La Tomatina (1)
The last Wednesday in August
La Tomatina must surely rank as one of the most bizarre and downright infantile fiestas on earth, a world-famous summer spectacular in which thirty thousand or so finger-twitching participants try to dispose of the entire EU tomato mountain by way of a massive hour- long food fight. It’s an event especially appealing to repressed northern Europeans, Americans and Japanese, who swarm to the otherwise unremarkable Spanish town of Bunol each year on the last Wednesday of August, accompanied by legions of TV crews and photographers to document the carnage. Hurling 130,000 kilos of over-ripe tomatoes at each other until the streets are ankle-deep in a sea of squelching fruit is a strangely liberating experience. At the very least, it’s the one fiesta where you can truly say that you’ve painted the town red.
La Tomatina is a rarity among Spanish fiestas in that its origins are neither religious nor political. In fact, it is very much a newcomer on the Spanish festival scene. There are three distinct versions of how it got started, although all accounts agree that it began some time during the 1940s. Take your pick from the following.
One story tells of a group of friends starting an impromptu food fight in Bunol’s main square, using the tomatoes from their salads as ammunition, and drawing passers-by into the proceedings until they had so much fun that they decided to return each year to re-enact it. Another claims that an itinerant musician arrived in town, but his singing was so dire that a group of local youths started hurling insults at him. Not satisfied with the effects, they then proceeded to pelt him with tomatoes from a stall in the main square, and eventually the whole town joined in until the musician fled. A third story describes a mass brawl that broke out during the annual carnival parade, during which the participants used fruit and vegetables from a nearby stall as ammunition – again, having so much fun that they returned the following year to relive the incident.
However it started, for a while La Tomatina was outlawed as the authorities feared it was getting out of control – but the locals frequently defied the ban. In 1951, the participants were arrested and imprisoned, but the uproar amongst residents was such that the authorities were forced to set them free. In 1957, after the fiesta was banned once again, locals held “The Tomato’s Funeral”, a parade led by a coffin containing a giant tomato and followed by a band playing mournful funeral marches. The authorities eventually relented in 1959, but this time introduced certain restrictions on activities, which included an official start and end to the proceedings to be indicated by the firing of a rocket. From then on the fight became an institution, and by the 1980s the local town council actually had taken over its organization, with the result that it’s now a well-orchestrated event that’s almost too efficient, and well-attended, for its own good.
Things get going early on the morning of the fiesta, with ambulances and fire engines lining the streets (although there are hardly ever any casualties), temporary stalls selling bocadillos (stuffed baguettes) and commemorative T-shirts, and a steady stream of people flooding into town. As the sticky summer heat begins to build, the crowds, generously lubricated with wine and beer, begin to funnel into the narrow town square, the Plaza del Pueblo, while locals, young and old, are busy attaching protective plastic sheeting their house fronts, draping them over the balconies and bolting the shutters.
When the sun eventually reaches the square the heat begins to get unbearable, and the now heaving crowd call for “agua, agua”. Neighbours lining the balconies above respond by showering everyone with ice-cold buckets of water, while the fiesta organizers spray high-pressure hoses over the waiting throng – quite a relief if you’ve been jammed in there bn hours. Once you’ve towelled off, watch out for the “jabon be palo competition, which also goes on in the square, as contestants attempt to scramble up a liberally greased pole reach a huge leg of jamon serrano (smoked ham). By midday, the plaza and surrounding streets are brimming
of overheated humans, and the chant of “to-ma-te, to-ma-te”begins to ring out across the town, accompanied clapping and punching of the air – the Spanish equivalent of a Maori war dance.