It’s 9am on and I’m one of thousands packed into a small town square and sipping sangria in Spain’s east. There’s pushing and shoving coming from every direction and the stray airborne plastic cup of alcohol as everyone jostles to get a better view of the excitement in front of us.
So far dozens of festival goers have attempted, and failed miserably, to scale the greased up pole about ten metres away and grab the ham dangling from the top. Everyone wants to be the one to take the prize which signals the ‘official’ start of La Tomatina, the world’s biggest food fight.
Well, not quite everyone and definitely not me. There’s a mess of flailing arms and kicking legs as people leap over those at the bottom of the pole and try to launch themselves upwards. It looks painful.
Those at the bottom of the human pyramid are being kicked in the head, trod on and shoved. Later in the day one of the guys in my hostel said he got poked in the eye and kicked in the back of the neck – all in the name of fun.
We clearly have very different ideas of what constitutes a good time. Then again, not everyone would say being crammed in a narrow street, waiting for 150 tonnes of tomatoes to be dropped and pelted in all directions is a good time either.
In the three hours since the shrill ring of my alarm jerked me away today’s already shaping up to be a very different Wednesday than I’ve ever experienced. In another three hours I’d be covered head to toe in tomato juice, pulp, vegetable flesh, you name it.
It all started in 1945 when a brawl broke out at a parade in the small town of Brunol. Young people grabbed tomatoes from a nearby market stall and pelted anyone and everyone in sight. The next year it happened again, although this time by choice with tomatoes brought from home. La Tomatina was banned in the early 1950s, and again until 1957 when the people got their way and hit the streets (and each other) with ripe tomatoes, marking the start of something which would soon be on thousands of bucket lists worldwide.
At 11am the first truck rolls through the main street, horn blaring. Volunteers hurl ripe tomatoes from up top as a big, red mess sloshes down from the back of the vehicle. 150 tons of the stuff.
Everyone’s rushing to pick up as many tomatoes as possible and throw or smush them wherever they can. In less than a minute my white clothes are red and a guy is squeezing tomatoes into my hair. People sitting on ledges or standing at the top of staircases quickly become the next target. Others are being dragged through the slosh covered streets and even diving into the stuff.
It’s an hour of messy, electric, exhilarating fun. Nowhere else are you given a free pass to throw as many tomatoes and make as much mess in an hour. The best part was the friendly atmosphere and everyone’s comradery, regardless of whether it’s your travel buddy or someone you’ve just met on the street.
Me being the slightly daggy forward thinker I am donned goggles for the occasion. For anyone thinking about heading to La Tomatina in the coming years – GOGGLES ARE A LIFESAVER. DO NOT FORGET THEM. I saw some very red eyes the next day and heard endless complaining about how badly the tomato juice stings.
A second horn blared at 12pm, signaling the end of the fight. Almost immediately 22,000 very red and interesting smelling people began the long uphill walk back to the bars, pop-up restaurants and tour buses.
We’re civilized so we weren’t about to spend the rest of the day in our tomato-soaked clothes and with pieces of who knows what stuck in our hair. That’s where the locals come in. They’re laughing and pointing as they hurl buckets of water off their balconies and wash us off with the garden hose. For one euro you can stand in someone’s driveway and minutes later you’re (almost) squeaky clean.
It was a morning of good, clean fun but I’ll be happy if I never taste another tomato in my life. It took almost a week to wash the smell out of my hair.