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!

Shooting My First Wedding: Andrea y Carlos

I’m a sucker for a good love story. Maybe it’s the midday hours watching Spain’s answer to Lifetime: Television for Women, but having been in a relationship for the last 5.5 years, I find myself seeing myself settle down, and for real this time.

I especially love the stories when people have overcome language barriers, visa issues, and the naysayers. When a fellow blogger married her gatidano boyfriend a few years ago, I loved his English vows, claiming that a bilingual relationship is twice as enriching, twice as fun. I wholeheartedly agree. How great is making Thanksgiving for your extended family or teaching one another idioms and swear words?

I’m just one of many who have fallen in love abroad and who fumbled in Spanish for love, so when my friend Andrea called me and asked if I’d be interested in photographing her wedding to her sevillano, Carlos, I jumped at the opportunity. Being another guiri-sevillano couple it was a pleasure to help them capture their special day that was full of laughs and a ton of love. Like the Novio’s family, Carlos’s relatives have really embraced Andi and their bilingual love.

The couple put together their day in just a few shorts weeks, and Andi was quick to recommend a great place to find wedding supplies at wholesale prices. I spent hours researching shots, looking for interesting places around Triana and Plaza de España to take pictures of the pair, and testing lighting in the venue. When I turned in the pen drive with 5.8GB of photos, video and touched up shots, Andrea and Carlos told me that they would be delighted if I shared them. Shooting a couple that was in love and looking forward to their new life in Maine was such a pleasure, and I was flattered that they asked me and Camarón to join in.

I had loads of fun shooting Andrea and Carlos’s wedding, from Andi’s hair appointment into the wee hours of the morning. If you’re looking for someone to shoot special events, get in contact with me at sunshineandsiestas[at]gmail.com

Tapa Thursdays: Caracoles

Spain is a country in which some foods are seasonal: pumpkins are ripest around Autumn, chestnuts are peddled on the street at Christmastime and strawberries show up on the market in February or March.

Then the signs start showing up: HAY CARACOLES. Snails here.

For someone who’s a texture freak when it comes to food, I slurped down my first little tentacled creature during my first Spring in Seville. And I wanted more. Like shrimp, I’ve learned to love them and giddily wait for la temporada de caracoles.

What it is: This little bugger, a common snail in English, has been eaten since the Bronze Age, and in Spain they’re prepared by cleaning the mollusk while it’s still alive, and boiling them over low heat with garlic, spices, salt and cayenne pepper for nearly two hours. You can get a tapa for around 1,80€, a plate for 5€ or even buy bags of live snails on the street near market and make them at home.

Where it comes from: Snails are eaten all over the place, but the caracoles that you’ll commonly find in Seville are found near the Atlantic coast and in Morocco.

Goes great with: Alright, it’s getting trite now…everything just tastes better with beer. The Novio and I often meet after work for a beer or two and a tapa of caracoles.

Where to find them: Bars all over Seville (as well as Córdoba) will serve up tapas of caracoles during the springtime. My picks are Casa Diego in Triana (Calle Esperanza de Triana, 19. Closed Sundays) and Cervecería La Tiza in Los Bermejales (Avda. de Alemania, s/n. Open daily).

Like caracoles? Have a Spanish food you’d like to see featured on my bi-weekly tapas feature? If you’re interested in learning more about mollusks, read more on my guest post on Spanish Sabores.

Jaded Expat: Four (and a half) Things I Dislike About Living in Seville

I love my adoptive city, but life in Seville is not all sunshine and siestas.

Truth be told, Seville was never on my list of places to study, let alone live. My plans included free tapas along Calle Elvira, views of the Alhambra from my window and weekend ski trips to the Sierra Nevada. But the Spanish government had other plans for me, sending me to work as a Language and Culture Assistant in the town of Olivares, 10 miles west of the capital of Andalusia.

In retrospect, it was a disappointment that initially had me thinking twice about my decision, then became perhaps the best choice I’ve ever made. Indeed, it has worked out in wonderful ways: learning Spanish to impress my new Latin amante and take on pesky bank tellers, finding a career choice that I enjoy and leaves me time to blog, facing my fears of living without my family to run to.

But my vida in Seville is more than sunshine and siestas, tapas and trips to the beach. My life is Spain is still life: I have a job that requires my presence, bills to pay, and enough headaches with bureacrazy to make someone’s head spin. Just like anywhere else on earth, I have irksome moments. As much as I love living in Seville, there are elements that make me roll my eyes and utter an Hay que ver (alright, ME CAGO EN LA MAAAAA) under my breath.

The Weather

When I initially moved to Spain, I toyed with the idea of returning to Valladolid. The promise of living with my host family in exchange for English classes seemed too good to pass up, and I have a soft spot for Vdoid and all of its castellano goodness. Then I remembered that I was there during a drought, a far cry from the stories I’d heard of the city of Cervantes turning into a tundra during the winter and early spring months.

Vámanooooh pal South!

While Andalusian winters are much more mild than their Castillian counterparts, the summers are also unbearable. Come May, the city turns into a hide-and-seek from the sun game. Temperatures spike from a balmy 22° Celcius to 35° in a matter of days, which also means that I can’t sleep at night, I take multiple showers a day and gazpacho becomes the basis of my diet.

Air conditioning is non-existent on buses, whereas the Corte Inglés department store is an enormous ice cube that, upon spitting you out and onto the hot pavement in Plaza del Duque, gives you an automatic cold. Just like in Goldilocks, the weather is either too hot or too cold, and rarely just right.

The Transportation

Seville is a sprawling metropolis, at least by Spanish standards. While one can get across the city in about 30 minutes by bike, traffic and frequent bus stops make it an absolute pain to moverse in public transportation. While I usually take my bike or my own two feet everywhere, there are rainy mornings or extremely hot afternoons where I have little choice but to swipe my transportation card.

Seville has oodles of bus lines and a new app that lets you see waiting times and investigate routes as well as one metro line and one light rail. If you’re in the center, you’re well-connected. If you live a bit further away, like me, your options are much more limited, and I often have to pay for a transbordo, or transfer, to be able to get to places like the gym or the Alameda.

I’ve since opted to pay for a Sevici pass, which is a city-wide bike share, paying 33€ yearly instead of the 1,40€ charges by bus or metro. Still, the big bikes are clumsy and not always maintained, and acts of vandalism are rampant. The one bright spot is that Seville is one of Europe’s best cities for biking, so I’m more inclined to hop on my bici to get to work or play.

The Bureaucracy

Ah, yes. The bane of my expat existence. Nothing is ever easy for a little guiri from America, from registering for a foreign ID card to even picking up my mail; it seems that Spain keeps coming up with ways to drain my wallet and make me spend my mornings waiting in line, testing my patience and willingness to be in a relationship with Spain. Is there any doubt as to why my fingers unintentionally write bureaucrazy?

Case in point: my recent tryst with getting a driver’s license. I learned to drive in 2001, and since then have not a parking fine to my name in America. When I rented a car with some friends to drive to La Rioja, the GPS guided us right into a roadside check and a 100€ fine. My suegra proclaimed that getting a driving license was absolutely necessary, and that she would even float the bill (Mujer is a saint, de verdad). Still, I spent two whole weekends in a driving course, had to deal with both my first and middle name being wrong on the theory exam, and am forced to learn to drive stick shift. Turns out, non-EU residents who have lived in the Eurozone for two years or more and required to take both the theory and practical exams. I swear, it never ends. Ever.

Then, or course, there’s the post office: I live not 200 meters from a post office and another 800 meters from another. Still, I was assigned to an oficina de correos that takes me 20 minutes to walk to, and inquiries into how to switch have been met with head shakes and shoulder shrugs. Worse still, any non-certified mail not claimed within 15 days of the original delivery date is returned to sender. I’ve lots checks, books and information packs because of this rule, in many cases can’t be avoided because of my time out of  the country during the summer and Christmas.

As an off-shoot, there’s the concept of enchufe, too. An enchufe is an outlet (like where you’d plug your computer in), and it refers to the business deals and underhand deals. Iñaki Undangarín, much? This concept has been both a benefit and a curse to me, giving me jobs and taking me out of the running for others, allowing me to have a great time at Feria (or not). Like in America at times, it’s all about who you know.

The Social Circles

The saying goes that sevillanos are the first to invite you to their house, but then never tell you where they leave. In my experience, making friends with sevillanos, particularly females, is quite difficult. I’ve thankfully got a great group of American female friends, but I’ve found that breaking into social circles in Seville is tough. The Novio has been close with his best friend since they were six – o sea, my whole lifetime. I have many friendships that are still close and have grown even as I moved away and they got married, but I have many more non-Spanish friends than Spanish ones. Plus, a majority of them have come from the Novio and not my own cultivation.

Another pitfall to moving abroad is the inevitable goodbyes when someone moves away – even the Spaniards! When my friends Juani and Raquel moved to Chile a few months back, it was like losing our social coordinators and my little sister at the same time. I remember the dozens of friends I’ve made here who have since moved on or moved back to their home cultures and often wish that they could have stayed. My group of friends often ebbs and flows as the years pass by.

What’s funny is that many of these gripes would be the same if I were living in Chicago – the bitter cold winters and heaps of snow, the expensive CTA system and highways choked with cars during peak times, and the hoops that would no doubt need to be jumped through if I moved back. It’s the kind of thing that I seem to warn bright-eyed guiris about when they first come to live or study in Seville: they’re often fascinated that I’ve been able to make a life here after so much time, but it’s not like study abroad. I’ve experienced grief and loss, heartache and even strep throat, found out I’m allergic to OLIVE BLOSSOMS in one of the world’s foremost producers of olive oil and had many tearful goodbyes.

My friend Kelly, a wise-cracking Chicagoan-turned-sevillana puts it well: if these things happened to us back in Chicago, we wouldn’t bat an eye. Not break ups or headaches would have us on the first plane back to what we know. Life is life here. It’s just Spain being Spain.

Besides, where else is it socially acceptable to drink sherry at noon, stay out until 4am on a school night, have crushes on Gerard Pique despite an extreme dislike for FC Barcelona and use Spanglish as your tongue-of-choice?

Do you have any headaches where you live, or any stories to tell about what you don’t like about your city?

Am I the only one who doesn’t like Barcelona?

I am a person who believes in second chances. You can ask my dear friend, Phil (hi, friend!).

And when it comes to cities that I didn’t like the first time around, I’ll always willing to make another trip. So many of my travels could have been spoiled by rain, strikes, food poisoning and culture shock, but some cities and I are just not amigos, even after multiple visits.

Barcelona is one of those cities. Three second chances later, and it’s still not grown on me.

In all fairness, I love the whimsical architecture, the Mercè festival, the oceanfront. But the positive aspects seem to end there.

I find Barcelona too busy, too big, too expensive and not well-lit. It’s not friendly in the same way that Valencia is (another Spanish city I could take or leave), nor did I ever stop feeling like a tourist. Having my family with me was stressful as I repeated, “No, Mom, I can’t read it; it’s in Catalan and I don’t speak Catalan,” or tried to ask directions, only to find the person I’d asked spoke no English or Spanish. Apart from the sites I like, such as Parc Güell or the Gràcia neighborhood, I felt like I wasn’t really savoring a second chance in a city – and I swear I tried!

I hear loads about the cuisine, but being based in El Born, couldn’t find much that wasn’t chain pintxos and tapas, or menus riddled with poorly translated English – always a sign the service and prices will be exorbitant. What’s more, I come from a family of picky eaters. We had pizza, two consecutive meals at a pintxos bar and burgers.

And what is with not a single place being open for coffee before 9am, save Starbucks?! Even the 24-hour McDonalds wasn’t open when we left early one morning for the Pyrenees! I can always count on an obscure cafeteria opening early for a coffee in every other part of Spain I’ve traveled to, so I was surprised that all the bars seemed shuttered until 9am.

I’m also not into the Catalan ‘tude. Spearheaded by Artur Mas, a campaign for Catalonian independence has transformed the city into an alien landscape of sorts, which independence flags hanging from balconies and Mossos, the Catalan version of a cop, all over the place. I can’t argue that their claim  that their language and culture was oppressed under Franco, I don’t think that their reasons for leaving will necessarily make things any better. The kicker? They want to be recognized as an EU sovereign state but still stay in the BBVA Spanish soccer league! (if you’re interested in learning more, check out Simon Harris’s book project, Catalonia is not Spain: a Historical Perspective)

I also had to laugh when our host called to ask us how the trip was going. Considering we’d invariably come during three back-to-back holidays, I told him we’d had to escape the country on the whole and go to Andorra. Qué lujo, he responded, and I told him about my plan to travel to 30 countries before 30. His response? That Cataluña is another country, even though it’s illegal to secede from Spain. Different, yes, but still Spain.

What is great about Barcelona is its proximity to the Pyrenees, Girona and Costa Brava. Navigating through my cell phone, we took quick breaks to Andorra, Girona, Besalu and Monstserrat. Getting out of the city meant having my head cleared and experiencing a part of the country whose tourism is highly developed and thriving. Returning, I tried to see Barcelona a bit differently, but I just ended up pouting like a three-year-old when I had to pay more than 1,20€ for a beer and use my cell phone as a flashlight for opening the door to our place in El Born. 

Have you ever given a city a second chance? Were your thoughts swayed? Is there a destination you’re not keen on returning to? Watch for the response to this post from Aga, part of the traveling duo of Aga Nuno Somewhere. If you decide you have to see Barcelona, considering checking out Barcelona Home for apartment rentals while in the Ciudad Condal.

Thanksgiving Turkeys and Triumphs

Can I admit something, at the risk of sounding like a bad American?

I never liked Thanksgiving as a kid. My mind keeps going to the hours of preparation at my grandmother’s house, clipping off the ends of green beans and trying to ignore bickering. I’d eat far too much, fall asleep watching football and feel groggy for days straight. Aside from the long weekend, I didn’t see the point of spending a whole day eating and watching TV, all in the name of spending time with family and glorifying a bird.

Then I moved away from America, to a land where cranberries, pecans and even turkeys are scarce (after all, pavo is the Spanish way of say a buck).

All of the sudden, Thanksgiving became a good excuse to get together with those closest to being my kin.

Our Thanksgiving celebrations in my ever-changing group of friends has never been just about us Americans and our traditions – we teach Spaniards about the hand turkey while drinking the garnacha-based wines (which, according to Ask.com, are the best matches for turkey!) and chattering a half a dozen languages.

Yes, I am thankful for my amoeba of culture in Seville – something that is just as much Spanish as American with a smatter of German, Mexican and everything in between.

But this year, I promised Kike a turkey, cranberry sauce and everything that my grandmother made him as breakfast last Christmas in Arizona (he no longer scoffs at my weird breakfast choices – mine is the type of family that eats waffles for dinner and cold leftovers for breakfast). He played his part by bringing back over a few cans of pumpkin and gravy mix and urged me to call on a turkey from a neighborhood carnicería. I began gathering recipes and making a rudimentary plan for how I’d make a full-on Thanksgiving dinner with one oven and two hands.

Then his dumb job sent him abroad nine days earlier than expected, effectively missing Pavo Palooza.

Still, the turkey show must go on, I thought, and I extended the offer to his mother and friend Susana again, not wanting to have to eat turkey bocadillos alone until Reyes.

I was not without challenges, from the lack of a microwave to last-minute changes in the menu due to no  fresh green beans, sage and evaporated milk in the supermarket or even a can opener from the American goodies I brought back with me. There’s a reason I’m the go-to giuri for plastic forks and wine at our parties.

Menu:

Pumpkin Pie. Stuffing. Cornbread. Carrots and Garlic Green Beans. Mashed Potatoes. Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Turkey. Tinto and Beer.

Turkey: 18,40€

Groceries not at home: 51,59€

New can opener: 5,15€

Total: 85,14€

Even the Brits I work with suggested that I start preparing a schedule ahead of time, and I did: cleaning, pie, vegetables, cornbread and stuffing on Friday, turkey and potatoes on Saturday. I was up before the sun on Saturday when I realized that the evaporated milk I’d refused to buy out of principle was going to be necessary for the pie I was too lazy to make the day before.

I wrote on Kike’s Facebook wall for our anniversary, stating that he would have enjoyed watching me fight with a ten-pound bird more than consuming it. For four hours, I set my alarm every half and hour to give the turkey a little broth bath, nervous if I hadn’t gotten all of the gizzards out or I didn’t let it cook enough inside. When my guests – Carmín, Alejandro, Susana and Inma – showed up right on time, I offered them beer and wine, and they marveled at the sudden transformation of an anti-housewife as I shooed them out of the kitchen. The only person I’d let in was Luna, my friends’ two-year-old daughter, who chowed down on cornbread and checked the status of the turkey.

In the end, the meat was cooked, no one cared that the stuffing was a bit cold and I didn’t end up with too much leftovers. We spent the afternoon laughing, telling jokes and finding places in our stomach to fit more food in. Wanting to do everything al estilo americano, I had to teach them the gravy volcano, explain that they’d probably fall asleep after consuming the turkey and look for American football games on YouTube. I felt lucky (thankful, if you will) about having friends and family who were open to trying out my holiday and easing the ache I sometimes feel for being so far away.

What Kike has got is mala suerte, heaved my beloved Doña Carmen. This food is making me think twice about American cuisine!

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