Madrid

A lot of people get very excited about visiting Barcelona but I think they’re potentially overlooking Madrid, which overall we found to be our favorite of the two! Where Barcelona is busy, heaving with tourists on popular streets and a bit stressful with its sneaky pickpockets Madrid is beautiful, well organized, filled with wide streets, clever thinking & a few little unexpected surprises that we’ll expand upon in another post.

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One of the first things that I noticed about Madrid was that despite it being a bigger city population-wise than Barcelona its central city felt quieter and more peaceful. Much of this is thanks to Madrid’s decision to convert many of its highways into underground tunnels. Over 10km of these highways can be found underground and much of the former space occupied by the highways have been converted into parks, exercise areas, playgrounds & bike tracks. It’s refreshing to see and makes a big difference to the make up & feel of the city.

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In addition to the motorway submersions Madrid also seems to specialize in being pedestrian friendly with plenty of shaded shopping boulevards, oodles of gorgeous plazas & a particularly huge park park right near offices and shops designed with relaxation in mind. Retiro Park (translates into Retirement Park – i.e relaxation) features an ornate lake complete with hireable rowboats.

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One of the other main features is the stunning ‘Crystal Palace’ glass house used for art expos. Our lovely AirBnB host Silvia hilariously suggested this would make a nice place for a cheeky smooch. I wouldn’t kiss and tell but I can tell why, it’s gorgeous!

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While we’re on the topic of parks and gardens we were totally surprised by the inside of Atocha station; one of the main transport hubs of Madrid. They’ve turned the central building of the old train station into a huge greenhouse filled with huge trees, lovely seated areas and a turtle pond! Literally hundreds of turtles in this one moderately sized pond (too many in our opinion). As we were watching the turtles, perhaps transfixed is a more accurate description, Jenny just happen to notice that one of the largest was floating aimlessly. Pretty soon she realized that the turtle was in fact dead. This was just in time for her to point it out to me before another turtle started to eat off chunks of the dead turtles head! With children around, mouths a gasp, Jenny thought it’d be prudent to go inform the nearby ticket booth about the issue so they could let whoever needed to know…well, know! The ticket operator, who we’ll call ‘Teflon man’, told us that it wasn’t their department & that we’d have to tell the info desk. So Jenny obediantly went on over to the info desk and this time the teller who we’ll call ‘not my job bob’ told us that it was the council’s job to look after the turtles. It was at this moment that Jenny reminds ‘not my job bob’ that it was really not in our ‘job description’ either as tourists and that they were the ones with a phone sitting right in front of them which she suggested they use for the good of the poor turtles! Exit stage right. We had better things to do than play cat & mouse with bureaucracy; such as checking out modern art!

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An awesome tip for those wishing to check out Madrid is to check out this TripAdvisor webpage that highlights museums and gallery free times in Madrid! During our stay we managed to fit in 2 free visits to the Reina Sofia & to Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, both of which are famous for their modern art; the likes of Picasso, Dali & Mondrian etc. At first we weren’t sure how into modern we’d be because let’s face it, some of it can be a bit kooky… But we figured with no money on the line the risk was pretty minimal aside from potentially wasting a little of our time. But we found that our trip through such museums and galleries was much more efficient overall with no feelings of guilt as we sailed by the “???” ones on our way to the “!!”ones like Picasso’s powerful & political grey “Guernica”, which made our visit that much more enjoyable!

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We also had a great time checking out the San Miguel market (which is very beautiful but also reasonably expensive since it’s clearly targeted at tourists). We did manage to find a nice wee deal for a small bowl of Paella & a small glass of wine for 5Euro pp though, which we enjoyed while catching up with our friend Tessa from back home (who has bravely relocated herself to Madrid for 4 months on a university exchange trip)!

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My final suggestion would be, as always, make the most of free walking tours! Sandemans, has an excellent free tour on offer which also gains you a decent discount off a local Flamenco show (10Euro off pp) which our Airbnb host had also recommended.

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The flamenco show (Las Carboneras) was great, while not being native to central Spain (it’s more of southern Spain thing) they’ve got some quality performers from the south and put on a great show. It’s almost too much to take in all at once; swift and passionate classical guitar, deep, guttural singing that cries of heartbreak & dancing that’s sudden and full of emotion! Watching Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom as a child I was however naively expecting flamenco dancing to involve pair of dancers dancing together, I hadn’t realized that it’s more of a solo performance. Perhaps I was thinking of tango? (let me know if you thought the same!). At 27Euro pp, including a drink (wine, beer, soft drink or our fav sangria!) and some nibbles (37 without the sandemans discount), it’s not cheap but worth seeing in Spain & this is as good a place as any to see it!

A final note about Madrid however has to go to a very unique and mysterious Madrid cookie store! But that’s a story (& a coming video!) for another post! #watchthisspace

All in all, we really loved our time in Madrid, a city often overlooked, so try something a little different off the beaten Barcelona track and check it out. Dave (& Jenny) – over & out!

Barcelona

It’s a city full of flavor. Barcelona is distinctly and proudly Catalunyan, rising forth from centuries of repression, through the Spanish civil war, through depression to become one of the richest cities in Spain & the 3rd most visited city in Europe (after Paris & London).

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It’s a city that never seems to sleep with diners eating dinner well into the night. A city transformed by the 1992 olympics. A city with an everchanging face of shops and street performers. Below we have compiled a list of our favourite facets and tips of Barcelona for your enjoyment.

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Sagrada Familia

I have lost count of how many churches I’ve visited in Europe but there is NOTHING quite like visiting Sagrada Familia. The church is most famously associated with Gaudi (though not exclusively designed by him) & certainly catches the Gaudi flavor. Walking inside the building that is so brightly painted by its vivid glass windows is reminiscent of scenes from a bugs life; the archtcture feels so natural that you could imagine yourself as an ant walking through tall grass or trees. With statements like this it goes without saying the place is huge (& its only going to get bigger) in fact when its finished its said that it will be the largest church in the world. It’s a marvel, if you get the chance, you must visit this church, visit soon & visit again in 2026 when its due to finish. As you walk through it I encourage you to consider the famous quote by Friedensreich Hundertwasser; “The straight line is Godless” it will help you to appreciate the natural lines you see.

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Hollyburg

While you’re in the area of Sagrada Familia you’ll probably find yourself hungry, should this happen to you I highly recommend checking out Hollyburg burger store that is in close proximity to the church. This store with burgers themed on famous movies and tv-shows is great value and serves some seriously scrumptious burgers, some the best I’ve ever had. I wish we’d had time to go back for another.

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Siesta

Probably one of the most interesting unexpected discoveries of Barcelona was the ever-changing nature of each street we walked down. As in many hot latino countries many stores in Barcelona adopt the siesta lifestyle; where they open in the morning and late afternoon but close in he middle of the day to avoid the heat. I’d expected that. What I hadn’t quite anticipated was how varied each store’s hours were from each other on the same street. When a store closes, the rollers go down and not many clues indicate what the store holds. With this practice we could literally walk down the same street several times and have it feel like a different street each time, offering different goods, services and oddities.

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Subliminal level of stress

One of the things modern day Barcelona is known for is its reputation as a pick-pocket’s paradise. There are obvious steps you can make to avoid this; not storing your valuables in your back pockets, a retractable cable lock through your zip loops being extra aware in crowded areas such as markets and subway. What I hadn’t quite anticipated was the subconscious level of stress and energy goes into being aware of your belongings, keeping them safe. It wasn’t until we moved on from Barcelona that I actually started to feel a little more relaxed.

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Doorknocker/Gothic Area.

If you have a moment, you’ll find a great variety of antique shops in gothic old town; each shop has its own subtle emphasis from religious art to historical machines. Spending an afternoon checking out the area you’re bound to see some fascinating sites and save money going the museums. If you’re anxious about being seen as a window shopper in these high-priced antique shops its not a bad idea to have a rare item in mind that you ask each shop keeper for, this way there is no loss of face when they don’t have it and it comes time to leave. For Jenny and I, one of our missions on this trip was to locate and purchase genuine cool looking antique doorknocker for our future house that we’ll build when we return to NZ. Turns out everyone wants to buy as cool doorknocker so It took us 4.5 months to find it but as of Barcelona we are the proud owners of this beauty of a door knocker…the next mission will be to get it back home – its pretty darn heavy.

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Get an areal view of the city

Finally, if I could impart one final piece of advice in Barcelona it would be to make sure you get to see an areal view of the city, whether it be one of the cities surrounding hills or by cable car. Either was, the city from above is fascinating, there is nothing quite like it, so much variety, so much to see. It will help you to appreciate the bustling metropolis that it is!

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PortAventura

For most theme park fans out there the holy grail of theme park involves either a Disney Park or a Universal Studios Park; nothing else comes close. So when said theme park fans are presented with a park formally under ownership and branding of Universal Studios this creates an area of unknown, an unknown for this theme park fan that just had to be investigated!

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PortAdventura (nee Universal’s Port Aventura/Universal Mediterranea) from the outset presents an impressive collection of rides; two B&M roller coasters (arguably the best roller coaster producer in the world), a uniquely themed wing coaster, a dueling wooden coaster, a highly themed drop coaster with tilting seats, 4 water rides and a whole host of different shows on offer. The park is also separated into different areas themed around areas of the world: Mediteranean, Polynesia, China, Mexico, The Far West & finally a Seasame Street themed area for kids.

Park Highlights:

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For Jenny and I, the big draw card was Shambhala, a 2012 B&M Hyper coaster that holds the record for being the tallest (78meter drop) and fastest (134 km/h (83 mph)) roller coaster in Europe. This did not disappoint; Its literally the best roller coaster we’ve ever ridden! We rode it twice, once in the morning and again after dark both times we experienced an extremely smooth ride full of genuine thrill and face morphing speed. Best of all we had no idea that a video would be available for purchase after the ride which records your reactions throughout the whole ride, having not known about this prior to the ride our video came out hilariously candid! (I’m enjoying it a lot more than my face lets on)

 

Moving on from Shambhala we checked out the famous Dragon Khan; one of the two original rides from the park’s opening, another B&M ride that constantly gets rated highly among theme park fans. It was a pretty good ride, lots of creative flips and turns in there & considering its 20 years old, exceptional. However it is starting to show signs of some needed maintenance as a couple of turns came out a little rougher than they were meant to. Perhaps a lack of maintenance is a byproduct of Universal’s leaving?

Another highlight came in the form of Hurakan Condor, an Intamin drop ride famous for its high level of theme and ride variety; depending on which side you ride you could ride in regular seats, tilt seats or floorless standing. The ride itself drops you 86 meters and generates some decent speed (115km/h). Drop rides scare me the most but also tend to be some of my favorites (for this fact) when done well; Hurakan Condor definitely falls into this category!

Finally Templo Del Fuego (Temple of Fire) made for an excellent walkthrough attraction. Despite some initial delay over some technical difficulties we really enjoyed this attraction. The show revolves around following an Indiana Jones type character into a hidden temple and paying the consequences for touching that which should not be touched, filled with fire, pyrotechnics and surprises, this show is worth the wait!

Now while we really enjoyed our time at PortAventura, there were some definitely some areas for improvement;

Rough Rides:

Many of the rides were fairly rough rides including both Furius Baco a winged Intamin coaster themed on a haywire grape picking machine, which I was initially really excited to try, and Stampida a dueling wooden roller coaster; both key attractions that I felt disappointed by.

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Maintenance:

It’s the little things really such as when you ride Riding the Tutuki Splash ride, a splash ride that’s themed around being launched out of an active volcano, you can tell when you reach the top that the volcano at one point worked shooting out mist and steam to complete the illusion. Without the volcano working the ride is a little bit average & from I can see from POV YouTube videos this has been left not working for at least the last 5 years. Its not a big thing, but it would make a big difference.

Line Jumpers & Smokers:

I’m not sure why it was but the day we visited we encountered a disproportionately high proportion of line jumpers and in-line smokers (park guests are allowed to smoke anywhere in the park other than in line). Again small things but when it happens repetitively it can get a little on your nerves.

Final Conclusions:

PortAventura has some real gems, a number of world class rides, decent theming a number of on-site hotels and future expansion plans with next year’s European debut of Ferrari World. The park is undeniably world class…but is it Disney/Universal class? Close, I think with a higher level of maintenance on its rides and on-ride effects it definitely could be. Is it worth visiting though? Absolutely and when you do, send me your Shambhala on ride video, I want to see your reactions!

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Valencia

To be honest, we didn’t know much about Valencia before we visited…

Our main reason for our stop off was to give us time to prepare and recover from the world famous La Tomatina Festival in nearby Bunol. All we had heard of Valencia before our visit was that it was the venue for 2007 America’s cup; a painful subject for New Zealand.

So naturally with our lack of expectations and the walkable treasure trove of history food and culture we encountered; we were somewhat delighted!

Orginally named Valentia, meaning brave, by the Romans Valencia was seen as a strong hold and a place of bounty. Famous for its harvests & particularly its oranges the Romans also gave the city its symbol, which has lasted through the generations, that of a cornucopia filled to the brim of oranges. Ironically enough, though the inner city is still filled with orange trees they are that of bitter variety not meant for eating; Valencia still produces oranges but on the outskirts of the city.

For a visit of a few days we recommend planting yourself in old town, located in the centre of Valencia Old Town is pedestrian friendly and largely cut off from cars. Much like a Venice without the canals, Valencia Old town is the perfect place to get lost through seemingly endless back streets with a rich variety of stores stocking a variety of products from antiques right through the quirky and inventive. It also seemed like around every corner we could encounter countless picturesque castles, churches and rich Spanish facades.

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For food (before 3pm) you can’t do much better than visiting Valencia’s central Market, where you will find the freshest food with the greatest bang for buck. Central Market is also the ideal place to encounter the local cuisine, from it’s preserved ham, olive oils, cocktails (Aqua de Valencia being the most famous hometown cocktail) or Horchata (translated as the ‘golden darling’) this is a sweet milky white drink made from nuts that you’ll either love or but should be tried nonetheless. You never know, it could be the new big thing for the lactose-free!

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If we had to pick but one local attraction to see however, you couldn’t go beyond checking out Valencia’s cathedral (Catedral de Valencia). We found the cathedral to be filled with many surprises including:

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Valencia’s #1 Matyr saint, St. Vincent, stood up for his Christian Faith in the face of the Roman Empire and as a consequence faced a numerous tortures, each time refusing to recant his faith and furthermore refusing to die. That was until they cut him into bits and spread the bits around the empire…it was to our surprised that we discovered his preserved arm on display in the glass case.

The Holy grail, I thought this was the thing of myths and legends but to the Spanish apparently not; Catedral de Valencia holds what the Spanish widely believe to be the holy grail, the cup from which Jesus drunk at the Last Supper…but I wasn’t so sure because there were no killer rabbits guarding it…and if I learn’t anything from Indiana Jones its that it shouldn’t be jewel encrusted?

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Stain glass alabaster? The main glass tower is actually lined with super thin panes of alabaster instead of glass giving it nice soft white glow!

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Bells in action. Finally while entry to the church costs 5Euros during the day (mainly for the holy grail), it costs a further 2Euro/pp to climb the bell tower but time it right (on the hour) and you’ll see (or more importantly hear) the big boy in action up close, a force to be reckoned with!

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Tomatina Festival Guide!

Now first off I need to say that on another blog called Bruised Passports is a really good guide to also read that was written a few years ago which we found very useful. I’m writing this new guide as an expanded, updated info source/point of view on this really unique festival 🙂

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I also need to back up their comment that this festival is not for the faint hearted! You will get absolutely squashed (not unlike the tomatoes) from all directions by the thousands of strangers pressed around you and you will get tomato on pretty much every inch of your body (including in your ears, eyes and all through your hair!) So keep this in mind before trying to talk yourself or anyone else in to it going to Tomatina.

PLANNING:

How long ahead to start planning:

WAY ahead is my answer if you definitely want to go and you also want to minimise your expenses on festival tickets, accommodation and flights. For example we were already struggling to find reasonably-priced accommodation for 2 people in Valencia in MARCH! We only ended up booking our festival tickets later in early May (at which point the cheap €10 festival entry only tickets were starting to run out  but more expensive package deals were still available right up to the day before).

Ticket options (& getting to Bunol from Valencia):

The official website for Tomatina (contrary to the other blog guide) is actually LaTomatina.info which is set up by the Bunol Town Council. This website has a great list of authorised dealers of Tomatina tickets. We bought ours through the main authorised dealer Spaintastic. This list is important because there are a lot of unauthorised dealers as well which look very professional like LaTomatina.es so best to keep to the official list to avoid potentially fake tickets!

This authorised dealer list is also worth checking out because lots of different companies do Tomatina Packages that include transportation, accommodation, t-shirts, food etc. Popular options seemed to be Topdeck, Fanatics and Busabout which we saw a lot of Aussies and Kiwis on. Fanatics had the coolest t-shirt designs this year

But for a minimum spend option we reccomend just getting a cheap and cheerful ticket just for festival entry (€10 as of 2015) and then either booking yourself a train or bus from Valencia to Bunol. We opted for the early bus at 5:30AM which was €29 each return and took about 45mins. The later bus leaves at 7:30AM which could be cutting things a bit fine if you don’t already have a wristband but you have give it a go!

Getting to Valencia (and on to your next destination):

If you’re coming from overseas it’s quite possible you’ll be coming from London which has direct flights to Valencia from London Stansted with Ryan Air. We booked in early June (for Aug 24) and paid £134.62 for two (so around £67.31 per person) one-way with carry-on only. SkyScanner is a great website to check out all of your flight options.

Otherwise there’s always alternatives to flying. The Spanish train system Renfe lets you book up to a month in advance (at the time of writing), there are busses from Madrid or Barcelona, or you can check out some car-share options like BlaBlaCar or Liftshare. We find GoEuro a great way to compare our public transport options to then compare with car-share ones.

TIP: Whatever option you end up choosing we reccomend arriving at least 1-2 days before the festival and giving yourself a day off afterwards. It’s good to consider whether or not you want to go to the pre and after parties, if you’re leaving enough time afterwards to recover and if you’ll also have enough time to explore beautiful Valencia which we really reccomend. A great way to do this in a short timeframe is a free walking tour.

Accommodation:

In Bunol (where the festival is held) if you’re lucky/fast enough:

No hostels there (yet) as far as I can tell and I have just counted 2 Airbnb listing in/near the city so you’ll most likely need to look to Valencia instead. Perks of staying in Bunol itself would be that you would have somewhere to leave your stuff and clean up after (instead of being hosed down in the street with everyone else) and you won’t have to bus in crazy early from Valencia but that’s pretty much it.

In Valencia:

Hostels are pretty plentiful but by the time we looked around in March they were pretty pricey for just a bunk. We found Airbnb to be the better option for us. It’s often cheaper if you’re traveling as a couple or group. We found a private room for 2 people in the very centre of town for NZ$48.50 per night to give a comparison.

Getting to Bunol from Valencia: 

  • by car – I don’t think finding a park would be difficult
  • train – look this up beforehand because the train website Renfe is quite confusing
  • by return bus either organised separately through Spaintastic or as part of a package through them or another authorised dealer

Any of these options are fine but we suggest you research this well beforehand to avoid stressing out about it the night before. We opted for the stand-alone return bus ticket through Spaintastic (€29 per person)

Tomatina outfit prep: (Please insert the word “cheap”, “old” or “ridiculously easy to wash totally clean with a garden hose”) in front of all items listed below because it’s highly likely you’ll be throwing everything away afterwards, trust me):

  • White t-shirt #tradition – old togs/swimwear or a sports bra is a good option underneath unless you’re planning to be an exhibitionist when the tomatoes and water start sloshing around 😉
  • shorts
  • shoes – jandals/flipflops/sandals, whatever you want to call them are a no-go unless you have strong tape (yup, we saw whole groups of clever Japanese taping up and it seemed to work pretty well). I survived ok in my stylin pull-on Crocs sandals but there was the odd slippery moment. Best option would probably be cheap, disposable karate shoes which Dave opted for and was very happy with
  • underwear
  • plastic drawstring bag for your stuff – we picked ours up very cheaply at a shoe store. These are great with your stuff safely wrapped away (from tomato juice and pickpockets) in a few layers of plastic bags inside. You can also store your bags for a fee at a few places but we don’t know how reliable and easy to find this these will be year to year

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Our Outfit Costs:

H&M Valencia – €35.95 for 2x t-shirts, 2x shorts, 1x karate shoes

Shoe store – €4 for 2x cheap plastic drawstring bags

Daypack essentials:

  • festival ticket/wristband
  • sunscreen (you will burn because you’ll be in the sun for AGES until the tomatoes arrive at 11am (unless the ham is reached up the greased pole in which case it starts earlier. Click here if you have no idea why I’m suddenly talking about ham!)
  • comb/hairbrush – unless you want acidic tomato pulp conditioner all the way back to Valencia
  • snacks – because sometimes you won’t be able to move and nothing’s happening yet
  • waterproof camera
  • cash for drinks & food – €5 was the going rate for 1L or Sangria or a plate of paella. Some places accepted card but a lot of stores were serving outside of peoples houses so we reccomend cash over card (nearby ATM’s also get covered up to protect them before the tomatoes arrive)
  • plastic bags – I’d say at least x 3 to wrap and re-wrap things like your phone, wallet, keys, change of clothes, return bus ticket etc
  • Water in a disposable bottle (note that the screw-on lid might be taken from you by security on your way in. I guess its a safety measure. For this reason it’s best not to bring anything sentimental)
  • Goggles- optional. We didn’t use any and we saw lots of people with them just around their necks. You can buy some from street vendors there so don’t go splashing out in Valencia for expensive ones that you’ll probably lose/break/throw away

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PRE-FESTIVAL PARTY & AFTER PARTY

There’s a pre-Tomatina foam party with tickets available from the website or at the door and a pool afterparty that you can check out here. Tickets started from €20 per person (per party)

ON THE DAY:

You’ll either arrive with a wristband already (if you’ve purchased your festival entrance through a package) or a paper ticket which you’ll need to exchange for a wrist band. All the more reason to come early if this is you. If you’ve arrived by bus just follow the crowed and you’ll be guided to a ticket booth. If you arrive another way just find a hopefully friendly, English speaking person in a Tomotina staff t-shirt.

Once you’re down in Bunol itself, if you’re there early you’ll need to wait at one of the entry points which can be seen on the map. These opened for us at about 7:30AM. The “fight zone” is basically just a long street in the centre of town. At around the middle is  a square where the greased pole is put up at around 10AM. This is where you want to find an early spot if you want the full Tomatina festival experience, greased-pole showdown and all but it will be VERY crowded. It’s best to stay away from here if you want some breathing room. But wherever you choose we really reccomend staying far away from the (high powered) water hoses as these are worse than any tomatoes!

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At 11AM the trucks will start coming past (around 5-6 spaced out over the hour). Be careful not to be too close to them or to the walls as everyone will be trying to push back. There’ll be people in the back of the truck throwing tomatoes and the truck will also leave a pile behind and there will be a massive session of tomatoes flying everywhere until they turn to mush and the next truck arrives! Awesome right?!

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At 12 the siren sounds, the tomato throwing stops and everyone start sloshing towards the exit points once they’ve finished making tomato angels in the juice slush for their facebook profiles.

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TIP! Now’s a great time to bring out those empty topless drink bottles that you have and get them filled up with water to clean yourself off. There’s lots of lovely Bunol citizens around with hoses but there’s also 20,000+ festival goers so having a bottle handy is super helpful.

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After this it’s back on the bus/car/train and it’s siesta time! #loveSpain

P.S. if you have children you may find it helpful to know that there’s a mini Children’s Tomatina festival for children aged 4-14 a few days before the main festival begins!

Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments! I’m always happy to help!

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