I came to Spain in 1970 with no idea of what to expect. Before I left, a friend who managed a bookstore had a copy of James Michener's 'Iberia' at home. We looked up Torremolinos and found the only mention was that he refused to visit it because of its bohemian reputuation. My friend said that didn't sound good, but I replied that it sounded great to me!
I finally arrived at Malaga airport (the tiny Terminal 1) in mid-September. I walked out into the sunshine and Mediterranean air and was enchanted. Jumping into a cab, I said 'Malaga'. The driver turned around, looked at me, my (slightly) longish hair and my guitar case. He shook his head and said, 'No. Torremolinos!" And away we went. It took an hour and many stops before he finally found me a place to stay in Benalmadenana-Costa. The cab fare was still next to nothing.
Once I settled in my room, I walked out of the hotel and when I hit the main road, headed east for Torremolinos. Back then, there were very few high-rise buildings, so I could look to my right and see the beaches and water, while to the left were the sierras.
As I walked along the main road towards Torremolinos, a San Miguel beer truck lumbered by with wooden crates stacked along the sides. 'Cerveza'. My linguistic lessons in Spanish had begun.
At one point in my stroll along the highway, for some reason I took a right towards the sea. Just before reaching the beach, I came across a small street with bars and restaurants and turned left to meander that way. I saw a Coca-Cola chalkboard sign outside a local bar that listed the prices. Beer, wine and rum were all cheaper than a Coke! I had stumbled into La Carihuela, the fishing village that would become my home.
There was a foreign-style bar called Smugglers with a sound system blasting pop music where I stopped for drink. (Coke was NOT cheaper in this bar!) I moved on, heading down the tiny street in the direction of Torremolinos. At one point, I passed a ratty-looking place that was below street level and dark as night. It was called 'The Fat Black Pussycat' and it would become a hangout and then a workplace.
I had come to Spain to visit my parents who were moving there. They were renting a villa in a sub-division a few kilometres before Fuengirola. My sister and I enrolled in a Spanish class at the Inlingua school which was in Torremolinos at the bottom of Calle San Miguel. Weekday mornings we went to a platform near the villa and waited for the train. It consisted of a few small, green cars. The door were left open, so I would lean out and look at the sea below or the mountains above as we rode to our class.
At night, I would go to a local bar where two young brothers worked. There, I could practice what I'd learned during the day and be introduced to Spanish tapas and culture. The school gave me the words, the after-hours 'homework' gave me the passion.
On weekends, my sister and I would head into Torremolinos. At first, we'd go to the discoteques - Tiffanys, Barbarella, Tabu - but soon we began drifting down to La Carihuela. After a couple of months of school, we'd still catch the train into Torremolinos in the morning, but then skip classes and just hang out. On Calle San Miguel there was a bar called 'La Tortuga' which had large, open windows. Those windows were like big screens in a movie theatre as we watched the parade of interesting people pass by.
After spending the morning tripping around Torremolinos, it was time to head for La Carihuela, where the Pussycat became a regular hangout. It made Torremolinos look like a metropolis.
One day I was sitting on a bar stool in the Pussycat when an 'undercover' cop came in.
(A bit of background: Spain was a facist dictatorship, but the money the crazy 'extranjeros' brought into the country meant that in Torremolinos, the police would bend a bit. As long as things didn't get too out of hand. And only in certain areas such as La Carihuela. Every now and again a Spaniard would walk into the Pussycat wearing a suit and tie and sunglasses. Undercover, so to speak. They were no problem as long as they were treated as royalty. It helped if there was an attractive Swedish blonde in skimpy clothes tending bar.)
This particular afternoon, a South African named Johann was on duty. He spoke next to no Spanish, and did not understand when the undercover cop ordered something. The cop got angry, Johann got angry and things started to get ugly. I understood enough to tell Johann what the cop wanted. Things were still heated, so I told the cop I was learning Spanish and began asking him questions about the language. That seemed to smooth his ruffled feathers and he congratulated me on being one of the few who came to Spain and actually tried to learn the language.
At this point, Helen, who ran the bar, had heard about the situation and rushed over to apologize and buy the cop a drink. He was mollified and the free drink just made things better. Before he left, he told Helen she should have people working for her who were learning Spanish. She then turned to me and asked if I'd ever tended bar. I said that's what I'd just been doing in Canada. I was hired on the spot, and my visit to Spain became a re-location that would last five years.
I actually spent less than a year working in the Pussycat, but it was such a transformation and amazing time that it seems much longer than that.
We were paid 150 pesetas a day - less than $2 American in those days - but were allowed free drinks and free food. (I also worked as a short-order cook in the tiny back kitchen.) The only restriction was that high-end brands of booze and expensive food like steaks were off-limits - at least until you'd earned your stripes.
Despite the low pay (and tips were as rare as snowflakes), there was always enough to cover rent. For a while, Johann and I shared the flat above the Figaro, which was right next door to the Pussycat. It had a huge patio overlooking Calle Chiriva where we would gather in the afternoon before the night shift. I had a bucket on a rope and would lower it to street level so the day bartender could fill our orders. We'd then gently haul the bucket back up and continue partying until it was time for work.
Although Torremolinos was just up the hill from La Carihuela, it was another world. After locking up at 2am, we'd load up a taxi (25 pesetas) and head up to 'T-town'. Tina's Bar, the Beer Keller, Harry's Bar and basement discoteques were our haunts. With Pussycat wages, the glittery discos were too rich for us. Besides, they weren't interested in the locals who were known to party too hard and spend too little.
I mentioned the police keeping a casual eye on the situation. With my (relatively) short hair, over the ears but not down to the shoulders, and the ability to speak enough Spanish to converse with them, there were no real problems when they showed up. (I found out I was called 'el hippie especial' by the locals in La Carihuela because of my hair and the fact I could communicate with them in Spanish. I learned that from the daughter of the store owner where the Pussycat bought its produce. She was one of the few locals who ever entered the bar. That was only because she was delivering goods we'd bought. No self-respecting Spaniard would ever enter that den of inequity unless it was for a monetary reason. Or they were would-be hippies or undercover cops.)
On June 24th, 1971, that tacit agreement of live-and-let-live with police ended abruptly. The tourism season was about to hit its high peak, and someone came up with the bright idea that it would be a good idea to clean up Torremolinos for those who were coming with pockets full of money. The main target was downtown, especially the little alleys which were chock-a-block with B-girl bars and areas where gays congregated.
But La Carihuela was not exempt. I had finished a day shift at the Pussycat and was standing in the doorway of the Figaro next door when I noticed a group of police officers heading our way. A few were in uniform and a couple in plain clothes were obviously high-ranking pooh bahs.
For some reason I was holding a pocket knife in my hand, and muttering something about 'What do these clowns want?' I then bent down and stuck the knife into one of the calf-high boots I was wearing. (Why I was wearing calf-high boots in mid-June in southern Spain I still don't know.) I walked back into the Figaro to order a drink, when suddenly both my arms were seized and pinned behind my back by two of the uniformed officers. A third yanked up my pant leg, thrust his hand into my boot and came up with the knife. There was a moment of silence until one of the officers looked at it, shook his head and said 'Es nada'. Whew. They asked for my passport, which I told them was up in Mijas where my parents had built their finca. Still holding on to me, they began moving down the bar demanding passports. Of the dozen people there, not one spoke Spanish. I ended up as their interpreter, still being held. No one, of course, had, or would admit to having, their passport on their person. The last guy at the end of the bar was a gnome-like Belgian with long hair and a beard. He was stuffing Drum tobacco into a pipe when his turn came. He spoke only French, and when I told the cops he didn't have his passport either, they grabbed him and hauled the two of us out of the bar.
We began walking down the street when a group of obvious foreigners (long hair and all) came ambling along towards us. The officer who appeared to be in charge looked at me and the Belgian gnome, then at the approaching hippies, then at his men. He jerked his head towards the on-coming group. The two officers holding my arms let go, and boss man said, 'Buenas noches'. For some silly reason I started to ask him if he needed help interpreting. He barked in Spanish 'I said, Goodnight!'. I didn't need a second hint and dove into Duffy's Bar completely bewildered.
The next day, of course, we found out what had gone down. One of the people detained was apparently a police chief from Norway and another a Member of Parliament from Britain. Headlines in foreign newspapers screamed bloody murder and advised readers to stay away from fascist Spain. We later heard some heads rolled at police headquarters for what became to be known as 'la grande redada', the big roundup.
As I learned more about what happened, I realized how lucky I (and the Belgian gnome) had been. Many of the long-haired foreign freaks who got caught up in the net were taken to the airport and thrown out of the country.
One other police story from Torremolinos. This one deals with my friend Iain.
In August, 1971, Helen decided to go back the USA for a vacation. A couple of us were to run the place while she was away. However, for reasons too complicated to get into here, Helen decided to shut the Pussycat down for a couple of months. I ended up moving to the village of Mijas where I began work in a restaurant owned by a man I'd met while he was looking for a place in La Carihuela. Every Sunday night, however, I'd take the bus down and party in Torremolinos, returning Tuesday morning in time for work.
One Monday morning I wandered down from the centre of town to the Pussycat. (Yes, Helen had re-opened and we were back on good terms.) She told me my good buddy Iain was in jail. He'd been out the night before (sans horse) and had a snootful which led to Iain acting like Iain. Someone suggested he leave, and on his way out, he kicked the Pussycat door. I don't how all that escalated to the police and jail, but Helen said that Iain's live-in girlfriend was looking for me to help her.
I went to their flat and Jane (a Swede, but not blonde) asked me to go to the jail with her and use my Spanish to help get Iain free. She went to a shelf of books, pulled one out and opened to a page where there were several crisp $100 American bills. For emergencies, she said. She pulled one out and handed it to me in case we needed to pay a 'multa' to rescue Iain.
So, off we went to 'el carcel'. I went in bowing and scraping and asking in Spanish what the problem was and how do we fix it. The cops were not interested in my offer, although they did cast appreciative glances at Jane. She asked me in English why they wouldn't let her see Iain. I began explaining that these guys weren't interested in some 'borracho ingles', when the door to the back office burst open and what appeared to be the head honcho stood there, a big grin on his face. 'I speak English' he said. Well, he knew a few words, and began using them all on Jane. When the communication in English slowed down, I tried to speed things up by speaking Spanish, but the head honcho was having none of it. He was going to practice his English and that was that. He took Jane's arm, ushered her into the back room, leaving me standing alone with the lower ranks smirking at me.
Several minutes later, 'el jefe' walked out of his office with Jane and led her toward what I assumed were the cells. The next thing I knew, out came Iain and Jane arm-in-arm with the head cop hugging them each around the shoulders. 'You be good, yes?' he said to Iain, winking at Jane, who profusely thanked him. As we left the station, I whispered to Jane, 'What about the $100 I have?' She smiled at me and said, 'It wasn't necessary,' and held out her hand for the return of the emergency fund.
So much for my ability to speak Spanish.
Eventually, I became a part of the Mijas scene, which meant late nights were spent in Fuengirola. Every now and again, however, there would be trip to T-town. When it was a real party, we'd end up in Noche y Dia.
The only problem was that they could not serve liquor from 4am, when the bar hours ended, until 5am, when the beach bars opened for fishermen who needed a quick 'copa' before heading out to sea. We would order an extra bottle (or two or three) for our meal, then stash them down by our feet so we would have something to keep us going until 5am. At which time we were likely to hit the beach bars for a 'nightcap' to watch the sun emerge from the Mediterranean before heading back to Mijas and grab a few hours sleep before starting another day.
I returned to Canada in 1975, and it wasn't until 2002 that I came back to Spain. I took the new, sleek train to Torremolinos and lugged my suitcase up to ground level and went to Calle San Miguel.
I stood there looking at what had once been a freaky little street. It was now filled with pasty foreigners from northern climes. Bar El Toro, where I once walked in and was overwhelmed by the stench of garlic and marinating olives (which I quickly became used to and learned to love), was now selling waffles and pre-packaged pizzas. I turned around and caught the next train to Fuengirola. I stayed there for my three-week visit.
I did, of course, go to Torremolinos, especially to pay a visit to La Carihuela. It was disheartening.
I stopped in for a copa at Pepe Rios one visit and was standing at the bar when the postman dropped off the mail. When the barmaid threw one envelope on the bar, I glanced at the address - it was for the Pussycat! They were still sending bills there 30 years later! I told the lady I had worked at 'El Gato Negro'. She nodded, as if she'd heard that before.
Very few of the bars I frequented in the 1970s are still there, and, for the most part, they've changed dramatically. One exception is 'The Three Barrels' (Tres Barriles) in Torremolinos - it's still the same grubby local, thank goodness. Always stop in and have a beer for old time's sake when I'm in T-Town.
And the previously mentioned Figaro, while it's undergone a name change (for the worse) and there have been some renovations, is still basically the same as when I worked next door and lived upstairs. Again, when I mentioned to the British owners my past with the place, they rolled their eyes. Yet another one!]
The sense I've gotten about Torremolinos from ex-pats and locals I've spoken to while visiting there over the past 15 years is that it went downhill in the 80s and 90s. As flights and holidays from other European countries became cheaper and cheaper, the 'lager louts' took over. Then, when the Eurozone allowed anyone from inside to come and work without going through all the hassles of work permits and resident cards, more and more foreign bars opened. But they weren't Spanish bars with a foreign flavour, but pieces of Britain, for example, down to the fry-ups and carveries. In recent years, however, that type of establishment has run into hard times, and in Montemar, for example, just west of La Carihuela, many shut down or have been taken over by Spaniards. The Brit influence is now located more in Benalmadena-Costa, such as 24-Hour Square and the road leading up to Arroyo de al Miel.
From what I understand, the tourist trade in Torremolinos and La Carihuela is now more Spanish, which I think is a good thing. Still, when I visit the area each spring and fall, I can hear echos of the past - the voices and music of 'Los Hijos de Torremolinos'.