La Tomatina Craziness – Portugal & Spain

After a mere six weeks back at work I decided it was time for another holiday! Well, not really, this one had been booked a fair bit in advance, primarily for La Tomatina!

Early Friday morning  I was off to Stansted airport with a couple of friends and soon enough we were in the air on our way to Portugal. Flights were cheaper to Porto than Lisbon so we had decided to fly to Porto and then get the train to Lisbon. We did have a couple of hours in Porto where we had lunch and did a little exploring. I would have loved to stay longer for it was a gorgeous city, filled with elegantly tiled buildings and cheerful cafes. My biggest regret was not trying the local dish Francesinha (totally not primal, but it looked amazing; it is a glorified meat and cheese toasted sandwich in a beer sauce) so I may have to return at a later date. What a shame. I bought a small bottle of Port wine, as it originates from Porto. Port is a fortified wine, a very sweet red wine that is often served as a dessert wine. It is not everyone’s favourite drink!

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The train to Lisbon was uneventful but the walk to the rented apartment was very steep and we arrived exhausted, greeting the rest of the group. The apartment was in an ideal neighbourhood for bars and restaurants, Bairro Alto, and we had a late dinner close by. Portugal is famous for it’s tinned fish, particularly sardines, and I had a simple and cheap tuna salad for dinner. It was huge and hit the spot for only €5! I could tell it was tinned tuna but it was definitely a different quality to the stuff we get back home.

The next day saw us visiting a significant portion of Lisbon. We walked down to the waterfront where a bridge very similar to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is visible, as well as a statue similar to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. We were lured into a building in the commercial district with the sign ‘World’s sexiest toilet’ that had coloured toilet paper, but none of us needed to use it.

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We then traipsed up the hill towards the Castle of São Jorge (Saint George), stopping to look at a stunning cathedral on the way. The castle is in ruins but provides panoramic views of the city. It is a moorish castle that dates back to the medieval period of Portuguese history.

View of Lisbon and the 25 de Abril Bridge

View of Lisbon and the 25 de Abril Bridge

Kat perched at the top of the castle

Kat perched at the top of the castle

We had a late lunch of simple sandwiches, then made our way to the Belém end of town on a tram to see the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) which lies on the Tagus River and try the famous Portuguese custard tarts. We actually had these tarts nearly every day, but these particular ones were made with a centuries-old recipe at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, the original tart recipe known only by a few bakers. It was worth the journey, with the tarts having the crispest, crunchiest pastry I have ever sampled, creamy custard and a sachet of cinnamon to sprinkle on top.

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After resting our feet in the park we walked further along the seafront and came across   Belém tower built in the sea. The tower was constructed in the 16th century in Portuguese Manueline style, built on a small island as part of a strong defence system during the Portuguese Age of Discovery. We climbed to the top which afforded us fantastic views of the harbour. The fortress also contained prison cells and many small canons.

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Later that night we went to a tapas and wine place that played live music. We got a selection of tapas and cold meats to share, and tried some Vinha Verde – green wine. Green wine comes from the north of the country where the landscape is the most green. I really enjoyed the wine, it is sharp like a Sauvignon and slightly salty and fizzy. Our tapas had a lot of seafood – sardines (which weren’t as horrible as my memory of tinned sardines believed them to be), octopus, cod – and Portuguese style sausages which are very light and almost fluffy yet full of flavour. There were also dried meats and cheeses, which were to become a theme of the rest of this trip. After dinner we had several rounds of mojitos and caipirinhas, and danced a bit of salsa with some locals. The blurry line between Portuguese and Brazilian cultures became even blurrier. I finally learned a bit of Portuguese from some Spanish tourists, of all people!

The next morning we got up at a slightly-later-than-we-planned hour and headed off on a day trip to Sintra. It was only €4.40 for a return train trip. Sintra looks simply stunning as you arrive, with the colourful Palace of Pena perching atop an imposing hill, and the town of Sintra being dotted by royal retreats, estates, and other castles. We got the bus to the top of the hill as I find hangovers aren’t conducive to climbing steep mountains in the heat. The palace was built in the 1840’s by King Ferdinand to serve as a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. It is an excellent example of Romantic style architecture and is breathtaking from the outside. The views of the surrounding lands were incredible. After the palace we visited the Moorish castle, built in the 8th-9th century when the Arabs lived on the Iberian Peninsula, that had been reduced to ruins in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

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We got the bus back to the township, then strolled into the village to try another famous pastry, the Travesseiros of Sintra. They are apparently famous worldwide, and tourists just love them! They are named for their shape – travesseiros means ‘pillow’ and are composed of a puff pastry filled with an egg and almond custard then sprinkled with sugar. They are incredibly sweet, not primal at all, and delicious! Afterwards we had an early dinner – I had another tuna salad – before heading back home.

photo-16The next day was a bit slower to start, as we were all aware of how intense the next couple of days were going to be. We did another small day trip on the train, to the beach town of Cascais about 30km west of Lisbon, where we spent a few hours getting some vitamin D and cooling ourselves down in the, um, refreshing sea. Cascais originated as a fishing village, supplying Lisbon with much of it’s seafood, then became popular as a resort location for the Portuguese royals in the 19th century. Today it is one of Portugal’s richest municipalities.

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We had another dinner in our local neighbourhood, this time I had beef escalope braised in Medeira wine. It was deliciously full of flavour. Then we tried to find a place to listen to some Fado but the places nearby were full. We stood outside a bar and listened to the slow mournful song of one singer, who drew a large crowd. Her voice was absolutely incredible. I highly recommend anyone to find Fado when in Lisbon.

A flight to Spain was booked for the following day. It was very easy and cheap to get to the Lisbon airport where we flew to Valencia. We made our way to the hotel to check in with First Festival for the La Tomatina festival. After a lazy afternoon we were on the bus by 8pm, heading towards Requena for the Water and Wine party, which is part of the Fiesta de Vendimia, or Harvest Festival. Requena has the oldest harvest festival in Spain, with the first one in 1948, when locals wanted to boost morale after the second world war. They had dances, shooting contests, pressing and blessing of the first wine, flowers and fruit offerings, bullfights in the Plaza de Bulls, concerts, parades, marching bands and more. We had bought food and wine to take along with us, where we sat alongside friendly locals in the Plaza de Bulls and listened to a bit of lively competition between the bands while watching the bull take out some drunken tourists. The local boys could run across the bulls with ease, whereas the tourists lumbered clumsily in front of them, their reactions slowed somewhat, resulting in a few bodies being tossed around. Once the bulls had tired, we flowed out onto the streets and formed what felt like an ‘Antipodean Parade’, walking/stumbling/dancing through the streets. This is when the locals ask for good rain for the next harvest and we all get doused with water by people standing in the balconies above.

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It was easier than I thought to wake after only 2 hours sleep. This was definitely helped by the amazing breakfast buffet the hotel put on. At 7am we were on the bus to the Valencian town of Buñol for La Tomatina, weary and blurry-eyed and just a little bit hungover. It was a 20 minute walk from the bus to the town, where we stood within view of the greasy pole, watching people attempt to get the ham at the top. The crowd was jostling, but nowhere near as bad as previous years since this year the event was ticketed and the number of people halved. We stood for several hours, as the tomato fight only starts when someone gets the ham, or at 11am, whichever happens first. While we waited, there was a big thunder storm and we all got completely drenched before the fight even started! But that didn’t stop them from firing cold water from the water cannons at us. I was a shivering mess!

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I read on a pamphlet while waiting for the fight the most popular theory of how the festival began; in 1945 during a local parade, a group of young adults who wanted to be in the parade started a brawl in the town’s main square, the Plaza del Pueblo. There was a vegetable stand nearby, so they picked up tomatoes and used them as weapons. The police had to intervene to break up the fight and forced those responsible to pay for damages. The following year the young people repeated the fight on the same Wednesday of August, only this time they brought their own tomatoes. Over the next coming decades, the fight was sometimes allowed, sometimes banned, but eventually became so popular that it became an official event.

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I thought that the trucks would come through and just dump the tomatoes at our feet, but no. The trucks came through with several locals in them, all hurling tomatoes at the crowd. It wasn’t long before we were all covered in the red mess, stooping down to scoop the slop off the ground or catching flying tomatoes mid-air. I got a few hits to the head and one really hard tomato right on my elbow! The tomatoes did not taste nor smell very nice; apparently they are growing specifically for the purpose of this fight. But it was crazy fun, an hour of absolute chaos and mess. The hard part was leaving the giant party, when 25,000 people tried to file through some very narrow streets. I have never been in a crowd so tightly packed before in my life! I definitely felt lucky to be alive once I got out, separated from every single person in our group.

original_FDL-139-GP01-Tomatin-FestivalAfter a mid-afternoon nap that went into the evening, we all met for our last dinner together. We strolled through the streets of the charming old city, and settled on the restaurant Jamon Jamon for dinner, where we had a degustation menu to share. We were far too tired to make any decisions, so having the food just brought to us was perfect. There was a lot of spanish meat; chorizo and sausages, as well as dates wrapped in bacon and spanish pork with patata bravas. A good tip for dining in Spain is getting the menu of the day, or a fixed menu as you will often get a couple of courses, bread, wine and dessert for a reasonable price.

The next couple of days were a blur of site seeing, museums, picnics and dining, siestas, swimming and walking. We walked through the park that is where the Turia river used to be, until the 1950’s when they diverted it. Although the city had grown and survived alongside the river for many centuries, in 1957 there was a devastating flood and it was decided it was too dangerous to continue to live next to the river. The old riverbed is now one of Spain’s largest urban gardens, despite there being a lot of pressure for it to become a motorway! We walked along it for a considerable distance, enjoying the cycle paths, the outdoor gyms and sports fields, gorgeous gardens and playgrounds.

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Alex and Kat in the old city of Valencia

A must-do for any foodie is the Mercado Central, considered one of Europe’s oldest still-used public markets. At 8000m², it is also one of the largest. It is full of food vendors; ample fresh fruit and vegetables, dried meats, and local delicacies. Paella originates from the region of Valencia, so of course I had to try that! We also tried Horchata, a local drink made from tiger nuts (first time I’ve ever heard of tiger nuts!), water and sugar and served with fartons – a very delicate and light sponge with a sugar glaze that you dip into the horchata. Quite delicious.

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On Friday, our last full day in Valencia, we decided to go to the beach for any evening dinner. I wish we had gone there earlier! The beach was stunning, and I went for a paddle in the deliciously warm water. We had another set menu for dinner, where I finally got to try a gazpacho, and had another Valencian salad – full of fresh salad products with tuna, olives and asparagus. Gazpacho is thought to be quite an ancient recipe, originating in the southern region of Spain. The chilled tomato soup is very refreshing on a hot day.

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I won’t bore anyone with how we spent our Saturday – it took us over twelve hours to get from Valencia to Reus Airport to fly to Luton then get the train back to Brighton. Phew! It was an exhausting, exhilarating and amazing holiday.

 

I’d like to acknowledge the following for the photos shown in this post, i;n order of appearance;

Jessica Bunker – photos 3, 7, 8 & 11

Alex Thompson – photos 14, 15 & 16 

http://www.finedininglovers.com/photo/events/tomatina-festival-spain/tomato-fight/ – photos 18 & 19