It would be good to draw a map of Spain’s finest peripheral neighbourhoods; whichever municipality they belong to, these are districts that have their own identity. They are the kinds of places have their own personality and are a million miles from the functionalism and cold atmosphere of the new residential suburbs that surround so many cities. They have also become bastions against encroaching gentrification.
Such a map of barrios with character would certainly include El Palo, a district in east Malaga that has always been a little apart from the doings of the city. Even today, when residents go to the centre, they say ¡Voy a Málaga! (“I’m off to Malaga”). One of its many attractions is that there is still something of the village about it.
El Palo’s authenticity is a direct result of its humble origins. The area’s first inhabitants lived in natural caves in the zone. Later on, new residents arrived, fleeing drought in nearby villages and building little houses and shacks for shelter. In the early 19th century, with the goal of eliminating malaria from the area, the many marshy patches that once stood here were drained. At this time, much wine was produced here, but production disappeared with the great phylloxera plague.
From that time onwards, fishing, which was already common along the coast here, became the most important source of income. Many fishermen built huts in which to store their equipment, and these later on became homes. Little by little, communications improved as the district’s paths became roads, although for long the neighbourhood lacked running water, electricity and sewage connections. Until well into the 20th century, El Palo was known as “the Hurdes of Malaga” (Las Hurdes is a part of Eastern Spain that was renowned for its poverty), and the expression “they are poorer than the people of El Palo” was often to be heard in the city.
The shanty town appearance of the district began to disappear in the 1980s and a new kind of residence started to spring up: summer homes for Malaga’s middle classes looking to spend the hot months by the sea. Meanwhile, another development had been taking place: the fishermen had taken the initiative and begun to open simple eateries where passers-by could eat freshly grilled fish. The chiringuito (“beach bar”) —or merendero (“snack bar”) as it used to be known— was introduced here, along with the espeto way of barbecuing sardines, a poor man’s way of cooking fish and one that has become a symbol of Malagan cuisine.
Some of this area’s cultural heritage has a long, long history. One example is the boats used by the fishermen of El Palo, who continue to cast their nets for sardines and anchovies from boats known as jábegas. More often than not, these boats have eyes painted on either side of the prow, a direct inheritance from Phoenician ships. There are few places on the Mediterranean where this ancient form of boat is still used.
Although El Palo has long been immersed in its own struggle to subsist, there are times when history has come knocking on its door. The first Nazi attack in Spain occurred off El Palo beach, when a German U-boat sank a Republican submarine. Plans to raise it have never come to fruition, and the craft remains at the bottom of the sea with its deceased crewmembers still inside.
Still with the Civil War, this district was one which suffered from the terrible bombing of the civilian population in the episode known as La desbandá. When Francoist troops took the city of Malaga, which had been loyal to the Republic, a column of people fled towards Almeria, the only possible retreat. These defenceless refugees were attacked by land, air and sea and around 6,000 people are thought to have died as a result. Shortly afterwards, El Palo was devastated in punitive actions because its fishermen and their boats had supplied the Republican navy.
Later on, during the transition to democracy in the 1970s, this area had its own particular problems. Still submerged in poverty after consistent lack of attention from the authorities, crime and drug dealing were rampant here. Although most of the people of El Palo were honest and hard-working, the activities of a few had the area stereotyped as a no-go suburb. It was in this environment that a master criminal found shelter: Erik the Belgian, a major art thief, whose principle target was Spanish artworks.
This former thief, now reformed and retired after a spell in jail, once again lives in the neighbourhood. Today it is a multicultural barrio where harmony and neighbourliness rule. On this luminous coast, low buildings line the sea: the perfect place to enjoy good fish, freshly cooked. One cloud still darkens the horizon, though: the area’s public spaces and traditional community spirit face the threat of disappearance, of being eaten alive by property speculation.