Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Leah Cotte

OLE, OLE . . . OLE, OLE . . . The words ring loud in my ears as the
hundreds of people from countries far and wide file endlessly into the main square of Bunol;  A small Spanish town located 40 kms west of Valencia.  Some people come dressed in shorts and flip flops.  Others are dressed ready for guerrilla war fare.  Yet no matter how appropriately or inappropriately dressed people appear to be, no one is fully prepared for the onslaught of the red tomato explosion known as La Tomatina

For most of the year Bunol is a quiet industrial town of approximately 9,000 residents.  The locals are friendly and welcoming.  They are more then happy to share a story over a bottle of Spain’s most popular drink, Sangria, and someone will always be able to point you in the right direction of a tasty Paella, the local Spanish rice dish.  Despite this, it is easy for one to assume that Bunol is a small country town where not a lot goes on.      

However, this is most certainly not the case!  Come the last weekend of August, the town’s streets become a mixture of vibrance and culture as thousands upon thousands of tourists flock to the area for the La Tomatina Festival.  The festivities begin early in the week in honour of the town’s Patron Saint, San Luis Bertran.  Fireworks light up the evening sky, whilst music and dancing in the streets keeps everyone celebrating into the early hours of the morning.  During the day the celebrations continue with parades, and the most exciting of all . . . The Great Paella cook off!      

Wednesday morning bright and early, sees house owners and shop keepers lining the fronts of their properties, doors and windows with plastic sheets in preparation for the 20,000 or so revellers expected to arrive for the World’s largest tomato fight.  Within hours the town square, Plaza Del Pueblo, is awash with travellers and locals alike. By 9am seasoned veterans mix with wide eyed first timers, all eager to secure a prime spot right in the midst of the action.  The excitement level grows as the first challenge of the day is revealed.  A greased up wooden pole, two stories high, is erected.  At the very top is the coveted ham.  The aim is simple . . . Climb up the pole and get the ham.  The reality is much harsher as the grease makes it virtually impossible to climb the pole.  Traditionally once the ham is collected the tomato fight begins, but by 11am the square is a sea of people.  With the ham still firmly placed on top of the pole, a siren is sounded and the fight has begun!            

It all begins and ends within the space of an hour.  Insanity ensues, and it’s every man and woman for themselves as almost 140 tonnes of tomatoes are trucked in from around the countryside.  People are dressed as bull fighters, some have the signature white shirt on, and then there is the Fanatics crew with their yellow swimming caps.  Bodies are squashed together, hands are in the air, and the chant Ole, Ole – Ole, Ole is sung at the top of everyone’s voices!  The first truck rolls through depositing the first load of tomatoes onto the surging crowd.  Then the mad scramble to lay your hands on a tomato begins.  People collect what they can and then, in keeping in line with one of the only rules, enthusiasts make sure the tomato is properly squashed as they start to pelt each other with their stash of tomatoes.  A second truck rolls through, followed shortly after by a third, fourth and fifth.     

As the sixth and final truck rolls through the hour draws to an end.  At midday the siren sounds again marking the end of the tomato fight. The air is ripe with the smell of mushed tomatoes and a mass exodus occurs as the crowd files out.  People wade through knee deep tomato slush.  Some go in search of a friendly local to hose them down.  Others opt for a quick dip in the Bunol River to cleanse themselves from the tomato pulp matted in their hair and mushed in their ears!  Fallen comrades are found, war stories shared and bruises compared!  A massive clean up operation begins as people come out of their houses to sweep up the streets, and clean up the outside of their houses.  Water is pumped in from a nearby Roman aqueduct, and by mid afternoon there is barely a trace of tomato left.  Bunol has never looked cleaner, and the brutal battle is over for another year!      

There are plenty of theories, but no one really knows exactly how or why La Tomatina came about.  Some believe it started in 1945 when a lorry truck jack-knifed spilling its entire load of tomatoes across the road.  In no rush to clean it up, the locals decided to amuse themselves in the tomato mess.  Another popular theory also sees La Tomatina begin in 1945.  However this theory centres its belief on a group of local boys who got carried away in a restaurant food fight.  Resulting in a yearly tradition, which slowly got bigger and bigger each year, to become what it is today.      

No matter what stories you have heard or what pictures you have seen from La Tomatina, nothing fully prepares you for the real thing.  It is definitely one thing that you need to experience for yourself to fully understand and appreciate it.  You might walk away thankful to be alive.  You might walk away slightly battered and worse for wear, but one thing is for sure . . . You will not walk away feeling disappointed.  You will walk away thinking “Man those Spanish sure know how to put on a festival”, and you will walk away knowing that you have done some Livin . .  La Tomatina style!