18 Hours of fun, Sludge and Sightseeing
So there I was, standing in my shorts and a pair of oversized goggles, a tomato in my hand, thinking, how on earth did I get here?
Column by Ollie Phillips
Five hours earlier I’d hurriedly thrown my passport into a bag along with a change of clothes before heading down to Gatwick to catch my 6:30am flight to Valencia. Praise to Easy Jet in this moment for making this sort of spontaneous decision making possible.
A spur-of-the-moment decision made, my school friend and I booked flights to Valencia to experience the annual La Tomatina festival, a thoroughly Spanish celebration that takes place at the end of the tomato season. It was something that I’ve always wanted to do but, silly as this now sounds because of the way that I did do it, I never had the time.
This year I vowed to make the time. Even if it was just a hit-and-run job.
I’m so fascinated by all these crazy celebrations and traditions that go on around the world. And La Tomatina is no exception. Since 1945, La Tomatina has been held on the last Wednesday in August in a sleepy, little town outside of Valencia called Buñol. No one is quite sure how the first Tomatina actually happened.
Some say angry townspeople rioted and threw tomatoes at their councilmen. But, like most historic traditions, in reality, no one knows for sure. All we know is that people enjoyed this regulated tomato throwing and so they repeated it, year after year after year.
And it was just as epic as I’d hoped. There were 15,000 people who lined the streets of Buñol from 11 in the morning. The local farmers brought in lorry loads of over-ripe tomatoes and dumped them in the streets. The reason they bring in the over-ripe ones is to avoid injury to any of us participating. One of the four rules at La Tomatina is that your tomato must be squashed before throwing!
And so the fight begins. Before you know it you’re knee deep in tomatoes, getting pelted with tomatoes and trying not to open your mouth so you don’t accidentally end up munching on one of these stray, over ripened missiles. I can understand now why we had to wear goggles!
The local people made sure that we never ran out of tomatoes. Once one batch gets horribly mushy, they just came down the road with a new load and replenished the stock. Once we were all done pelting each other with tomatoes, which lasted about an hour, the local fire brigade appeared to hose the town, and everyone else, down, or at least try to clean us up a bit. The amazing thing is that, because of the acidity of the tomatoes, the cobblestone streets of the town are completely clean. Not a stained stone in sight, shame the same couldn’t be said for my shorts and t-shirt!
After cleaning off (slightly) we got the bus back to Valencia for a bit of a late lunch and then did a bike tour round the city. It’s seriously one of the most stunning towns. Then, after a spot of more sightseeing, we took the train back to the airport and were back in our beds in London by 11:30pm. Not bad for a whirlwind 24-hour mini-break!
It’s just so easy. We did it totally “last minute.com” and just thought we’d fly by the seat of our pants for a day. And now it’s sort of galvanised loads of people to come with me next time!
But I think I need to discover other festivals around Europe and even across the world. The bull running in Pamplona is the next one on my list. It’s when hundreds of people take to the streets in the city of Pamplona and effectively run with the bulls that have been let loose in a sectioned-off area of the town’s streets.
The run usually features six bulls which will then be part of the bullfight that takes place in the evening. The route through the city was traditionally one that was used to transport the bulls from the fields to the bullring for the evening’s fight. During the run, young men would run alongside the bulls to prove their bravery to the watching crowd.
Now I guess it’s much the same, although people come from all around the world to take part in the festivities.
And that’s what I love about all these seemingly bizarre but historic festivals: they attract people from across the globe to go and visit even the smallest of towns. Some festivals are mad; some are strange; and some are downright terrifying.
Take for example football in Florence. Not quite football as we know it but more like a cross between a street fight, rugby and traditional football. It seems to me that basically the four quartieres of the city come together to effectively fight one another for the title.
Known as Calcio Fiorentino, it’s a sport not for the fainthearted. Actually I don’t even know if it is a sport…it makes rugby sevens look like a walk in the park! I would never want to compete but I’d love to go and watch. Although there are referees, for an outsider at least, it seems as though there are no rules. Or at least none that are actually followed.
But these are the celebrations that keep travel interesting. A sport that seems more like a brawl; a death-defying run through the streets of a city; and of course the chance to throw tomatoes at total strangers. What’s not to love?