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La Tomatina festival: Painting the town red, literally

This annual tomato-throwing fiesta in Spain has become a global tourist attraction. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, it would have been played today.

Every year, on the last Wednesday in August, the people of Buñol in Valencia, Spain, host the spirited celebration called La Tomatina that blends the best of a food fight and full-on freedom to let your hair down. Tourists from all over the world flock to the medieval town to get a taste of the tomato wars.

Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
Red she said. A girl enjoys La Tomatina to the fullest. Image: Shutterstock/Iakov Filimonov.

The song Ik Junoon from the 2011 film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was filmed at La Tomatina. Seeing the likes of actors Katrina Kaif, Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, and Abhay Deol, frolic at the fiesta, was probably the best introduction for most Indians to this festival, and it is now on many an Indian traveller’s bucket list. Similar to the vibe of Holi and Janmashtami celebrations in India, this one makes for a lot of fun moments and crazy pictures.

The back story

Apparently, this festival that is now so famous, began completely by accident. A parade in People’s Square in 1945 saw a few rowdy youngsters topple over a participant. The crowd retaliated by throwing tomatoes from a vendor nearby. They had so much fun doing this that buñoleros (the people of Buñol) decided to continue the tradition! Tomato throwing became so popular that the authorities banned it for a few years but had to reinstate it in 1957 by popular demand. The word spread and it became a tourist must do. Until 2013, the little town with less than 10,000 inhabitants, drew in crowds of up to 50,000 during La Tomatina. After that, in order to make it more manageable, it has become a ticketed event with a cap on the number of ketchuppers allowed inside. There’s also a mini-Tomatina for kids between four and 14 that’s held on the preceding Saturday so they don’t miss out on the fun.  

Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
The high-spirited battle of the tomatoes continues from all sides. Image: Shutterstock/Iakov Filimonov.

Make the most of La Tomatina

It’s been cancelled by the Buñol Town Council two years in a row because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But you can start planning for 2022, when it should resume in all its tomato-red glory.

  • You can book a hotel in advance or stay in Valencia, which is only 38 kms away.
  • Wear clothes and shoes that you don’t mind throwing away later.
  • Wear transparent protective glasses so the tomato juice and debris doesn’t get into your eyes.
  • Closed footwear is best as the ground gets really slippery after a while, and you may lose your slides or flip flops in the melee.
  • Leave all your gadgets behind unless you have special gear to protect them from all the tomato.
  • Arrive at the Plaza del Pueblo in the centre of the town at around 11 am. Trucks bring in tons of over-ripe tomatoes to various locations.
  • Wait for the water cannons to fire, signalling the start of the battle.
  • Once it’s on, all you have to do is grab tomatoes, squash each one a little bit so the juice oozes and start aiming the pulp at your friends (or foes!).
  • Look out for the two-storey tall, greased-up wooden pole with a coveted ham at the top called the Palojabon, which people will try to climb up. Whoever reaches the top first gets to keep the ham as a prize.
  • The festivities go on for about an hour (officially) and you’re supposed to stop when you hear the fireworks.
Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
The crowd goes wild with tomatoes and water sprays at La Tomatina, while shop owners protect their shopfronts with large blue plastic sheets. Image: Shutterstock/Iakov Filimonov.
Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
La Tomatina madness is everywhere. This house in the Plaza Del Pueblo square in downtown Buñol has a large photo of the festival on its wall. Image: Shutterstock/JoeLogan.
Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
There’s even a Tomatina Museum in town! Image: Shutterstock/JoeLogan.
Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
The historic centre of Buñol. Image: Shutterstock/JoeLogan.

Other attractions in Buñol

The ancient town has been inhabited for more than 50,000 years and has many interesting aspects for the tourist.

  • The medieval fort is called the Castillo de Buñol. Located on a hill between the Borrunes ravine and a moat, the 13th century castle also has two museums on its picturesque grounds. The Archaeological Museum has artifacts from the Paleolithic era. The Ethnological Museum brings a 19th century home to life.
  • You can pack a picnic to the scenic Parque de San Luis next to the Buñol River in the western section of the town. Visit the decorative chapel and the open-air auditorium called the Auditorio Municipal San Luis in the vicinity.
  • The Cueva Turche has a river pool and a waterfall close by.
  • The Masonic Cemetery here has more than 200 graves where you can see the Freemasons’ symbol of a compass and scale enclosed within a triangle.
Bunol, Valencia, Spain, La Tomatina
Buñol boasts a beautiful medieval castle. Image: Shutterstock/JoeLogan.

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