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Every year some 40,000 people descend on the tiny Valencian town of Buñol for one day to pelt each other with tomatoes.
The story goes that, during a more sombre street parade back in 1945, a street fight broke out when one rowdy local started to pelt everyone with vegetables from a nearby market stall. A group of young people retaliated, and a huge food fight broke out. The following year, the same people picked a fight on purpose and brought their own supply of tomatoes. Although the police broke up the new tradition for a few years, and it was banned in the early 1950s, the popularity of the food fight lived on and the tradition was eventually brought back.
The fight only lasts for one hour, but during that time around 150,000 over-ripe tomatoes are splattered. These tomatoes were probably never going to be eaten – they’re low in quality, inferior in taste and are bought very cheaply from the Extremadura region of Spain.
At 10am on the day of La Tomatina, a jamón is hung on the top of a greasy pole in the crowded town square. The goal is to be the first person to climb up the slippery pole and retrieve the ham, with the crowd chanting and singing encouragement (all the while being drenched with water from hosepipes, for some reason). The moment the ham is dislodged, a loud signal goes off, the tomato trucks appear, and chaos ensues.
The majority of participants wear white, presumably because of the heat, or to see exactly how much of a mess the tomatoes make of their clothes. But you’ll see plenty of Spanish men hurling tomatoes at each other in just their underpants, while plenty of people wear swimming goggles or snorkelling gear to keep the purée out of their eyes and nose.
The one-hour tomato fight is such a big draw that it makes the little town of Buñol one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area. Accommodation is scarce and expensive in the town itself, so most arrive on packed trains from Valencia.
Tomatoes are apparently a natural disinfectant, meaning that after La Tomatina your skin will be cleansed of impurities. The town is also left surprisingly clean, with firefighters hosing down the streets – and people – after the battle.
The festival has been recreated all around the world, with versions of the event popping up everywhere from Colombia to China. One attempt at holding a similar tomato fight in Bangalore, India, was highly controversial because of the ‘wastage of tomatoes’, and the event was soon banned.
You know something must be a big deal when it has its own Google Doodle. Even Google marks the festival with its temporary banner celebrating La Tomatina.
La Tomatina is not just a short tomato fight. The week leading up to the main event is filled with parades, fireworks and paella cooking contests on the streets of the town.