Saturday, August 18, 2012

La Tomatina, an hour of madness in a sleepy Valencian village.

The little village of Buñol wouldn't normally appear on anyone's tourist agenda when they are visiting this part of Valencia. It is a sleepy little agricultural village populated mainly by farmers and people who work in the enormous cement works that you see from the motorway as you pass the Buñol exit. There is a Moorish castle, caves, a river and a small lake that is used for swimming in the summer.
But Buñol is internationally famous for being on most people's 'bucket list' of things to do before they die, because Buñol holds annually, what is surely the world's biggest and messiest food fight. It has grown into one of the most popular bucket list events of the world, up there with Oktoberfest and Bull-running in Pamplona. Each year a growing number of visitors arrive in Spain to cram themselves into the very small main square and centre of the village to throw tomatoes at each other. Contrary to popular belief, it is not just back-packers who want to do it, over the years we have been running our day-trip from Valencia, we have seen all ages and people from all walks of life and countries.
One thing that never ceases to amaze us is how little people who come to take part, know about it.
First is Buñol's location, the village is about a half-an-hour's drive from the centre of Valencia, Spain's third largest city - many people fly into Madrid or Barcelona and are surprised to learn that it is a three hour drive from there.
Second is the duration of the fight, It is an hour long - it begins and ends with a canon shot. Every year as we walk back up the hill after it's all over, we meet dozens of happy revelers walking down the hill, many in elaborate fancy dress, blissfully unaware that it's all over and they have missed the most important part of the day.
The wonderful thing about La Tomatina is that it is so uncommercial. It is part of the village's week-long Fiestas Patronales (these fiestas take place all over Spain throughout the year, in the community of Valencia alone there are said to be over 350 a year) and La Tomatina is just a day that forms part of the celebrations. Consequently, it is free to enter the fray, drinks and food and souvenirs are offered for sale at extremely low prices by the bars and even some households. There are families on the walk down to the heart of the village who will give your belongings safe haven for a very small fee while you throw tomatoes, and when it's all over villagers all along the route out will hose you down and help you get clean outside their front doors, just for the fun of it.
A few years ago we had a director of a bank in Chicago who had flown over just to 'do La Tomatina' on our tour. He had the time of his life but was stunned that the big names hadn't got in and 'sponsored' the fun out of it. 'If this took place in the States,' he said, 'The only drinks on sale would be a cola brand, the only food  a burger brand, you would be charged to enter the village, but only after you had signed a legal waiver. Official merchandising would be on offer but would be twice the price and at the end of it all you'd be obliged by the organisers to clean up using official showers which would, of course, cost you money!' Some of this is borne out by a visit to Reno's (Nevada, USA) web page for its copy of La Tomatina, which charges an admission fee and insists on a signed waiver...
Talking of copies, there are La Tomatinas now in India too, following its appearance in a Bollywood blockbuster, which was interestingly, filmed in Buñol, but was a specially staged version, filmed earlier that year.
La Tomatina is a great thing to take part in, it is all such good clean, dirty, fun. But it is in danger of being over subscribed. Last year there were an estimated in excess of 40,000 taking part. The village cannot be enlarged for the event.
If you are coming to La Tomatina here in Buñol, please remember that there are rules that so far have ensured that there have been no serious accidents, no mean feat considering the number of people crammed into such a small space in the extreme heat that is a given each year at La Tomatina, and the fact that large lorries pass through the crush. The Spanish are thought of as pretty lawless, but in fact, they stick to rules, once the canon signals the end of the fight, for example, they stop.
The rules published by the town hall of Buñol are simple, they follow, verbatim below:
The City Hall of Buñol has prepared a list of rules which will ensure that the Tomatina remains a celebration. These simple rules of civic responsibility and cohabitation are important for the festival to develop as usual, without any problem:
· You must not bring bottles or other type of objects which could cause an accident.
· You must not break(knot) or throw T-shirts.
· The tomatos must be squashed before throwing them, to avoid hurting people.
· You must be careful of any lorry.
· When you hear the second shot, you must stop throwing tomatos. offer a tour to La Tomatina each year, which includes travel to and from La Tomatina, and on the way back, showers, a swim and a paella lunch in a country restaurant and pool. It is a great way to enjoy the festival and your valuables are kept securely on the coach while you enjoy yourselves.