Imagine tomato goo running down your face, tomato seed creeping up your nose, and tomato pulp lacquering down your hair. This is exactly what will happen to you if you find yourself in a little village called Buñol in eastern Spain on the last Wednesday of August. You have just walked into the infamous La Tomatina.
The biggest food fight in the world starts with competitors scrambling up a greasy pole to dislodge a smoked leg of ham which is skewered at the top. After this feat of athleticism has been achieved old trucks trundle up the cobbled streets and dump 136,078kg (300,000 lb.) of over-ripe tomatoes onto a crowd of 40,000 tomato-pelting revelers. And so the fight ensues as skimpily clad women and bare-chested men hurl squashed tomatoes in any and every direction in what is a large communal effort at making a very large Bloody Mary. The red juices run down their arms and legs and stain the streets. For an hour there’s a haze of slush, sludge, slime, slop, and swill. Finally, a water gun fires to signal the end of the festivities. The bedraggled fighters are left to stagger to the riverside where makeshift showers are set up to wash away the fresh ketchup and the authorities begin to hose down the streets of this little town as if nothing remarkable had come to pass.
Unlike many festivals in Europe, La Tomatina has absolutely no historical significance and has nothing to do with the fact that the tomato, a universally popular item on every menu, is a South American fruit that was first introduced to Europe by a Spaniard in the 15th century. The festival’s origins only began in 1945 during a small carnival in this town 48km (30 miles) west of Valencia on the Mediterranean coast. Some rowdy audience members made use of a nearby grocer’s cart to pelt a poorly performing comic. The next year, students from Valencia decided to reenact the event, but the police quickly broke it up. The seed was sown, so to speak, and every year the locals chose to finish the carnival with an ever growing vegetable showdown. Gradually it became an annual event, with the authorities eventually giving in and recognizing it in 1959. It has since become an international event with people flocking from all over the world to take part in the pelting and pulping.
For Buñol it is a big event (well, probably the only event) in village life. The week building up to the party is full of eating, drinking, and dancing with parades and fireworks adding to the general excitement. A giant paella cooking contest is held as Valencia is also the home of this famous simmering rice dish. Giant cauldrons bubble along the town’s streets dominated by a medieval clock tower. Valencia itself has some fascinating architecture with a famous 14th-century gothic mansion called Llota de la Seda and a brand spanking new sci-fi riverside complex known as the City of Arts and Sciences. The port city is also famous for its vibrant nightlife and excellent restaurant scene. However, for 1 day of the year the focus shifts to the tiny village west. Young and old, fit and flabby gather in the main square of Buñol to throw over 150,000 ripe tomatoes at each other in a type of Ragu rave that is televised live around the country.
When to Go: Last Wed in Aug.
Valencia (48km/30 miles).
$$$ Hotel Las Arenas Balneario Resort, Eugenia Vines 22–24, Valencia (www.valencialasarenashotel.com). $$ Sorolla Palace, Avda Cortes Valencianas 58, Valencia ( 34/961/868-700; www.hotelsorollapalace.com).