No festival’s quite like the Spanish

We stepped out of the car only to be confronted by a raging 2,500lb bull charging full speed towards us, mouth frothing, eyes full of anger, down the narrow streets of Chiva, in the Valencian region of Spain. Well, perhaps not quite. There were bars and we parked at least 10m away, but still, it was a blood curdling moment. This was our first experience of Bull Running, a tradition which apparently dates back to 1591 and arose simply from practicality, with the locals herding the bulls into the arena for the bullfight that would follow. This once practical process conducted by locals now draws in thousands of adrenaline junkies and inquisitive tourists alike from all corners of the globe.
What few people realise, however, is that it is not just in Pamplona, where the famous Running of the Bulls takes place every July, that this ancient tradition is enacted. Far from it in fact. All across Spain during the summer festival months, most towns of note unleash their very own herd of incensed bulls onto the winding streets where they run chaotically, taking out any unsuspecting bystander or the unfortunate who happen to trip or fall in their path. While what seems like an act of pure insanity to many, the runs are consistently growing in popularity and despite the fair few fatalities each year, they continue to draw in hoards of adventurous travellers in need of an adrenaline fix. And so this was our first experience of Spanish festivals. And it was just the beginning. As we sat by torchlight at our campsite in Chiva, we prepared ourselves for the madness that would ensue the following day. We were heading to Buñol, home to La Tomatina, the world’s largest food fight.
The origins of La Tomatina aren’t clear with several theories explaining how Buñol has become home to the world’s biggest tomato fight. However, the most plausible suggests that the event dates back to 1945, when an annual parade of enormous figures with big heads (Gigantes y Cabezudos) was passing through the streets of Buñol. It seems that some youngsters tried to join in the parade and accidentally knocked over one of the giants who eventually got to his feet and started swinging out at everyone around him. In retaliation, the youngsters grabbed some tomatoes from a nearby vegetable stall and started throwing them at him until the police arrived to break things up. The following year, on the same last Wednesday of August, these young people returned to the town hall square and started another tomato fight using their own tomatoes. Again the police intervened and in subsequent years the local council tried to ban the ‘El día de la Tomatina’ but with little success as the event continued to grow year after year, until reaching the ludicrous size it is today.
Rule #1 of La Tomatina, as defined by Buñol Town Council: “You must not wear t-shirts.”
Fair enough. This one was easy to keep to. Shirts discarded, toothpaste smeared on our faces and toilet roll bandanas for the questionable full-on “warrior” effect, we crammed on the train to Buñol and scanned over the competition. What was now friendly banter between fourty-somethings dressed as Spiderman and obese men stuffed inside rubber rings, arm bands and all, would soon become an all-out warfare; every man for himself, pure adrenaline and testosterone-infused madness, on the quiet streets of this typically quaint Spanish town.
The train stops and we descend as one single unit onto the slow march down to the centre. What would normally be a sleepy midweek day, the town morphs itself into a one-day festival, with the locals selling food and alcohol all over the town, their fancy dress and enthusiasm as impressive as the mob’s. The more business-minded of these set up their own cloakrooms and offer disposable cameras and goggles for the unprepared. Sangria-fuelled singing and banter keep the spirits high as we walk.
Although the fight itself starts at noon, the festivities begin way before this, with a slab of meat being placed atop a greasy pole at around 10am, followed by a frantic rush of tourists and locals alike trying to claim the meat for themselves. The more experienced of the meat-grabbers hold back while the overly keen tourists madly dash in and fumble around the base. Why this happens is perplexing. The locals lurk at the sidelines until a significant pile-up has ensued at the foot of the pole, at which point they strike. Clambering up the tangle of bodies, they often claim the prize for the town and keep their reputation intact.
We huddle in the streets, as close as possible to where we think the centre is and keep the sangria flowing. In many ways the festival has now become a victim of its own success and popularity. With more and more tourists eager to experience La Tomatina annually, many are left sandwiched between sweaty Australians and sangria-hyped students, away from the action, with only so much as a speck of tomato juice on their shirts (obviously ignorant of rule #1) to show for their enthusiastic chants and 6000 mile journey (it’s amazing how many of the travellers are actually Australian). That said, manage to force your way through and you are well-rewarded.
The trucks, flanked by an army of must-be former Mr. Universe bouncers, force their way through with their ammo held in huge skips on the back and 30 to 40 lucky people selected to distribute the tomatoes. Their job is simply to dive into the pool of red stinking mush and hurl it out on the hoards below. Best job in the world? Maybe.
And so, having forced our way through to one of the main through fares, my brother and I manage to get a prime-time position trailing one of the trucks. We slog on behind it, taking numerous coatings of the red gold from the skip above. Now comes the fun part. In its wake, the truck leaves a trail of hundreds of fresh juicy tomatoes, begging to be thrown. Scavenging around on the floor for the perfect weapon, whilst doing your best at dodging any incoming fire, we take take aim and bombard an unsuspecting victim in the mass.
Rule #2 as defined by the Town Council: “Tomatoes must be crushed before throwing so that they don’t hurt anybody.”
Now that’s no fun is it? Especially after you’re hit plum in the forehead by a solid, perfectly round and most definitely, non-crushed tomato yourself, you crave retaliation! Or perhaps even more fun than getting your attacker is to target the unexpecting; those that came to watch but not to get involved. What were they thinking? A clean shirt makes someone an obvious target, likewise a snazzy camera. City-swingers turn to adolescent trouble-makers in a matter of seconds. The ‘throw and hide’ approach is popular, with fully grown men launching solid tomatoes at innocent bystanders, before retreating beneath the cover of the crowd, sniggering profusely or pointing out their immense marksmanship skills to their mates. We get fully involved.
And then it’s over. An hour of chaos and then suddenly it all comes to a halt. The skips full of tomatoes are replaced by fire engines that come through and hose down the entire town with relentless efficiency. Locals are on hand with hoses and buckets to wash off the tomato-goodness smeared on every part of the body. Believe me when I say it really does get everywhere. Spontaneous raves break out all over town and the festivities are far from over. With a never ending supply of sangria and adrenaline still pumping, the party continues all day long, and well into the night.
The festival is just one of thousands that take place all over Spain throughout the whole of summer. Festivals are undoubtedly what the Spanish do best. This kind of thing would simply never happen in the U.K. Stifled by health and safety regulations and the general uptight British nature, it is hard to see festivals here ever being as far-fetched and wacky as La Tomatina. If you are outgoing and a little bit crazy, La Tomatina is for you. It truly is like no other event in the world and will continue to be the largest food fight in the world for years to come, no doubt. But this is the problem. It really is too big for its own good now.
With hundreds of different tour packages including the festival in their tours of Europe for Australians and North Americans, coupled with its increased popularity across Europe, I couldn’t help but feel that it has probably lost a lot of its original identity. A small-scale fight between locals has now become the focus of the multi-billion pound package holiday industry. So go now. Before it loses any more of its character and remains a festival for travellers and locals alike, not just one for rowdy Aussies and gap-year adolescents.


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