BUNOL, Spain - Half-naked revellers pelted each other with tomatoes and bathed in red goo on Wednesday in Spain's Tomatina, a fiesta that draws thousands each year for "the world's biggest food fight".
Locals and visitors from as far afield as the United States and Japan crammed into the eastern town of Bunol as mushy tomatoes rained from the backs of trucks and flew in every direction in a world-famous orgy of pulp.
"It was pretty fun, squashing and throwing them. It was raining tomatoes," said Jessica Sims, a 27-year-old airline employee from the state of Utah, stepping back from the fray, her white T-shirt soaked and stained red.
"It was a bit scary and dangerous. If you go down to pick up a tomato, you might not come back up." 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 around 40,000 revellers to the town, quadrupling its population. Places are now limited to 22,000.
"In the past few years 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 "has enabled us to finance the fiesta and make it safer".
Revellers glugged pint cups of beer and sangria until a string of trucks loaded with 125,000 tomatoes rolled through Bunol's narrow streets and teams on board hurled the squishy load onto the heads of those in the street.
The iconic food fight has been a draw for foreigners, in particular from Australia, Britain, Japan and the United States.
"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, visiting with eight friends.
Locals try to protect shops and houses by covering them with great blue tarpaulins to avoid a splattering.
Giordano Mahr, 75, saw his favourite town centre bar boarded up on Wednesday to shield it from a sloshing with tomato juice, but he didn't mind.
"This is a unique fiesta. We really enjoy it. It brings a lot of benefits to the town," he said.
The privatisation of the lucrative event has sparked squabbling among politicians in the town, however.
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." Like many Spanish towns since the start of the financial crisis, Bunol is deep in debt - with a five million euro deficit, according to a study by financial newspaper Cinco Dias.
The Tomatina started in 1945 when locals brawling in the street at a folk festival seized tomatoes from a greengrocer's stall and let loose.