Barcelona - Half-naked revellers pelted each other with tomatoes and bathed in red goo on Wednesday during Spain's Tomatina, a fiesta that draws thousands each year for “the world's biggest food fight”.
Locals and visitors from as far away as Australia, Japan and the United States crammed into the eastern town of Bunol as mushy tomatoes flew in every direction in a world-famous orgy of mush.
“It was mental. Crazy. People jumping around, throwing tomatoes and slipping over,” said Alex Harris, 20, from Dorset in England, his T-shirt torn and chest drenched in juice.
“It was awesome. Hectic, chaotic, not for the claustrophobic,” said Ben Brown, a London-based Australian with a head plastered with red pulp. “It's the most fun you'll have in an hour in your life.”
One of Spain's quirkiest and best-known tourist draws, the Tomatina was stained this year by a row over its privatisation.
Mindful of safety and money, the indebted local authorities last year began charging revellers an entry fee and hired a private company, Spaintastic, to sell tickets.
The town hall said it had to improve safety at the wild festival, which before the privatisation drew 40 000 revellers to the town, quadrupling its population. Places are now limited to 22 000.
“The essence of the Tomatina had been lost. There was no space and it was quite dangerous,” Bunol's deputy mayor Rafael Perez told AFP.
“Now it is much more enjoyable,” he added. The entry fee for the sell-out event “has enabled us to finance the fiesta and make it safer”.
Revellers glugged pints of beer and sangria until trucks loaded with 125 000 tomatoes rolled through Bunol's narrow streets and teams on board heaped the squishy load onto the heads of the crowd.
The iconic food fight has long been a draw for foreigners.
“In Japan lots of people want to come to the Tomatina because it's a crazy festival,” said Ayano Saito, a 25-year-old woman from Tokyo.
“This is the fourth time I've come to Bunol. I come every year,” yelled another Japanese visitor, Masaki Ito, 33, his gold jumpsuit splattered with pulp.
Locals hung great blue tarpaulins over their shops and houses to avoid a splattering.
The privatisation of the lucrative event has sparked squabbling among politicians in the town.
Spain's governing conservative Popular Party - in opposition in Bunol - has demanded an investigation into whether the process was carried out legally by the town hall, led by the United Left party.
“We cannot look the other way when there has been a suspected case of corruption in an illegal privatisation of the festival,” the PP's local spokesman Marcial Diaz told AFP, alleging there had been no public bidding process for the contract.
The deputy mayor Perez dismissed the PP's lawsuit as “a purely political move”.
“They are soiling the image of Bunol and of the Tomatina. But we are not worried,” he said. “We have most of the people of Bunol on our side.”
Giordano Mahr, 75, saw his favourite town centre bar boarded up on Wednesday to shield it from a sloshing with tomato juice, but he did not mind.
“This is a unique fiesta. We really enjoy it. It brings a lot of benefits to the town,” he said.
Like many Spanish towns since the start of the financial crisis, Bunol is deep in debt - five million euros, according to a study by financial newspaper Cinco Dias.
The Tomatina started in 1945 when locals brawling at a folk festival seized tomatoes from a greengrocer's stall and let loose. - AFP