Calle San Miguel in Torremolinos is one of the best-known streets on the Costa del Sol, and it has become the focal point of the town, especially for those visiting for the first time.
Formerly open to traffic, it was pedestrianised in 1971 and has since become a popular shopping destination for the thousands of tourists who visit Torremolinos every year.
It has long been famed for cheap cigarettes, jewellery, leather goods and souvenirs and, although the shops have changed with the times, it is still a street of much commercial activity.
During the 1960s and 70s, Torremolinos became extremely chic and Calle San Miguel acquired the ambience of Carnaby Street. This was a period when certain fashions were only available in either London, or the trendy boutiques found in Calle San Miguel and its surrounding passageways.
However, Calle San Miguel has not always been the thriving centre of commercial activity, for it was once a narrow residential street whose ramshackle houses and hidden patios were destroyed for the tourist invasion of the late 1950s.
The Torre de los Molinos (Pimentel Tower), which still commands the end of Calle San Miguel, was the site of the first stable settlement in the town. The San Miguel church, which has recently been completely refurbished, sits at the bottom of the street, next to the tower. The original chapel was erected in 1718, although the present church was built on the same site in 1896.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Plaza San Miguel was the main artistic centre of Torremolinos and several noted painters had their studios in the square. Pablo Picasso’s aunt, who was born in Torremolinos in 1863, lived in a small dwelling that sat on the corner of Calle Casa Blanca and Calle San Miguel.
At this time, Calle San Miguel was a winding cobbled street that was lined with the typical whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs, and this was pretty much how it stayed until the 1950s.
The first tourists
The arrival of the 1950s brought the first tourists and this is when things began to change, although not at the hands of developers, but under the intuition of the residents.
Some of the locals turned their one-room homes into shops selling candy, cigarettes and chewing gum and this was the beginning of the bustling commercial scene the street is famous for today.
Towards the end of the 1950s, the street had changed considerably, although it still had a time-worn ambience. The 1960s was to be the decade in which Calle San Miguel changed the most and the arrival of the film stars, artists, beatniks and hippies pinned the street firmly on the map.
The small alleyways that lead off Calle San Miguel are now filled with boutiques and shops selling anything from fine porcelain and replica pistols to flamenco dresses.
In the 1960s and 70s, these passageways were crammed with drinking bars and bustling with tourists and expat residents who partied until sunrise.
The legendary Dutch pianist Pia Beck owned the famous Blue Note Bar, which was situated in the Pasaje Begoña (now Pasaje Gil Vicente).
This popular basement club’s centrepiece was a grand piano, on which Pia would entertain her clients. She also had a resident quartet made up of musicians she brought over from Holland; although the line-up would change constantly, for it is said that Pia rarely paid her musicians.
Other popular drinking haunts were El Refugio, Whisky a go-go, Bossanova, Au rendez-vous, Serafino and The Duke of Wellington. Most of these venues were frequented by the ever-increasing expatriate population of Torremolinos, many of whom shocked the locals with their bohemian attitudes, and the fact that they had no desire, or necessity, to work.
It was during this time that the permissive attitudes and lifestyles of Torremolinos began to make headlines. Spain was still under an extremely devout Catholic dictatorship and the provincial and local authorities had come under increasing pressure to do something about the situation.
Torremolinos was branded a scandalous place where drugs and homosexuality were commonplace, a town where foreigners from around the world came in search of free love and debauchery.
In June 1971, the police tried to the end the intemperance, but although the clampdown was harsh, it did little to stop the nightly carousing that took place in the maze of tiny passageways that lead from Calle San Miguel. The night clubs and bars are now distant memories and the bohemian revellers and expats have moved on, although some who remember the street during its heydays still reminisce with great affection.
Of course, Calle San Miguel did not just cater for the uproarious foreign element. There are several old Spanish establishments in the street, like El Toro and Quitapenas, which are still offering their wares to tourists and locals today.
One of the most famous during the 1960s through to the 80s, Quitapenas is a typical Andalusian tavern that was originally situated close to the tobacconist. Quitapenas - the name is derived from the fact that it took away the sorrows of the muleteers thanks to its popular Malaga wines - moved to its new home at the bottom of Calle San Miguel in the 1980s.
The tobacco shop is still in its original position, although the tiny whitewashed building that once housed it was destroyed during renovation work in the 1970s.
There was once a lumber yard on the opposite side, where the train line used to cross the street. A few metres along from where the old lumber yard was once located is Bodega Guerola, which clings to the corner of Calle de las Mercedes. This is another nostalgic old tavern, founded in 1962, that is still open today. The interior is delightfully decorated with wrought iron grills, rustic ornamentation and plenty of wood, much the same as it was in the 60s.
Calle San Miguel has continued to change over the years and any signs of the street’s rowdy nightlife have long since been erased, although a few of the old restaurants and bars give a hint of what the street was once like. Today the street is lined with commercial outlets selling the same tacky souvenirs and flamenco dresses, yet it is still the most famous, and most visited, street on the Costa del Sol.
San Miguel will continue attracting tourists for many years to come, although the postcard image is the one we remember with fondness.