The Spanish language has many sayings which are applicable to life in general, and one of them is "Don't cut down the tree that gives you shade". The seafront promenades in Malaga province are full of trees and not all of them put down roots in the strictest sense of the phrase. Today is a hot and very humid day in Torremolinos, just a few kilometres west of the province's capital city, and here we find everything which has made the Costa del Sol an internationally famous tourist destination.
The promenade is lined with hotels and, every 100 metres, a new section of beach begins. Los Álamos, Playamar and, further on, El Bajondillo. And what would a beach in Malaga province be without its 'chiringuito' bar-restaurant? Nothing, or nearly nothing. It wouldn't be the same.
Although the structure of some suggests a flimsy existence, these are fixed institutions. And here, where the fragrance of sun cream and charcoal mingle in the air, we begin this journey to see how things have been going for the chiringuitos this summer, after a tsunami called coronavirus swept away everything in its path.
It is coming up to 1pm, and, as we walk past one chiringuito after another, there appears to be reason for optimism. All the sunbeds, with their esparto sunshades, are taken. The sun umbrellas that people have brought to the beach with them form a mosaic of colours close to the shore. Íñigo Sanz, from Navarra, is on holiday here with a group of friends, and they are looking for somewhere to eat. "Everywhere is full," he says. He seems a bit stressed. "We fancied some sardines, because we tried them the other day and really liked them, but I don't know if we're going to find anywhere with a free table ," he explains. They are regretting not having booked in advance.
The people who did make a reservation are starting to arrive, and the chiringuitos are filling up now. Most wear sandals and sunglasses. A few Dutch visitors are barefoot. A lot of the children, who have just been in the sea, are wrapped in beach towels.
Los Manueles is one of the classic chiringuitos in Playamar. The structure is nothing like the huts the fishermen used to use to cook sardines on canes. It is a building with a glass façade and views of the sea. The clock says 2pm now, and the cook who barbecues the sardines at Los Manueles is very busy.
Sardine after sardine, fish after fish, cooked over the embers of olive wood. There is no sign here of the pandemic which is affecting so much of the world, apart from the distance between the tables and the masks worn by the waiters. The chiringuito, despite several episodes of enforced closures, has once again become an important part of any excursion to the beach. The ones in Torremolinos are all full.
Manuel Villafaina owns Los Manueles and is the best person in the province to ask about the situation in the sector and how the season is going. He is also the president of the Federation of Beach Businesses of Andalucía and is in contact nearly every day with owners of other chiringuitos in Malaga and other provinces. Villafaina seems happy. "Very happy," he emphasises. July and August, it seems, can be compared with the summer of 2019, the last one before the pandemic.
"July and August have been fantastic. We have been just as we were in 2019, and that was an excellent year," he says. "In some cases, this year is even better." The chiringuitos have been full for both months. If there has been a free table at lunchtime or in the evening, it has quickly been taken.
"Most of us have adopted the system of pre-booked tables. You lose a few passing clients, but it is the only way of making sure that queues don't build up and being able to comply with the Covid rules," he says. Then he repeats again that "this summer has been spectacular".
Looked at in perspective, the level of business at the chiringuitos is not just good for the local economy, but is also soothing psychologically. The pandemic caused uncertainty and placed working relationships in doubt. Those doubts have now been cleared away and it can be seen that the formula of beach, holidays and chiringuito is still a major success. With one difference: the recovery has been generated by tourists from other parts of Spain. "Most of our clients have been Spanish, here in Andalucía and in the rest of the country. We have seen a lot of people who have come for the first time, who didn't know about our beaches, and I can assure you that they have been delighted with what they found," says Manuel.
If more customers come from abroad next year, he predicts that summer in 2022 could be a record-breaker on the Costa del Sol.
The chiringuitos are an important element in the economy of Malaga province. At present, according to figures from the Federation of Beach Businesses of Andalucía, they employ around 40,000 people and no employees are currently furloughed. However, the unions are more cautious about this figure and say it should be taken in context. The general secretary of the CC OO in Malaga, Fernando Cubillo, says many chiringuitos lack staff. "The business owners are doing well right now, but the level of employment is lower than it was in 2019," he points out.
Adapting to the times
Our investigation now takes us to Fuengirola, where chiringuitos have also managed to adapt to the current situation without losing their authenticity. La Cepa Playa is an example. Run by the third generation of the same family, it first opened in 1959. Some food writers have even referred to it as a cultural trend.
Antonio Jiménez, the manager, measures success by tangible factors: barrels of beer and boxes of sardines sold. "For a weekend to be a good one, I have to sell 25 barrels of beer and 35 cases of sardines. Seven-kilo cases. And we have been doing that," he says. When asked how the summer has been so far, he doesn't hesitate: "Fantastic," he says.
The chiringuito owners' happiness is shared by local government. Margarita del Cid is the managing director of Turismo Costa del Sol, and she says the worst of the crisis is now over. "Everything indicates that the owners of beach businesses are having a very good summer in financial terms, and that is without a doubt excellent news for the Costa del Sol. We believed that the second part of the summer would, to a large extent, make up for the losses during the worst months of the pandemic, and that appears to be the case," she says.
El Palo, in east Malaga, without chiringuitos would be like a stable with no horses or a haystack with no hay. Here we visit El Pescador restaurant, a business which has been in existence for 52 years. "I'm not complaining," says José Recio, the owner. But even so, the summer could be better. The terrace has always been busy, but José points out that the restrictions on eating inside and about bar service have reduced his income and he receives no compensation from the authorities for that.
"In the past I have always had two bar staff, but now I only have one," he says. Although he sees better times on the horizon.
It is evening now, and the thermometer is giving us a little relief. All the chiringuitos in Pedregalejo are busy. The sea breeze is caressing and the fire over which the sardines are cooked is crackling. It is as if world peace is sitting at the table. These businesses, in Malaga province at least, are feeling healthy again and are providing the local economy with some much-needed oxygen.