Although it’s outside the historic center, the Málaga neighborhood of El Perchel has a lot of it’s own history and it’s well worth a visit
Inside Cafetería Los Valle around 11am on a Thursday morning, the big vat of hot oil stands in the front corner bubbling away. A man dressed in white with an apron is making the “tejeringos” (Malaga style churros) to order. He takes hold of the huge syringe filled with dough and draws little loops in the hot oil, waiting until the right moment to flip them, sliding them onto a plate when they are golden brown. Years ago they served the tejeringos looped onto a palm branch, but for sanitary reasons, it’s not allowed anymore. In the back corner two older women sit enjoying their coffee and having a chat. The walls are covered in traditional Andalusian tiles with very little other decoration and there isn’t a tourist in sight. But this isn’t some far flung area on the outskirts of town; we’re just steps away from the train station in the heart of the Málaga neighborhood of El Perchel.
El Perchel is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Málaga. It was built right outside the original city walls and a lot of fishermen and their families lived there. The name of the neighborhood comes from those original fishermen who used to hang the fish to dry. In Spanish, the word “hanger” is “percha” and from there, the name “El Perchel.” It was not always the most desirable place to live, as you can imagine all that drying fish caused quite a smell on a hot day. However nowadays there is a real sense of pride in the neighborhood. It’s almost like a badge of honor to say that you are a “Perchelero” (someone who is from El Perchel).
If you go out the back door of Los Valle, you’ll find yourself next to the Church of El Carmen, which is the heart and soul of the neighborhood of El Perchel. Founded in the year 1584 the original structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1680. Of course, they rebuilt it just in time for another disaster: a fire in 1931. Used as a storage facility during the Spanish Civil War, the church has now been restored to its original glory and it’s well worth a peek inside.
As you step back into the street, close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine the whole block packed to the gills with neighbors during Holy Week. This is the corner where the procession of “El Chiquito” ends and everyone in El Perchel comes to see it. We waited for two hours last year, sitting on the curb until the procession arrived well past midnight. The men carrying the giant statues of the Virgin and the statue of Christ dance back and forth in a complicated waltz making the statues come alive to shouts of “¡Viva la Virgen y Vivan los Percheleros!” The passion is so alive in that moment that time stops, the crowd breathes as one, and all of a sudden, with three knocks on the front of the huge float; the men lift it high above their heads, swaying in a dizzyingly spectacular show of devotion.
Next door, you’ll find the Mercado del Carmen which is a true neighborhood market and everyone in El Perchel knows that it’s the best place to buy fresh fish, vegetables straight from the garden, and everything in between. At Thanksgiving we ordered a turkey from the butchers, Encarni and Manolo. Encarni’s family has run a butcher shop in the neighborhood for generations. She grew up helping her grandparents in the shop on Calle Ancha del Carmen and now they’ve moved into the market. “It’s the most handsome turkey we had on the farm,” Manolo told me when I picked up the bird for our Thanksgiving feast. It must have been, too, because it was absolutely delicious!
As you leave the Mercado del Carmen if you look to your left you might see what looks like an abandoned lot. These are the remains of the Convent of San Andres. It dates back to the 16th century and sadly, the plans to restore and renovate the old building have been put on hold until an archeological study has been completed. It seems unfair that such an historic landmark has fallen into disrepair, but it’s a bit like the rest of the neighborhood with it’s rich and vibrant history hidden by modern buildings and abandoned shops, the owners pushed out by sky rocketing rent prices.
Although I have to admit that my favorite corner of the neighborhood is just behind Calle Cuarteles where you can still find some of the traditional homes in El Perchel. Years ago, the area used to be filled with houses that shared a patio called “casas corralones”, but now there are only a few left standing. As you take a walk up the cobblestoned Calle Ancha del Carmen you can almost feel the energy that used to pulse through this historic neighborhood. And, if you are very observant, you might just see why the people who are from El Perchel are so proud to call these streets their home.