The Lure of the Mercadillo

Costa del Sol MercadillosEverybody loves a market!  Ranging from outdoor flea markets to open air food markets, the mercadillos along the Costa del Sol have evolved over the past 30 years from being places where locals bought their fruit and veg to becoming an essential part of life for foreign residents.

Historically, the local markets were where the farmers came to sell their livestock and agricultural produce and, although not typically known as ‘farmers’ markets’ anymore, the most popular ones still have a dazzling array of delicious food items for sale. Today’s markets are a feast for all the senses. They have become a place to appreciate the eclectic mix of cultures, to meet and greet neighbours and friends, to partake in the buzz of local gossip and to soak up the atmosphere.

A vast array of goodies can be found at the mercadillos, ranging from colourful ceramics, bed linen, soft furnishing fabrics, underwear, shoes and clothing to jewellery and watches. When the holiday seasons are in full swing the markets are full of tourists looking to grab that special bargain.  Maybe no longer hunting for over-sized sombreros or stuffed donkeys, nowadays the discerning visitor will probably go home with a ‘designer’ handbag or a pair of sunglasses.

Spanish markets are legendary for selling good quality products, but one of the things that the foreign resident community can lay claim to is the introduction of car boot sales to the area. My first encounter with one of these was down here in the quiet fishing village of Sabinillas back in the 1990’s started by members of the foreign community. Thought of as an oddity by the Spanish locals in its early days, it soon attracted the attention of people who realised that they could pick up a bargain if they were lucky and nowadays it has transformed into one of the most popular and biggest Sunday rastros along the coast.

The good news is that there is plenty of choice to entice visitors and residents alike to travel along the coast in search of a new market experience every day of the week. Take a drive up to one of the white pueblos such as Mijas if you want to buy locally farmed fruit & vegetables, fresh meat, fish and bread. The Benahavis Sunday market is held by the little church at the entrance to the village and offers a mixture of traders and car boot stalls and has become a place for village friends to meet up for a coffee and a chat.

From Malaga on the eastern costa to La Linea in the west the street markets reflect the surrounding area and produce, showcasing the culinary diversity of each region. Look out for stalls brimming over with spices and herbs. Pick up some saffron to add colour and flavour to your homemade paella, a string of dried red peppers to flavour stews or a jar of freshly harvested cracked olives marinated in brine with herbs and fresh garlic.

Traders from all over the world now bring their goods to sell here. If it’s a rug from Morocco or a wooden statue from Africa that you want, you’ll find it. Imports from India or from nearby European countries are available. If antiques and arts and crafts are what you are looking for, there is certainly plenty of choice in that respect. Talented foreign residents have found mercadillos to be the perfect outlet to exhibit their art and craft work, rather like an international expo selling products from around the globe; handmade ceramics from a Dutch craftsman sit alongside silk scarves from a Norwegian artist, opposite vibrant mosaics from a Spanish artisan and next to portraits from an English painter.

The gigantic Tuesday market in Fuengirola held in the fairground, the Recinto Ferial, is an Aladdin’s cave where vendors display anything and everything you could think of. Puerto Banus, host to over 100 stalls at the Saturday market situated up by the bullring in Nueva Andalucía, has a reputation for selling different and unique items, including unusual antiques and large pieces of furniture.  Sunday morning in Sotogrande Port has become a popular meeting point for members of the foreign resident community who enjoy a drink at one of the cafes overlooking the water after browsing the many artisan stalls, each one with an alternate coloured awning, lining the promenade along the new Blue commercial area.

Some market stalls have awnings that create a cool tunnel of shade; others leave you to the mercy of the sun. Quench your thirst with a cold bottle of water or a can of soda sold from a large bucket full of ice or, depending where you are, stop off for a quick café con leche in a nearby bar. Then, of course, there is the fast food option. Who hasn’t paused to sample some freshly deep fried, piping hot coils of tasty churros to dunk in their cup of thick hot chocolate dispensed from the van that at any British market would be serving greasy burgers? Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, churros are the equivalent of eating a big fat donught for your breakfast. Only in Spain!

As with any market, it is wise to keep your wits about you and your money somewhere safe. Haggling and bartering over prices is accepted by some traders and frowned upon by others, but always worth a go! Those in the know, locals and foreign residents included, go early when it is cooler and before the midday heat and the tourists descend.

There is nothing like the hustle and bustle of a busy market. Even if you are not buying, sitting at a café admiring the spectacle and people watching is great fun! Mercadillos can become addictive but they are a huge part of Spanish culture and have become, for those of us who have chosen to make the Costa del Sol our home, a very pleasant part of our lives.

Also published in Sur in English 50 Reflections

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