caused an immediate commotion as people scrambled frantically to get out of the way, and the already impossibly compressed crowd got compressed even further. From where I stood, it all seemed to be happening in slow motion, and looked a lot like that classic movie scene where the terrified citizens of Tokyo flee in panic ahead of Godzilla’s advance. Only in this case the Godzilla was spewing tomatoes, less than 200 metres away, and was coming directly towards me.
Without warning the crowd alongside the trucks surged backwards, and a split-second later the wave of energy released arrived at the spot where I and a few thousand other folks were standing, cheek-to-jowl. It was so powerful that I was literally lifted up and carried along with the wave for about fifteen metres, before it changed direction, and carried me right back again.
For a few seconds I became a piece of flotsam in a sea of humanity, utterly powerless to do anything besides go with the flow. I had never experienced anything like that before, and to be honest, I am not sure I ever want to again. If I had slipped, I would almost certainly have been trampled to death; if I had got jammed up against any immovable object – a door or a tree or a wall – I could very easily have been crushed. For the first time I got a tiny inkling of the terrifying physical power of a crowd, and what it must have been like at Hillsborough, for example, where 96 football fans died after a surging crowd drove them into a fence.
Still, I had little time to dwell on such thoughts just then, because the wave of the crowd had dumped me right up alongside one of the trucks, and rotten tomatoes were now raining down on my head.
10.47am to 11.00am: The Battle
You will recall tha Tomatina rules require you to wait patiently until 11am, when a cannon is fired, and only then can you begin hurling tomatoes.
The reality, however, is somewhat different. As soon as the trucks began disgorging the first of their cargo of tomatoes, the battle started in earnest, and the surrounding crowd instantly erupted into a vicious frenzy of tomato throwing.
In sensory terms, what followed was possibly one of the more extraordinary ten minutes of my life so far. I was being buffeted around by the surging crowd, struggling to keep my footing, trying to avoid being smashed into the people in front of me, and all the while feeling the hot breath of a complete stranger on the back of my neck.
At the same time, the noise escalated to a jet-engine deafening level, my ears filled with the collective howls of 20,000 people engaged in hand-to-hand combat. All round me the air was literally bursting into colour, as thousands of tomatoes seemed to explode into red puffs everywhere I looked. After a couple of minutes my feet felt like they were bogged in a thick sludge of tomato gloop, and all I could smell was the pungent overpowering odours of ripe tomato, human sweat and damp clothes.
And then, without warning, a tomato hit me on the back of the head, hard. My head snapped forward as the tomato burst into a cloud of a thousand little tomato particles, and the juice immediately began dripping from my hair into my eyes. I had forgotten to put on my goggles, and so within seconds my eyes were stinging.
My immediate reaction was rage, and I turned around furiously – “who did that?” – only to be hit by another tomato, this time full in the face. Spluttering and coughing and spitting out bits of tomato, I quickly ducked down, one hand shielding the back of my head from the now constant rain of tomatoes as I tried to snap on my goggles with the other. And, in the murky tomato mass around my feet, I reached for a half-smashed tomato, and as I straightened up again I threw it with all my might, landing a direct hit between the shoulders of a guy about ten feet away.
It hit the poor fellow with such force that he stumbled forward a few steps, like he had been shot in the back, and for a split-second I felt bad about it all, thinking perhaps I might have injured him. But then a tomato hit me on the side of my head, almost at the same time as another smashed into my chest, disorienting me completely, and I descended into madness, indiscriminately throwing tomatoes as fast as I could in every direction.
11am onwards: The Aftermath
Somewhere in the background a cannon fired to signal that it was 11am, the official start time for a battle that had already been raging for more than twelve hair-raising minutes.
I looked around me and saw 20,000 otherwise entirely normal people turned into homicidal maniacs, each trying to commit murder with nothing more than a vegetable (a fruit, actually, but let’s not get technical). And the streets were literally running red with the blood of millions of deceased tomatoes. It was raw, powerful, and primeval – exactly how I imagine it might have been to stand at the centre of a medieval battlefield, watching as knights with drawn swords mercilessly hacked each other to death.
I think the crush of the crowd, and the pure violence of the Tomatina once it gets going, catches a lot of people by surprise. Within minutes thousands of the less hardy were fleeing, looking for the nearest exit point. And as this happened, the crowds thinned just a touch, meaning those who remained had more freedom of movement, and were able to up the tempo, throwing tomatoes with even more power and destructive intent. By now half of the men had seen their shirts ripped from their backs, so those in the thick of the action began to look like strange alien creatures: half-naked, stained a deep red colour, and brandishing little red balls as weapons.
I lasted a few more minutes, but then a tomato crashed into the side of my head, another hit me in the eye, and I decided that I’d had more than enough “fun” for one day. Luckily for me, at that very moment one of the last of the trucks was moving past, and so I fell in behind it, and tried to stay in its wake and follow it out. Mind you, I was not the only person with this brilliant idea, and the crush of people behind that truck was as bad as anything else experienced that day, and it took a full fifteen minutes before I was able to break away, push my way through the last of the crowd, and flop over a barrier into a side lane.
I was officially out of the fight.
I began the long walk back to the entry point and then the bus, through the back streets of Buñol. It took me almost an hour, and it was like walking through a post-apocalyptic disaster zone. Occasionally I would come to a spot with a view of the main fight, which was still raging, but as more and more fled the carnage of the main street, the back lanes filled up with masses of people, who were slumped against the walls, or lying on the sidewalks, or just bent over shivering and breathing hard. Everyone had tomato juice and bits in their hair, tomato pulp spattered across their faces, their clothes and shoes dyed red. Well meaning villagers had brought out hoses, so queues had formed up for kerb-side showers, and pretty quickly the gutters were flowing rivers of red, too.
Near the bus parking area, the streets had been cordoned off, and an impromptu carnival had started – music, food, and dancing. I had a tortilla sandwich and a plate of paella, and queued up for a “shower” under the dribble of a hose being held out by an eight-year old local villager. I noticed for the first time that I was cut on my left elbow, which was where it had scraped up against a palm tree in the main square during one of the crowd surges. It was stinging, as was my left eye which had taken a hefty squirt of tomato juice in a direct hit.
But then I bumped into an English fellow who had been part of the group I had arrived with. He had stripped off his t-shirt to wash, revealing deep purple bruises all down his shoulders and back. They were in the shape of perfectly formed boot prints, and in some spots the skin had broken, and blood trickled down. He told me he had tried to climb the pole earlier, had got caught at the bottom of the human pyramid, and this was the result. I must admit that seeing this, the cut on my elbow and my stinging left eye didn’t feel so bad anymore.
While we were talking, a canon shot boomed out in the distance. It was noon, and the 2013 Tomatina was officially over. I had survived.
All I can say is that the Tomatina is a mad, mental and completely other-worldly experience. And that a tomato, when thrown at you really hard, hurts like buggery.
I am glad I did it; but once is enough for me, and I am unlikely to do it again. Although have no fear – I am already thinking of next year, when Pamplona’s La Fermin (the annual Running of the Bulls) beckons.