"You are the smartest person I know." The girl seemed serious in her praise, but I couldn't help but doubt her accuracy - after all, I was wedged in the middle of a crowd of 45,000 other people, waiting to throw tomatoes around for an hour, and she was talking about the fact that I'd brought a croissant with me.
We hadn't planned to go to La Tomatina. We had Eurail passes and wanted to visit Berlin, Scandinavia and Spain, and the easiest way to fit them all in was to catch a budget flight from Norway to Spain. Ryanair had recently started an Oslo-Valencia service, so we added Valencia to our otherwise sparse itinerary of Madrid and Barcelona.
We didn't realise we'd be on the scene of the greatest tomato fight on earth until a friend asked us if we'd be in Valencia for La Tomatina. And right up until the day before we weren't sure if we were going to go. But, we decided, we couldn't be there and NOT go. So we went.
We got up at 6am, a bit of a mission after a late one the night before. Catching the metro to the train station was easy, but the crowds waiting at the bottom of the steps of the train station were a precursor to the main event. We managed to get on the next train though, and were even sitting down for the 50-minute trip to Buñol.
Everyone poured off the train and down the long road to the square. Thousands of people were already in the streets when we arrived at 8.45, but we knew where we wanted to go and squirmed our way through the densely packed bodies until we could see the ham.
"Ham up a greasy pole" is one of the traditions of La Tomatina, which is held on the last Wednesday of August every year. Participants try to climb a greasy pole to slap the ham at the top. From our position, we had a good view of the crazy tourists mostly sliding down the pole, but occasionally reaching great heights. It gave us something to do for the two hours we had to wait until the tomatoes arrived.
The crowd around us was excitable - any advance up the pole was met with a cheer, as was the appearance of a local on a balcony with a bucket of water. Nearby, a group of locals were spraying the crowd with hoses, so there was a constant background cheer.
Things were being thrown around well before the tomatoes arrived - capless bottles and cups (empty or otherwise) arced through the air and onto the heads of the defenceless people below. I was hit variously by a lime, a bottle, a flip flop, and a t-shirt - and I think I was lucky.
Since we were wearing watches, we were the official timekeepers of our square metre of space. "One minute to go," I said, just as a horn sounded and a cheer went up throughout the square. A minute later, a truck rounded the corner and the first tomato flew through the air in our direction. The crowd pushed up into the walls of the square to let the truck past, and was rewarded with a barrage of tomatoes. People scraped the tomato off their hair and threw it again, but there wasn't time to really get into the fight, as the next truck was already coming around the corner.
I closed my eyes behind my sunglasses as the volunteers on each of the five trucks threw tomato after tomato into the throng. After the last truck had passed, people spread out into the square and began fighting in earnest. The street was 15cm deep in tomato juice, it was easy to scoop up a handful and throw it at the nearest person. I found an empty cup and filled it for greater volume - although it was in great demand and I almost lost it two or three times. One guy did manage to empty it over my head - the juice seeped through my closed eyelids and into my eyes.
It was awesome. We were covered in tomato and more was landing on our heads at every moment. Slowly, the momentum started to go out of the fight and we started moving towards the hoses, which drenched us (and our electronics) in a matter of seconds. Further back along the road, the crowd was even more densely packed and people were trying to move in all directions, despite calls of "you can't go this way" and "no hay salida". We were stuck, and the people around us weren't having a very good time. "Did you even throw one tomato?" a girl asked me as we were pressed into a wall by the crowd. "Yes," I replied. "You're lucky," she said "I've just been doing this the whole time."
The horn sounded and gradually the crowd started to thin as people headed back to the train station. We walked back slowly, stopping occasionally to be hosed off by a friendly local. We were turned away at the train station - apparently they don't like people covered in tomato on the train - and stood in line for one of the outdoor showers a few metres away. It wasn't very effective, but I passed muster and was allowed on the train, where we even found seats once again.
We had a great time, and knowing where to go had helped us be in the thick of the fight. Thousands of other people had gone but not even touched a tomato - they'd got to stand in a crowd for a couple of hours and that was it. Even people who'd gone on organised tours, thinking that would ensure them a slice of the action, missed out.
La Tomatina was an awesome experience, but if you're thinking about going be smart about it - and that doesn't just mean bringing a croissant.
Linda Martin and her husband Craig host the Indie Travel Podcast, a collection of audio, video, photos and articles showing how you can live travelling independently, full-time and debt-free.
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