What began as a breakdown of public order in Francoist Spain has achieved the status of Festival of International Touristic Interest. This is not the only one of Spain’s festivals in which an act of hijinks gave rise to a major folk tradition, but there is no better example of this than La Tomatina Festival in the town of Buñol in the province of Alicante.
In 1945, on the last Wednesday in August, the young people of Buñol were waiting in the town square for the parade of gigantes y cabezudos that took place during the town’s festival. When the parade arrived, the crowd joined the procession with so much enthusiasm that one of the participants was knocked onto the ground. He did not react well and started hitting everything in his path. His behavior was contagious and fighting broke out among the crowd. A vegetable stand got caught in the crossfire and people started throwing its tomatoes at each other until the police finally contained the spontaneous battle.
The following year, a group of young people provoked a similar scuffle in memory of this fun occasion, although this time they brought tomatoes from home. The tomato fight continued to grow in popularity, but it always ended the same way, with police intervention.
In the 1950s, La Tomatina was banned and as a result some participants were arrested, because rather than backing down, the crowds that attended the fight only continued to grow in number.
The Spanish authorities wavered in the face of this defiance. The government authorized La Tomatina, only to ban it once again in 1957. The response to this decision was a unique demonstration known as the Burial of the Tomato, in which one large tomato was placed inside a coffin and there was a procession with a band playing funeral marches. The initiative was a great success, as La Tomatina was finally permitted once and for all and added to the official program of the festival held in Buñol during the last week of August in honor of San Luis Bertrán and Our Lady of the Forsaken, the patron saints of the town. Over time it became more and more popular, enjoying a spike in popularity due to a news report about it that was broadcast on Spanish national television in 1983, and in 2002 the government of Spain declared it a Festival of International Touristic Interest.
The fight takes place on the last Wednesday of August from 10:00am to 1:00pm in Plaza del Pueblo. Today more than 30,000 people gather to throw tomatoes at each other for three hours. If you plan to attend the tomato fight, the advice for making sure your day goes off without a hitch is pretty simple.
Don’t bring bottles or hard objects that might cause accidents and injuries; throwing or ripping t-shirts is not allowed; in order to do the least damage possible, don’t crush the tomatoes before throwing them; stay a safe distance away from the trucks transporting the “ammunition”; and stop throwing tomatoes when you hear the gunshot that signals the end of the fight. As far as footwear goes, it’s better to wear closed-toe shoes rather than sandals, which are easier to lose in the commotion. You’ll want to wear old clothes, since they will be practically unwearable afterwards. Also, bring swimming goggles to prevent the tomatoes from getting in your eyes and stinging them, and a waterproof camera is best for taking photos.
It’s remarkable how this festival which originated in Spain in 1945 as a childish joke has transcended borders, now being imitated in places such as the Colombian town of Sutamarchán, San José de Trojas in Costa Rica, Dongguan in China, and Reno in the United States, among others.
La Tomatina is the perfect opportunity to explore the diverse town of Buñol. The town played a pioneering role in the industrialization of Valencia, and it is home to a wealth of history and artwork centered around a castle that has been pristinely maintained (visit our page about things to do in Buñol for more information). Buñol also has a wide variety of natural areas surrounded by mountains and forests with hiking and bicycle paths as well as rock climbing courses.