Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

"Tear it down," shouted the reformers who wanted to modernise Málaga in the mid-nineteenth century. But fortunately the old Atarazanas, once a shipyard, survived and in 1879 it opened as a public market - a focal point for Málaga life.

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In the last issue of hidden europe, we reported on the woeful neglect of public markets in the Hungarian city of Pécs. Markets often capture the relationship between a city and its hinterland. Nowhere is that more evident than in Málaga’s Atarazanas market. Theresa O’Shea, a first time contributor to hidden europe, reports on this showpiece Andalucian market, now undergoing a ten million euro refurbishment.

Stand still for just a second and you get swept away by a tide of shoppers with bulging bags of groceries. Six hundred years ago and you would have been swept away by a tide, full stop. Atarazanas is the name of Málaga's central market. It comes from the Arabic and means 'a place where ships are repaired'. It may be hard to believe when you're slap-bang in the middle of one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, but the Mediterranean once lapped at the walls of this former fourteenth-century shipyard. The sea once covered most of what is today Málaga's main boulevard, the Alameda Principal.

Built in the reign of Mohammed V (1354-1391), the shipyard facade that now faces a sea of taxis and cars and motorbikes originally boasted seven magnificent horseshoe arches. Today just one remains, La Puerta de Atarazanas. It was declared a monument of historic and artistic interest in 1978, but you would never know it. There is no shiny tourist information plaque celebrating the building's fascinating history, no huddle of tourists oohing and ahing at the marble gateway, or snapping away at the jade-coloured windows with their undulating arches and filigree flourishes. Oh, you might spot the odd observant soul taking in the neglect of the ancient mosscovered walls, or peering up at two tiny shields engraved in Arabic - where words that they won't know say: "Only God conquers, praise be to him," - but for the vast majority, it's heads down and shop.

Atarazanas opened as a market in 1879, but between the footsteps of shipbuilders and shoppers, nuns, doctors and soldiers also passed. When the one-time Moorish city fell to the Catholics in 1487, the shipyard was used as a convent for a short while - though, apparently, the sound of the waves put the sisters off their prayers. In the centuries that followed, it was used as an arsenal, a military hospital, army barracks, and even as a medical school. Sadly, however, by the early nineteenth century the once fine building had crumbled to a ruinous shell.

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Theresa O'Shea lives in Benaque, a small village north-east of Málaga. She is a frequent contributor to expat magazines about Spain. She is joint author (with Valerie Collins) of 'In the Garlic', a witty and perceptive account of Spanish life published in 2007 by Santana Books.

This article was published in hidden europe 21.