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La Tomatina: Spain’s Biggest Food Fight

Sometimes the usual list of museums, art galleries and historic monuments just isn’t enough to make your vacation memorable. Sometimes a new food discovery or a travel romance isn’t even going to cut it. When all else fails, then, why not get involved in a gigantic city-wide food fight? That’s exactly what you can do when you take part in La Tomatina, the tomato food fight in Spain.

Every year, on the fourth Wednesday in August, throngs of people crowd into the little town of Buñol in the Valencia region to begin pummeling one another with overly ripe tomatoes. And before you ask yourself “why,” let me tell you – it’s to honor the town’s patron saints, that’s why. I mean, if you were a patron saint, wouldn’t you want to be honored by a massive food fight? I know I would.

To be perfectly accurate, the food fight itself is only one component of the La Tomatina festival, and it’s the whole festival which honors the patron saints of Buñol (Luis Bertràn & the Virgin Mary). The whole festival lasts for a week, and includes music, parades, and fireworks – and on the night before the tomato fight, there’s a big paella-cooking contest (while the shopkeepers in town scramble to cover their storefronts with plastic sheeting to keep them from becoming inundated with tomato juice).

The tomato throwing portion of La Tomatina only dates back to the mid-1940s, but to this day no one’s quite sure why it became part of the annual festival. It remains one of the most popular annual events in the region, drawing tourists from throughout Spain and from many other countries as well, although the tomato fight itself lasts for only one hour.

Despite the chaotic nature of the La Tomatina tomato food fight, there are rules, which include the requirement that tomatoes be crushed before throwing, a prohibition against tearing other peoples’ clothing, and a prohibition against bringing dangerous items like glass bottles. Perhaps my favorite rule, however, says that the actual tomato throwing can’t begin until someone has successfully climbed a heavily greased wooden pole and removed the hunk of ham that’s been tied to the top of the pole. Yes, you read that right – greased pole and hunk of ham and all.

Of course, these rules also routinely get ignored, so for your own safety you’re advised to bring (and wear!) goggles, and wear clothing that you don’t ever plan to wear again… Unless you come to La Tomatina again next year, that is.

One note for those of you who have decided that you want to make La Tomatina a part of your next vacation in Spain – Buñol itself is quite small, and so doesn’t have a massive number of hotel or hostel rooms to choose from. If you don’t have an opportunity to book your accommodation well in advance, the good news is that the city of Valencia (with lots of hotels & hostels) is not far away – it’s about 38km from Buñol, and you can get there & back via bus or train.

Here’s a good vide overview of the La Tomatina festival, including the pole-climbing and the introduction of the tons of tomatoes by the truck that pulls into the main street. Notice the blue plastic covering most of the buildings.

Parts of the official La Tomatina website are in Spanish only, but looking at the pictures and video is plenty of fun in any language.