Postcard from Malaga, Spain: Cuisine anchored by seafood

El Pimpi Bodega Bar

El Pimpi Bodega Bar is an institution in Malaga. Although it was not founded until 1971, the buildings and décor are much older. Enormous wooden wine kegs line the hallway of the entrance.

Historically, los pimpis were the young men who would head to the docks to help unload cruise ships and then freelance their services as informal tour guides for the newly arrived tourists. El Pimpi has numerous dining rooms and a bright patio, but unfortunately it feels as though pimpis just led an entire boatload of tourists there. Definitely worth visiting though. Somehow we found a slow time, like early on a Monday evening, to belly up to the bar for a glass of wine and a tapa-sized order of croquetas. Both were perfect.

But on to seafood. And where to find the freshest? Head to a market. El Mercado Atarazanas is reputed to have the best. Tourists and locals in equal numbers compete for high tops with stools outside the market. The first time we landed at was a relative newcomer, Happy Fish, the name of which worried us. Too close to “happy meals.” But, fortunately, that was not the case. We felt reassured by the fact we were brought a bottle of wine that coincidentally bore the name of our favorite restaurant almost anywhere – La Biznaga in Oaxaca. On two other occasions we snagged space at the longer established Bar Mercado Atarazanas.

Both delivered great fresh seafood. We dove into platters of boquerones fritos (fried fresh white anchovies), chiles padron, fried eggplant, tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters). By our third trip to Mercado Atarazanas and after almost two months of opportunities, we finally got up the courage to take the plunge. We ordered an Andalucian delicacy we had been avoiding – ortiguillas de mar frito.

In the sea, these anemones use their long swaying tenacles to sting and entrap fish. Green algae filters through their somewhat translucent bodies. Restaurants serve them battered and fried. Hey, anything is good fried, right? Ortiguillas come close to a fried oyster in texture, but an oyster with a belly-full of blackish green algae. That makes them sound horrible, which they weren’t. Just a tad challenging for us. We did make it through about two-thirds of the way through our media racion (no tapa-size available). Box checked. More boquerones, please.

The market seafood stalls are packed, but locals have an escape spot away from the maddening crowd – La Peregrina. Not always easy to snag a table, but there is more elbow room. The place is somewhat sterile compared to the bustling market, but loved that women seemed to rule the open kitchen. All the same dishes can be found here. The grilled pulpo was perfect, but the pincho (skewer) of red tuna blew us away. You cannot tell from the photo, but it was seared on the outside and rare in the center – wonderful.

By all inside appearances, La Taberna de Cervantes appeared a perfect place to delve into traditional dishes, and our food was fine. But our waiter totally ruined it for us. Menus in the Andalucia region often feature three sizes of servings – tapas (light appetizers), media racion and full racion (full size). Our waiter, acting like a greedy pimpi trying to take advantage of tourists just off the boat, kept trying to upsize us, saying we needed raciones of everything. Oh, and better wine. And the “background music” was a commercial radio station playing tired cheesy tunes. Not a good experience, but, who knows, the “parent” restaurant does get good reviews….

El Gastronauta really should not be lumped together with these more traditional places, but, in order to restrict Malaga to two food posts, I needed a volunteer. Reservations are recommended in this small, narrow casual restaurant popular with a young crowd of locals. Vegetable sides are a bit more creative than many places, and on weekends the kitchen turns out a variety of quite respectable paellas.

More food later….

Postcard from Antequera, Spain: Where women are not depicted as the weaker sex

Romans. Visigoths. Moors. Then Christians. As in Ronda, evidence of the waves of occupiers choosing to fortify a natural citadel in Andalucia remains in Antequera. Real Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, an early (early 1500s) Renaissance church, dominates the hilltop with its Alacazaba fortress.

A replica of a 1760 float from the Corpus Christi processions parked near the front of the church is what stands out. Tarasca depicts a powerful woman, representing faith, conquering the seven deadly sins, symbolized by a snarling seven-headed dragon.

Then there are the faded murals on the church’s walls. Look closely. The Virgin Mary is not the only role model for young women here. The featured saints are all women. Women at war, leading Christian forces to victory.

And in the church of San Sebastian, there is a statue of a young woman gazing toward heaven. In her right hand, she bears a sword pointing downward to the head of a slain Moor at her feet.

Growing up with these images, are the women of Antequera particularly strident?

We lunched in a small restaurant patronized by locals that balanced things out by presenting the male side of the equation – the walls were covered with photos of matadors.

Postcard from Ronda, Spain: Formidable fortress now scenic escape

Balloonists drift through morning haze outside the back patio of our rental in Ronda.

Ronda is the place to go, if you are planning to travel to Spain for a honeymoon or for being with a girlfriend. The whole city and its surroundings are a romantic set.

…nice promenades, good wine, excellent food, nothing to do….

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Yes, there are several museums in Ronda. But its overall attraction, as Hemingway once typed, is there is relatively nothing to do but soak in the view from the majestic perch or take meandering walks below looking back up at the perch. And what a spectacular view it is on all sides.

Of course, Hemingway was not drawn to Ronda for its peacefulness but for the excitement of its bullfighting. The thrill of the kill. Ronda’s bullring is the birthplace of the tradition of the matador standing his ground before the bull instead of evading the bull on horseback. The place where matadors chose to dress in the elegant style depicted in the paintings of Goya.

And the ancient foundations of Ronda were not tourist perches but fortifications providing sweeping surveillance points for guarding against approaching enemies.

The site chosen either by the Iberians or the Bastulo Celts for the settlement that would one day become Ronda was perfect. (This was all a long time ago and no-one can be sure.) Rocky, protected by Nature like a favourite child, and so easily defended that even the most nervous members of the tribe could get a good night’s sleep. Naturally the Romans, whose paranoia was unparalleled but understandable, given their penchant for treating non-Romans with brutal disdain, liked what they saw and were determined to have it. Even the stoutest fortress is only as invincible as its defenders, and the Iberians, damned forever by the historian Strabo as “unable to hold their shields together,” proved no match for the determined invaders, who most certainly could. The supposed Iberian stronghold was easily taken, and rapidly “Romanised.”

John Gil, Andalucia.com

Moorish rulers recognized the value of this outpost in their frequent battles for control amongst themselves, and many of the remnants of fortifications date from their long occupation – from the 700s until 1485. After their water supply was seized, Moorish forces surrendered to Christians.

While Ronda appears rock-solid, many of its important buildings were felled by an earthquake in 1580. Then in 1810, retreating Napoleonic forces blew up the castle and many of the fortifications before their departure. And churches were again damaged during the Civil War in the 1930s.

Despite the imposing remaining ramparts, it is difficult to imagine violence in Ronda. Sheep graze peacefully outside the walls.

The main assaults upon the city today are busloads of day-trippers, welcomed by the town’s restaurants dependent upon them. They remain in a fairly concentrated area though, elbowing their way to viewpoints overlooking the plunging gorge (Okay, of course we joined them there.).

The other tourists were particularly useful, though. They provide scale for our snapshots. If you look closely at many of these photos, there are tiny specks of people admiring the spectacular scenery from atop the enormous rock mound.