Thursday, 22 September 2011

... been to Spain, part 1: Tomatina or bust!

Spain! What comes to mind when you think of the place? Burnt-orange villains in villas on the Costa del Crime? The oeuvre of Almodovar? Teens off their tits in idyllic Ibiza? For some the name conjures the interwar Spain of Hemingway and Orwell, a place of parched soil and fertile passions, bullfights and hard-drinking expats: for others, package holidays and Benidorm, girlfights and, well, hard-drinking expats.

"Sand in the goddam ribbon again ..."
I say I've never been to Spain, but this is something of a lie. I have been to Spain before, once, as a small child in the 1980s: an inexplicable family holiday to the La Manga golf resort in Murcia (inexplicable because none of my family plays golf, or ever has). However, as my principal memories of that holiday are thinking a Kawasaki was a kind of camera and losing to a four-year-old in the Fancy Dress competition, I reckon I was justified in thinking that now I'm of a legal age to drink, fornicate and generally open myself to everything Spain has to offer, it was time to visit again: La Tomatina called ...

Mmmmm ... people salsa!

So a few weeks ago, A and I flew in to Valencia, ostensibly to take part in La Tomatina, a bizarre and charmingly pointless tradition (aren't they all?) to which thousands flock every year, which involves one lucky hombre climbing a greased pole to win a ham, followed by everyone throwing tomatoes at each other. We also planned to visit A's best mate from childhood and his Spanish girlfriend (the friend's, not A's) in Barcelona. The night we arrived from damp/sunny, on-again, off-again England, it was 25 degrees at night, which was reason enough to spend a week there as far as I was concerned.

After leaving our bags at our charming hotel opposite the jaw-droppingly ornate Ceramics Museum, we made our way through the medieval Old Quarter and past the marble-paved Cathedral Square to meet friends at an outside bar in a picturesque alley. My glass of cava came with chocolates, I was wearing shorts at midnight – frankly, I didn't think it could get much better. Then someone mentioned that Tomatina (which I'd naively imagined to be staged in Valencia itself) in fact took place in a village 40 miles outside the city, only lasted for an hour, and moreover we'd have to be on a bus by 6am in order to get “a good place in the crowd”. I'd have thought that every place is good (or bad) at a tomato-throwing festival, but apparently not: gates are closed, tomatoes run out and the best you can hope for is soggy salsa if you rock up to Tomatina after 8, apparently (this despite the fact that it officially starts at 10am).
Some official Fanatics, before the throwing started ...
We'd vowed it would be Tomatina or bust; but at this news, A and I looked at one another apprehensively. We looked at the star-spattered, midnight-blue sky and the echoing carved stone streets of this beautiful city (temporarily blockaded by swarms of drunken Australians wearing yellow Heinz-pastiche TOMATINA FANATIC t-shirts, but never mind). And we thought, as one, “bust!”. However, in the spirit of the best journalism (i.e. biased eyewitness accounts and hearsay reporting), here's a bulletin from the front, as witnessed by A's friend C, who went along, very reluctantly, basically to protect his girlfriend and her friend.

“It was shit,” confirmed C – this was the evening after we'd seen him wandering around in a post-Tomatina daze, looking like he'd been up for several weeks and seen things only Vietnam vets would understand. He'd recovered somewhat, but clearly the memories still haunted him, and all the pain came spilling out. They'd got on a cramped bus with a bunch of (still drunk) Australians, and gone to a small, rammed town called Buñol, where they were kettled into some narrow and pretty manky streets (the acidic tomato juice cleans them up a treat, apparently, but no tomatoes had yet been thrown) and left there for a few hours while they wished they'd thought to bring a bottle of water.

Apart from smooshing tons of tomatoes and then chucking them at strangers (whole ones aren't thrown because of the risk of causing injury), another tradition of Tomatina is to wear white, and to ceremonially rip the t-shirt of anyone who's just been splattered. You can imagine the fun the local guys (and drunken Australians) have with following this tradition when it comes to female participants. Strangely enough, the “Tomatina safety tips” on Wikipedia don't point out this risk to clothes and dignity – but looking at the pictures of past years, with people in little more than swimwear and diving masks (and lots and lots of tomato juice) it seems most people forgo the t-shirts anyway ...

So, C, after just about managing to avoid getting his clothes torn off by an excitable, bearded local, gritted his teeth and kept his head down until it was all over, while keeping one watchful eye on the ladies he'd sworn to protect. According to him, the aroma on the bus back was impressively awful, and it would be a very long time before he'd be eating gazpacho again.
My toes, basking on the beach.

A and I, meanwhile, joined A's friends O (him again) and Smurf on the baking white sand of Valencia beach. O was, ostensibly, studying for his imminent dissertation (well, he had a book with him ...) but Smurf was here just to soak up the rays. Half-Dutch (hence the nickname) and half-Paraguayan, he spoke the language fluently, and kindly acted as our translator in ice-cream and deckchair negotiations: it's about ten Euro (£10, near enough) to hire a straw parasol and sun-lounger for a day.

The sea was warm and clear; the sky a brilliant blue, the sand fine and golden. Would we rather have been at Tomatina? Hell, no. Despite having to negotiate Valencia's bizarre combination tube-and-tram system to get to the beach, it was worth it. That afternoon we topped it off by going to the Oceanographic Centre to watch whales feed and dolphins dance, which was pretty damn awesome.

Finally, to round off our cultural experience we decided to visit Museo L'Iber, Valencia's very own museum of tin soldiers (the definition expands to include tiny models of virtually anything made of pretty much anything, some distinctly NSFW – especially the Roman room ...) As the city, like much of the rest of Spain, closes for siesta between 2 and 4pm, we had a couple of drinks before rocking up at the unassuming museum building at 4 on the dot. There was a terse guide to the various rooms available in English, but like their website, everything else (case names, scene descriptions etc.) was in Spanish.
Fig. 1

Luckily, the great thing about model dioramas is that they are basically self-explanatory: either it's a bloody massive battle (fig. 1), a bunch of Neanderthals chasing horses off a cliff (for some reason ... fig. 2), an interesting selection of world leaders in miniature (fig. 4) or some sort of pre-Christian orgy (fig. 3 - and that wasn't the only one by a long shot) you can pretty much tell what's going on.

Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4: L-R - The Pope, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin
I can honestly say I don't think I've ever taken so many photos in a single museum: every little frozen drama seemed shot-worthy, if only for the tiny (yet still disproportionately large) boobs on show in the Greek, Roman and Egyptian section for those who cared to peer closely ...
Fig. 5
Fig. 5 shows A's encounter with the giant Playmobil knight who guarded the gift shop, which alas wasn't quite open by the time we left. I'm OK with that: I didn't really want a 1/100 scale model of Saddam Hussein anyway. (Well, I did, but I doubt I could have afforded one).

And with that it was farewell, then, to Valencia. Next stop Barcelona ... and part 2!

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