Killer tomatoes never looked so good

La Tomatina

Never play with your food? Pavla Tolonen finds a place where you can.

Tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes, thirty degrees scorching heat and a town filled with adorably mad people ready to pellet each other into tomato juice oblivion – welcome to late-August Buñol in Valencia.

This 57-year-old tradition (officially) originally comprised only of the local folk but now attracts over 20,000 tourists a year, raking in well-deserved capital for the later tomato-drenched town of around 9,000 permanent inhabitants.

The event kicks off at 10am on the third Wednesday of every August with a public gathering to resolve the mystery of how to bring down a ham on a greased pole. After they successfully lower the ham, the council-funded tomatoes are released on to the town square, Plaza del Pueblo. The crowd bursts into song and dance, while being hosed down by friendly showers.

The start signal is by water cannon, after which the tomato bombardments last for around an hour or more. Part-takers are advised to squish the fruit before throwing and wear protective goggles and gloves. Flip-flops and cameras (except Aquatic cameras) are best left at home. Once the second water cannon is fired the festival is over, and the streets and the crowd can be hosed down.

Horrified tomato-lovers will be relieved to know that the tomatoes are not suitable for consumption as they taste bad. They come from Extremadura, in western Spain, where tomatoes are cheaper and especially grown for this event.

Naughty behaviour aside, the festival commemorates the legacy of St. Louis Bertrand (San Luis Bertràn), the patron saint of Buñol, and the Virgin Mary, or Mother of God of the Defenseless (Mare de Déu dels Desemparats), as they call her.

The origins of the event remain uncovered, but popular myths include a story of angry villagers attacking city councilmen at a public celebration. The event was banned under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, but was reinstated with full flare after his demise.

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