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Every year, 40 tonnes of tomatoes rain on the sleepy Spanish town of Buñol for Europe’s messiest festival. Here’s how to survive it

“The world’s biggest food fight”, La Tomatina is a red-soaked ruckus that crams more than 40,000 people into the narrow streets of a tiny Spanish town for the most frenzied hour of their lives – a no-holds-barred tomato war where it’s every man for himself.

No doubt Tomatina is on your to-do list, but it can be tough to know exactly what to expect from the festival. After all, how often do you travel about 850 miles for an hour’s food fight? Here, we give a first-hand account of this bucket-list bedlam, and a guide to everything else you should be doing in Valencia once the tomatoes stop flying.

Killer tomatoes

Dawn is breaking over the tiny town of Buñol. For 364 days a year, the streets are deserted at this time – but not today. Already buzzing, a crowd pushes towards the central square, pints of sangria and beer in hands, an edgy energy simmering.

It’s 6am and the tomato battle proper doesn’t commence until 11am, but those who have made it here already are glad they peeled their hungover bodies from their beds this morning. Behind them, an ever-thickening crowd streams down the hill; the narrow streets are already packed and, believe it or not, some La Tomatina aficionados have been here for hours, staking out the prized spot in the centre of town where a traditional ham hangs from a greasy pole.
The fight doesn’t start until a cannon sounds – in theory, after a determined climber brings down the ham. In reality, this is a near-impossible task. As the minutes go by, an electricty emanates from the crowd. It might be smiles and camaraderie now, but everyone knows war is about to break out.

Anticipation of the carnage to come begins to bubble over as heat, booze and testosterone combine to boiling point. By now, it’s difficult to move on the narrow streets as 45,000 people await the delivery of the 40 tonnes of rotting tomatoes, destined to become their ammunition. A bloke with a map of Australia tattooed on his back has scrambled on to a balcony and is swinging his T-shirt triumphantly above his head. Below him, guys form a circle and begin whipping each other with soaked shirts while, holding hands, a group of friends pushes through the mayhem in as-yet unsullied white. As beer is sloshed over feet, a cry of “Ole, Ole, Ole” goes up.

And then, suddenly, the cannon explodes. The crowd goes wild, baying for tomatoes, clamping goggles to heads, girls checking that their triple-layers of bikini, bra and sports-top are in place. At the end of the packed street a behemoth of a truck rumbles into sight, the facilitator of red oblivion. Atop the truck sit La Tomatina’s dedicated generals, rallying troops with the call: “Tomatina! Tomatina!” As the vehicle edges onwards it seems impossible it will fit through the blockade of bodies, but a pathway is cleared and somehow the fight is prepped to begin.

With a swoosh, a gargantuan pile of tomatoes is dumped and, as though a switch has tripped, the world turns red. Suddenly, those sharing an amicable joke a minute before are immersed in combat, each fruit slammed into a head retaliated ten-fold with handfuls thrown in faces, ground into hair, rammed down tops. Those wearing goggles find themselves blinded, windscreen wipers needed to clear an inch of red gunge from their panes. However, those without fare little better, peering between chunks of tomato that hang from eyebrows and stick to lashes.


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Painting the town red at Spain's infamous La Tomatina festival
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