A day at Malaga Feria
What is it about the Málaga feria that makes everyone seem to toss aside their daily routines for ten days and enter into an orgy of dancing, drinking and making merry on every street corner.
Málaga feria is one of the biggest street fairs in Europe and in the summer of 2009 six million visitors were expected, although there was some scepticism about the current financial climate and the effect that might have on this years celebrations.
I travelled on the Renfe train into the Maria Zambrano station in Málaga and I must admit, it wasn't as busy as in previous years, although I had gone a little earlier this year. As I left the train station, around midday, the afternoon sun was beginning to burn through the hazy cloud that was making the air hot and sticky. I walked to the center of the city and on to the tree lined boulevard where the day feria was originally held before being moved to Calle Larios and it's adjoining streets and plazas.
As is ritual on my trips to the Málaga Feria, the first port of call is at one of Málaga's oldest drinking establishments, Bar Gaurdia, known affectionately as 'The Barrels', which is situated half way along theAlemeda. Again I was thankfully surprised to see that there was room to get inside and be served because in previous years you have had to shove and jostle your way to the bar, which was ten deep with people waiting to be served, then scream and shout your order at the barman for at least twenty minutes before you got your first tipple.
It's amazing how utterly enjoyable a freezing cold bottle of Cruzcampo can appear on a hot August afternoon, especially when you have walked yourself into the floor to get it.
Anyway, next stop was to be Calle Larios, so I joined the hoards of people who were all casually strolling along marvelling at the sheer noise and ambience of the streets.
The afternoon's din was suddenly interrupted by a rather loud brass band, although not the usual Semana Santa kind.
These were young guys who were performing in a rag-time style street jazz band similar to those which would have escorted a funeral procession in New Orleans in the 1930s, complete with trombone, trumpet, clarenet and drums, and the crowd were going crazy for it. It is the first time I have seen this at the Málaga Feria and I would imagine that these young guys were probably the musicians who normally led theNazarenos at Easter, but like all musicians, they have many ways of using their talents.
How up-lifting and exciting this was, it was like watching the birth of a new craze as the people danced and waved their arms in harmony; was this the new thing this year- certainly seemed like it. As is usual, Plaza de la Constitution was heaving with people streaming from caseta to caseta and the din created by the varying music blaring from the bars was deafening
My next call was to a quiet little tapas bar in Plaza Uncibay, because I need to eat before I soak up too much ale. Boquerones en Vinagre, Albondigas, Ensalda Rusa and bread washed down by more Cruzcampo. I intended to make my next stop in the Bodegas El Pimpi, but the queue to get inside was rather disheartening so I went next door to another small bar.
One of my favourite aspects of the daytime feria in Málaga is the presence of the Panda de Verdiales; the guys dressed in white, with ribbons attached to their straw hats and small bells on their legs and fingers. To most British they will resemble the infamous Morris dancers of the English countryside fetes, but although there are similarities in their appearance, the music is quite a different matter.
One of the most beautiful things about the Andalucian culture is the family togetherness and the tradition of continuing in your fathers foot-steps, and where music and dance are concerned, the malageuños have plenty to preserve and continue.
This group of Verdiales musicians and dancers were of a real mixed bunch. There were the usual glamorous woman, be-gowned in dazzling dresses of typical feria style, toothless old men, whose rugged faces lit up with joy as they played, and children as young as twelve singing and dancing this old folk music, which has evolved from the mountain villages that surround Málaga.
The Baile de Banda is the most eye-catching as the dancer swirls a national flag in time to the clanging of cymbals, bashing of tambourines and screeching of violins, whilst others twirl their ribbon flowing maces and dance in motion to the joyful music.
The heat is really starting to smother Málaga, but know one seems to care because most of the streets are covered with huge tarpaulins to protect the revellers from the burning sun. Everywhere you look people are cooling themselves with refreshments that can be purchased at the many bars and cafes that are decked out with bunting and flowers and blaring music.
I make a return visit to Pimpi and much to my surprise the queue has dissapeared but inside the bar is teeming with people and the loud buzzing of the punters rattles around the old walls. El Pimpi is a wonderful old bodega with so much character and charm and it's just one of those bars you have to pop into when in Málaga and especially during the feria.
I watched in awe as the waiters carried trays, crammed with drinks, over the heads of the crowds of revellers, who seemed oblivious of all the dedicated work that these guys were performing.
It is rather unfair that the Spanish waiters, in general, have an undeserving reputation of being rather second rate when it comes to their skills, but if you watch any of the waiters and waitresses who work during this onslaught of partying, you will appreciate that what they have to do will far exceed the routine daily work that most of us do.
The bar El Pimpi has had a long and fruitful association with the world of flamenco and it's walls are lined with old photographs and paintings of some of Málaga's finest artistes.
Huge old posters of previous ferias and festivals hang from the walls and the bodega is full of old barrels that have been inscribed with messages from celebrities that have past through these enormous old wooden doors.
Plaza de la Merced
My next call is in the Plaza de la Merced because this is where the Peña Flamenca Juan Breva has it's caseta and every afternoon they present some of Málag's finest jondo flamenco artistes. On my way to the plaza I am confronted by another jazzy street band who are having a similar effect on their audience as the previous brass band. They were dancing erratically whilst waving their arms in time to the heavy beat of "One step beyond" by Madness, and the atmosphere portrayed was exactly that, mild madness, but fun.
As I enter the flamenco caseta the mood changes; this is where the serious flamenco culture takes charge and the bar is full of typical 'flamencos'. The majority are gypsies and many of the men are crowned with old straw hats that are all in different stages of deterioration. The woman are fierce looking gitanas be-dangled in gold with piercing eyes that you're afraid to make contact with, but you'll soon realise that these people are probably some of the most hospitable of all Andalucians.
On the stage is an old singer by the name of Gitanillo de Velez; a greying old guy who sings the more orthodox styles of flamenco song. There is no dancing, other than what is taking place around the bar, this is pure flamenco song at it's best and all who are here, are enjoying a relaxed afternoon in the company of one of the old school of flamenco singers, and of coarse a constant flow of ale and wine.
I sat and watched the colourful array of interesting characters who were all just milling about with one ear on the flamenco and the other on the conversation and I noticed that everyone was so naturally friendly, offering chairs, drinks, cigarettes or even just a chat whilst enjoying the excellent flamenco.
My next stop was another of Málaga old institutions and another essential watering hole during the feria.Bar Jardine is just a stones throw from the cathedral and here you will find yourself in the surroundings of one of Málaga's most well liked joints, famed for it's fantastic afternoon sessions of music and dining during the feria week. This old café bar is the closest you will come to an old Café Cantante or flamenco singing cafe which were in existence during the first quarter of the 20th century. They have one of the oldest coffee machines you are ever likely to see and the dinning room is reminiscent of an old tea room, complete with white clothed tables and chairs and waist coated attendants.
We were in for a real treat this afternoon as we are going to be entertained with more flamenco, only this time the dance was to be accompanied by the piano. There are few people who can successfully perform good flamenco on a piano but this lady was something else. She thumped away a tango on an old upright, to riotous cries of jaleo as the two dancers strutted their stuff like two mating peacocks. The tango got the whole room going and from the small stair case that leads up to the toilets, one could see that the whole room was entranced by the flamenco.
You couldn't help but be moved by the whole scene, it was electric and seemed as though it would never stop. The appearance of a seven year old girl had the audience screaming for mas as she belted out acopla in the same fierce manner as the late Rocío Jurado; her perfect timing and adult-like expression was quite disturbing, but this young girl was not simply performing a song that her parents wanted her to sing, she was relaying a piece of music from deep with-in her soul. Normally the high pitched shrill of a young child will have me heading for the door, but this youngster had something special inside that was just bursting to get out.
I decided that it was time to start heading back towards the train station and carefully staggered my way in that direction. Outside, the streets were still a mass of bodies, and people from all walks of life chatted and laughed their way along the small cobbled back streets.
All of the images of the feria were there in their marvel, Gypsies selling rosemary and hoping to tell theBuena Ventura for a small price (normally around ten euros) Biznageros, the guy's who sell the highly scented flower sticks that are painstaking made from the petals of Jasmine, and street performers at every turn.
I decided to cut across Calle Larios and head back to the barrels for the traditional last drink of the feria, but once again I was halted by a stage full of musicians who were really getting their rocks off and having a great time. The singer of the band was the double of Mick Jagger and boy didn't he use it to the best of his ability. Strutting around the stage, full of sex appeal and jaggerism, he had the audience eating out of his hand and the band were also phenomenal. But by now I was tiring and the weight of all the Cruzcampo was starting to take it's toll, so I headed back to the barrels and forced another beverage down my throat to see the day out before heading back for the train.
What a marvellous way to wear your self out. Viva la Feria, Viva Málaga!