It’s that time of year again. Winter is creeping up on us, casting grey clouds over our university, while sheets of rain stunt our motivation for those 9am lectures (okay, so we never had the motivation for them in the first place, but the rain isn’t making them any easier). And as our winter approaches, everyone seems to be jet-setting off on a European adventure to soak up the rays which are so rudely ignoring our part of the world.
And we know what summer in Europe means; festivals.
Around this time, we expect crazy and vibrant and exhilarating festivals for any reason. But in my memory, one event in particular stretched the limits of every possible expectation. Hosted every year, on the final Wednesday of August in Bunol, Spain, is the world’s largest food fight, otherwise known as La Tomatina. Before going to this 70 year old festival, I had come to terms with the fact that Spain was a lot more full on than where I’m from. But I was not prepared enough for what I had to face at the festival. No matter how much you’re told about a certain place, or how much you research or prepare for it, you will never be completely ready until you’re there, and this was no exception.
I know what you’re thinking. “I already know what the Tomato festival is. It’s where a bunch of tourists get drunk and throw tomatoes at each other.” Well, look, you’re not wrong. But there is so much more to the event than you may originally believe. Before the tomatoes come out, before the chaos and mayhem of the brutal war even begins, a whole host of other traditions must first take place.
Exactly how the bizarre tradition began is still speculated. Some say it all started with some young children from the town, a horrible busker, and a hand-full of tomatoes used to shut him up. Others believe a parade through the streets of Bunol went awry when a fight broke out near a vegetable stand. Either way, the act managed to stick and be repeated for many years to come.
Now, over 50 years after its inception, hundreds of stalls are perched on the side of the road trying to sell traditional sangria as you, a humble warrior in this mighty war, make your way to the street where the fight takes place. Not only do the locals embrace the annual tradition by selling traditional food and drink, but those who actually live in the street where the fight occurs (yeah, there are people living there) flock to the roofs of their buildings with even more sangria and massive buckets of water, to pour on the sweltering people below. As the tiny, narrow street fills with tourists and locals combined, drenched in sweat, alcohol and fresh water, a courageous bunch of individuals will try to climb a two-storey-high pole covered in slippery animal fat and claim the leg of ham perched atop it.
Yeah, you heard right. For hours before the first tomato is thrown, everyone attending the festival crams into the slender street and cheers others on as they make every many and varied attempt at claiming the leg of ham. And it’s no easy challenge. In the past few years of the tomato festival, the leg of ham has remained untouched and unclaimed, leaving a string of disheartened, animal fat and tomato covered festival goers in its wake.
So by 11am, you can imagine 22,000 excited people all waiting for the first cannon to signal the beginning of war. You can imagine the ancient street, the width of only two cars where they’re all crammed in. And you can imagine the anticipation. Whether you scaled the building walls for a better scope of the juice-drenched crowd (careful! If you stand on something tall, people tend to see you as an easy target), or were thrown around in what was affectionately coined “The Kill Zone,” the area where truck loads of tomatoes would be unceremoniously dumped every 10-15 minutes for a frenzy of festival goers to dive upon, you’ll end up completely a part of the festivities.
By the end of the fight when the final cannon has sounded, you’re literally shin deep in a brutal mixture of 50% tomato juice, 20% sangria, 20% water, and 10% urine and vomit (urine from people who didn’t want to lose their precious place before the fight, and vomit from people who suffered one too many tomatoes to the mouth or one too many sangrias to the stomach).
So while your friends are off gallivanting amongst the European sun, while you’re struggling to think of a new way to put off that 3000 word essay, remember to expect the unexpected. But most importantly, if you’re expecting a massive tomato fight, expect to be standing shin deep in someone else’s urine too.