Practical Advice for Attending Spain’s Messiest Festival, la Tomatina

If I could live on one food for the rest of my days, I would choose the tomato (or maybe ice cream…just not tomato ice cream). Like Bubba Gump can eat shrimp in every which way, I’m a huge lover of the perfect fruit/vegetable/I don’t even care and easily eat them daily.

Then, say you, what happens when my friend convinces me to hop a flight to Valencia to attend the Tomatina, a tomato chucking festival and one of Spain’s most well-known fêtes?

You say tomato, I say HELL YEAH!

A Brief History of La Tomatina

Buñol, a small village just a half hour’s drive from Valencia, has been practically half-asleep for its history. In the mid 1940s, however, a group of youngsters wanting to demonstrate during the town’s festivals grabbed a bunch of tomatoes from a local frutería and began throwing them. The following year, they did the same. Since the early 1950s, the town hall has allowed revelers to chuck tomatoes (grown in Extremadura and unsuitable for eating) on the last Wednesday of August.

The Tomatina is now considered a Festival of Touristic Interest – so much so that the town decided to limit the entrances this year, allowing just 20,000 tickets to be sold to help pay for operating costs, including clean-up and security. About 5,000 of these were reserved for the residents of Buñol.

Getting to Buñol

The town of Buñol is located about 40km inland from the region’s capital of Valencia, cozied up to a mountain. Served by the regional RENFE commuter trains on the C-3 line, you can arrive to Buñol’s train station (if you can call it that) in 45 minutes. The station is located at what locals call ‘Buñol de Arriba,’ or the part of the pueblo on the hill, and there are plenty of places to buy souvenirs, leave your bag at a local’s house in exchange for a few bucks, and grab a beer or sandwich.

In the end, we decided to take a tour bus, which promised round-trip transportation and safe-keeping of our belongings. Though Kelly and I made an effort to speak the bus driver to get an idea of just how safe the bus would be in the middle of a festival of drunk guiris, we watched the bus pull out 20 minutes before the assigned return time, and we were forced to wait 90 minutes while it went to Valencia and came back for us. We had decided to take our bags with a change of clothes and snacks with us and store them at a local’s house, thankfully, or we would have been cold and stinky for hours. The organization was terrible and not worth the 35€ we paid for the entrance, transportation and luggage storage. If we did it again, we’d take the cercanías train.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to the Tomatina after this year – revelers are required to pay a 10€ entrance fee, and only 15,000 tickets are allocated for visitors. While there was outcry that the town hall of Buñol has privatized the festival without debate, I personally thought this was the best way to make the party accessible and enjoyable.

The Clothing and Gear

Rule of Thumb: everything you wear to the Tomatina will be covered in tomato gunk and stink, so be prepared to part with it once the tomato slinging is done. I threw everything away but my swimsuit!

Kelly and I made a run to Decathlon for a plain white cotton T, elastic biking shorts, a swim cap and goggles. You’ll see people in costumes, in plastic rain coats, in swimsuits and the like. We also bought disposable waterproof cameras, a small wallet for our IDs and health insurance cards and paper money, which we put into plastic bags.

I was surprised to see the number of people with GoPros. Having gotten mine for the Camino and then unpacking it for sake of weight, I wish I would have had it on me. Word on the street is that you can get relatively cheap cases for your DSLR or point-and-shoot, so consider it if you want better pictures than this:

Without fail, you should bring a change of clothes. Most townspeople near the center of the village will let you use their hoses for a minimal fee, but wearing wet clothes in damp weather won’t do you any favors. I brought a simple dress and a pair of flip-flops for the after party that rages on all afternoon, as well as a bottle of water and a sandwich. Food and drink is available in Buñol, and for cheaper than the Feria de Sevilla!

The logistics of La Tomatina

There are two parts to the city of Buñol: la de arriba (upper Buñol) and la de abajo (lower Buñol). Kelly and I got a call from our friend Gatis just as we pulled into the parking lot. Scoping out the party, we assumed we were near the entrance, so we told him we’d meet him at the gates in 10minutes, after we dropped off our bags.

Turns out, the village is a lot longer than we thought, and it took us far longer to get there!

When you sign up for the Tomatina, you’ll be given a wristband that you must show to access Plaza del Pueblo, where the action takes place. You then have to walk about 500m downhill towards the castle, passing food stands and bars, before arriving to two of four access gates. Show your wristband, but not before going to the bathroom – there is NOWHERE to pee once you’re in Buñol de Abajo.

Shortly before 11am, one of the townspeople participates in the palo de jabón. Climbing up a wooden pole slicked with soap, the trucks can officially pass through once the pueblerino has reached the top and hoisted the ham leg, which sits at the very top, over his head. Five trucks carrying tons and tons of tomatoes will pass through once a siren has been sounded. Participants understand that they cannot throw anything but tomatoes (which you should squeeze first to avoid injury), and only between the sirens signifying the beginning and end of the event, which only lasts one hour.

Those who live in the city center board up their houses and drape plastic sheets over their facades, though they’re quick to douse you with water after you’re finished. Call them campeones – they’ll hit you with water first.

The majority of the after party from what we could see is held in the part of the town uphill. There was music, beer and sausages. Had I not been so cold and smelly, it would have been my happy place.

The Experience

I can’t say that experiencing La Tomatina was ever on my Spain bucketlist (and neither is San Fermines, so don’t ask if I’ll ever go to the Running of the Bulls). But when a week with nothing to do, a cheap place ticket and an eager friend suggested going, I figured this would be my one and only chance to do so. Am I glad I did it? Most definitely, but I’m not planning on signing up for it again.

That said, it was a lot of fun. Being crunched up between total strangers, mashing tomatoes in their hair and putting it down the backs of their shirts, swimming afterwards in what was essentially an enormous pool of salmorejo, was serious fun. Belting out Spanish fight songs, squashing the fruit so as not to hurt anyone when I pelted him with it. The water fights, the after party, the townspeople who so graciously gave us their gardens and their hoses to use (Luisa, I’m looking at you, and we owe you a bottle of your beloved fino). I even found the downpour just before 11am to be hilariously good fun.

Have you ever been to the Tomatina, or are you interested in going? What’s your favorite festival in Spain – have car, will rock out – y’all know me!

Spain Snapshots: The Lonja de la Sede, Valencia

The Llotja de Sede was once the Valencia’s major trading post, leaving behind a legacy as a great merchant city on the Mediterranean. Named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1990s for its late gothic architecture and impact on commerce, the museum was crowned with gargoyles and inlaid iron and gold work.

Thanks to the wealth that Valencia once enjoyed as an important port and commercial city, the entire structure was built with no expense spared with the purpose of not only housing trade and tribunals, but also to show off the money the city brought in.

Having already been to Valencia several times each, Kelly and I beelined straight from our apartment near the Quart Towers to the Lonja, as it’s known in Castillian Spanish. After seeing where merchants once bartered and traded, we did a little but of our own shopping through Carmen’s boutiques and whimsical shops. Valencia had never really done it for me on my two previous visits – it seemed too brash with its nightlife and as if the Arts and Sciences complex had taken all the fun out of exploring the old city.

Being able to explore the grandiose halls and chapel of the Llotja and realize its impact on the city’s wealth and history made Valencia a little more humanized for me.

If you go: The Lonja de Sede is located in front of the Mercat Central in the Barrio del Carmen. The cost for non-students and non-residents is 2€, and you can visit between 1oam – 2pm and 4:30 – 8:30pm Tuesday – Saturday and from 10am – 3pm on Sundays. Plan about three-quarters of an hour to see the Great Trading Chamber, courtyard and tower.

Tapa Thursdays: Heladería Llinares and its Wacky Ice Cream Flavors

Outside of Italy, I’d never seen a group of camera-clad tourists so fascinated by a street side ice cream display. In a city known for its rice dishes, avant-garde architecture and brash fireworks display (oh, and being the region from which those crazies the Borgias came from), I never expected to see such fuss over an heladería.

As we got closer on a walk around Plaza de la Reina of Valencia, crowned by the cathedral, I realized why.

Behold:

Yes, those flavors are cream of shellfish, Asturian bean stew, anchovies in vinegar and gazpacho. The girl in line in front of us tried a bit of the fabada stew and spit it out immediately. I dared to try the anchovies (which I normally only eat with picadillo), and it tasted like just that: fishy vinegar.

The girl scooping ice cream behind a high counter turned up her nose at the girl, telling us that all of the flavors were artisan and made in the company’s obrador, just like Dispensa de Palacio in Estepa. Just for good measure, we tried gazpacho and tortilla. They tasted just like the flavors they claimed to be.

But don’t worry, if you’re not adventurous, Heladerías Llinares has all of the normal flavors and a few twists, too. I chose piña colada and mojito, preferring something fresh to something chocolatey. The company operates several ice cream shops, but the most central is located in Plaza de la Reina, 6, and open daily until midnight. A cup or cone with two flavors will cost you just 2,20€ – not much more than you’d pay for an ice cream bar on the beach.

What’s the strangest ice cream flavor you’ve ever eaten?

Sleeping in Spain: A Guide to Accommodation (and 30€ Voucher Giveaway!)

If there’s one thing that’s weathering the Spanish economic downturn (no doubt tied to the weather itself), it’s the tourism industry. Accounting for nearly 11% of 2012’2 GDP, Spain constantly pushes the envelope within the tourism industry and has grown to be the second-largest in the world!

Where will you be pillow hugging tonight?

One aspect that sets Spain apart is its ample offering of accommodation and luxury brands. Iberostar, Melià and Bareclò hotels are considered some of the best brands in the world, and backpackers can find a haven nestled on cobblestone streets or just steps from a private beach. Still, in an ever-changing industry, there’s quite a bit of confusion as to each type of accommodation, and sometimes where to find it at an affordable price (don’t worry, there’s an entrance to a voucher at the end of this explanation!).

The view from the rooftop bar at Seville’s Hotel EME.

Hotels, like in any country of the world, are plentiful and of varying quality. There’s also been a recent surge of new hotels offering boutique accommodation, quirky decor and plenty of character. Spain’s tourism board has instituted a nationwide ranking, using the Q of quality and between 1 and 5 stars. Hotels are marker with a white H and the ranking below. High season is during the summer months, local festivals and Christmas time, so expected steeper prices and less availability.

The Spanish government now controls a network of historic buildings converted into luxury hotels, called paradores. From castles to convents, a night in the sumptuous lodging will typically run you more than an average hotel, but booking during the low season can ensure a one-of-a-kind experience in a historically important building.

Tiles on the outdoor terrace of the parador in Carmona, Andalusia.

Hostels and Albergues  are often considered a common type of backpacker accommodation, they are as varied as one could imagine. Typically, they can be found in city centers and offer beds in shared or private accommodation, shared bathrooms and common areas such as living rooms, rooftop terraces or kitchens. Most beds in a shared dorm are less than 20€ a night, making it an ideal place to meet other travelers through free events and walking tours.

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

Slightly nicer than hostels, pensions (pensiones) are more budget-friendly than hotels and are typically smaller, too. Most similar to boarding houses, one can expect loads of hospitality and often meals!

Thanks to Spain’s varied landscape, rural accommodations are becoming popular, particularly for families wishing to escape city life.

A bed at Almohalla 51, a luxury rural house in Archidona, Spain

Apartment Stays are also becoming a popular way to live like a local in larger cities. Available for days, weeks or months, a piso turístico will allow travelers the privacy of their own space while having access to amenities. Typical rates for a month can be between 500 – 800€, depending on the season.

Camping remains a cheap and popular option for staying in Spain, particularly on the coast. Rates are low, even during the summer season, and most offer on-site food and washing facilities.

No joke, I spent a night here in the Islas Cies.

I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in a tent on the pristine Playa de Rodas in Galicia, an ancient piso in front of the Basilica Santa María del Mar in Barcelona and a friendly pensión within earshot of the tingling churchbells of Santa María la Blanca in Seville. My head has rested in sumptuous hotels from Toledo to Valladolid, as well as old fortresses, which is why I’m excited to present you all with my newest giveaway.

I’m teaming up with Your Spain Hostel to offer a giveaway of a 30€ voucher to be used on Your Spain Hostel on any property in any city you’re interested in visiting in Spain. Simply enter by leaving your email address and telling me in the comments where you’d like to travel to in Spain should you win the voucher (extra points if you send a postcard!), or otherwise!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

From a bungalow on the beaches of Ibiza to a casa rural in Cangas de Onís, Your Spain Hostel is your one-stop destination for unique and quality accommodation around Spain. The site also provides discounts on tours, entrance to sites, food and even taxi pick-up! You can win extra entries by following both Your Spain Hostel and Sunshine and Siestas on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy travels for 2013! Where are you headed, and where do you like to rest your head at the end of a long day of tourism and tapas? Got any great recs?

 

Valencia Nocturna

The most curious thing I ever noticed about Valencia was the bat that hovers over the city crest. I had to squint, as I was coming off a wild weekend in Ibiza during my study abroad month. Present since the medieval reigns of kings on several coats of arms, the bat nowadays crowns the alcantarilla street covers, as well as the serves as the symbol of the Valencia Club de Fútbol, one of the top teams in the division.

It’s fitting, of course, as Valencia seems to be the ciudad nocturna – a place where nightlife booms and people (and boundless study abroad students) never seem to rest.

I set out with Camarón to explore the city I barely got out in when visiting, save a trip to the famed Ciutat de les Arts i Ciencies and a near-death experience driving to the beach with a 16-year-old German. Turning up from my hostel towards the city center, home to the Borgia palace and the Holy Grail (reputedly), small side streets covered in graffiti jutted off to either side, inevitably leading through the web of streets to the cathedral. Like all medieval cities, the buck stops at the Holy House, so I steered past the Torres de Quart.

The gate, it turns out, is the one once used by travelers (and feudal lords) entering from the mountains. The church of Saint Ursula sat quietly in its wake, no doubt witness to all those entering the old city. Near-empty bars and cafés sat along the way as bartenders looked bored, glancing down the Calle des Quarts to discos further up the road. I looked back over my shoulders towards the gate, able to get a full-on view.

I kept my eyes open for interesting graffiti or a bar throbbing with people, but no one seemed to be around. I wondered if Valencia was the destination I’d always heard it was.

As I inched closer to the city center, camera poised, the slinky alleys began growing wider and the streetlights cried out. I was approached by a man wielding a plastic bag. ¿Cerveza? Beer? Like Madrid, I was hounded by foreigners hocking cold drinks. The lights grew harsher, as did the raucous music coming from the bars up and down the street.

Study abroad students, sleeveless in the chilly night air, stood contemplative in my wake. “Omygod I was totally out till 5am last night. Sooooo drunk!” one girl mused as a tall friend bought a beer off the street. Natives leaned casually against the stone walls of the Casa Borgia sipping gintoncitos. I felt like I was gasping for air, suddenly too overwhelmed at all of the people and afraid someone would take Camarón.

Arriving at Plaza de la Virgen, awash in yellow light and nearly empty, save some teenagers on skateboards and the municipal cleaning crew, the square was a welcome respite. I remember eating an incredible duck a l’orange at a small bar tucked away on a side street seven years ago. It seemed amazing that I was in a city that I really didn’t care for and soaking in a totally new place.

Walking around the sprawling church, the light was suddenly gone. No one was next to the Miguelete tower or around in the courtyard adjacent the Archbizopal palace. It was quiet and the city took on a medieval feeling.  Even the Pope came along.

At the edge of the cathedral lies a gargantuan square that gives way to the new city, dripping in Victorian boulevards and more street food than I had imagined (I cursed myself for eating the overpriced tapa in the airport). Ah, yes, what Spain specializes in: mixing old with new.

Walking around Valencia at night made me love nocturnal Seville more (despite being voted one of the most poorly lit cities in Spain) : the rings of the puente de Triana reflected on the Río Guadalquivir, the towers of Plaza de España.

As I walked back to my hostel down empty alleys, the beer men called out again. ¿Cerveza guapa? ¿Te gusta esto? Maybe he was referring to himself, but I’ll just keep thinking he was asking if I liked Valencia.

Have you been to Valencia? What was your favorite site, in or outside the city? Are there any cities you’ve only known nocturnally?

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