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Revisiting the Costa del Sol of the 1950s

David, second from left, in Torremolinos.
David, second from left, in Torremolinos. / SUR
  • A new book reveals the experiences of an expat child adrift in Torremolinos

Torremolinos is considered to be the town that started the tourism boom on the Costa del Sol, and it was once the preferred destination of the wealthy, the famous, and money-rich expats who arrived from all corners of the globe. But what was the town like before the tourists arrived?

The author of new book about Torremolinos has returned to his youth to reveal what it was like for an all-American kid growing up in a 1950s Spanish seaside village.

David Mathis Johnson was happily looking forward to being part of the American dream - going to high school, playing baseball and dating a pretty cheerleader.

His plans were shattered when his mother decided to spend a summer vacation in Spain, an event that would seemingly change his life forever.

David was just nine years old at the time and he had only ever heard of the country in a Disney cartoon about Ferdinand the Friendly Bull.

The youngster reluctantly accepted that he would be spending the next few months in Spain, but he was blissfully oblivious of the fact that he would not return to the USA for ten years.

David’s parents had separated and so the holiday was a means of getting away until the dust had settled.

David’s mother originally intended to head to Marbella when they arrived in the port of Algeciras in1957, but unimpressed with the “dusty, poor town”, she decided to take her three children to a small fishing village called Torremolinos.

David, along with his older brother and sister were due to spend just one summer in Spain, but their mother fell into the incipient wild expat scene of Torremolinos.

At the end of the summer the three siblings were horrified when informed of their mother’s plans to stay in Torremolinos, and David quickly realised that he would lose any real contact with his father and his friends in America.

David’s first impressions of Torremolinos were not too good. He recalls being beaten up for being American, and his fear of some of the town’s crazy characters. The fact there were no Christmas trees, hamburgers or television also bewildered the youngster.

In his memoirs, the author has reached back in his memory to a time and place long gone by, and he reveals amusing anecdotes of the local people, the customs, and the sudden influx of hard-partying expats who began arriving in the town during this period.

The book introduces some of the town’s most popular characters, like El Titi, a man who bounded around the town on a make-believe motorcycle.

El Titi was known and tolerated by everyone in Torremolinos, and the local police would occasionally pull him over to issue a fake ticket. He is still fondly remembered in the town today and has been immortalised with a street bearing his name.

“People who were a trifle odd were not shut away or secluded; they were just part of the tapestry of life in Torremolinos,” David astutely points out in the book.

The author also describes in great detail some of the bohemian expats who arrived in the town towards the end of the 1950s.

He refers to one American couple as the “Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald of Torremolinos”, due to their fondness of alcohol and love of partying, which inevitably landed them in all sorts of scrapes with the locals.

Above all, however, the book explains the simple daily lives of the people of Torremolinos, a town that was about to be turned upside down by the tourism industry.

David was 13 when his family left Torremolinos, although they did not return to America. Instead, they went to Madrid.

In 1964, David graduated from the American School of Madrid and three years later, he returned to the USA and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. However, he soon returned to Madrid, working for the EFE news agency and Lookout magazine. He is now retired and lives in Baltimore.

His memoirs, simply entitled ‘Torremolinos’, recall an era when Spain was at the dawn of a new age. The author tells the story of his forced exile in Spain and he gives an amusing, yet honest, account of what life was like for an American child living in an unusually strange land.

David returned to Torremolinos nearly 40 years after he had first set eyes on it, but time and tourism had completely erased that simple place where he had spent part of his youth.

The book, which is an interesting read for anyone wanting to find out more about the history of the Costa del Sol, is available from Amazon.