Back in Almeria recently, I realised again how totally different it is from the rest of Andalucia. Just a decade ago it was pretty down at heel, and 20 years ago you hardly gave it a second glance. Today though, it’s smartening up its act, helped by being crowned Spain’s Gastronomic Capital for 2019. That’ll bring some much needed funds and kudos – even if, as it’s alleged, some typical skulduggery went on to win the title.
One characteristic of Almeria is its close connection with North Africa across the strait. In the days of Al-Andalus it was the main port for exports to the Middle East, but today, other than the odd cruise-ship, it mainly sees ferries from Algeria and Morocco which dock daily. Many passengers end up working in the infamous invernaderos or polytunnels (plastic greenhouses – see pic below) that blight the landscape westwards and northeastwards. These environmental scars suck up precious water resources and scatter shreds of plastic sheeting into the sea and soil – hardly sustainable or ethical. Yet they are also the main financial resource of the province, and northern Europe wouldn’t survive without their vegetables. I won’t start on the abysmal working conditions.
The result of this Maghrebi influx is a line-up of shops and restaurants facing the port which cater to new arrivals. At Restaurante Marrakech (below), I had a chat with Mohammed who has just taken over the management. Fresh lavender-tinted paint, a TV tuned permanently to football, shiny plastic tablecloths – it all looked spick and span, open daily from 6 a.m. (for the first ferry) till 11pm. On the menu are classics such as fried fish, couscous and beef tagine at unbeatable prices (7 – 8 euros for a main), though the alcohol-free drinks options of Coca Cola, Fanta or mint tea are less inspiring.
I’ve said it before (read my post on Secret Andalucia), the city’s greatest highlight is it spectacular alcazaba (fortress) that has watched over the port for 1100 years. It’s little known internationally, but should be for its scale, grandeur and sweeping views; any visitor to the city would be mad to miss it – despite the panting climb. From the ramparts, you look down over the flat roofs of the Medina district – a word harking back to its days as the original Moorish town.
The flat roofs may look North African, but in fact they are the result of a succession of devastating earthquakes in the 16th century and also of bombing by German planes during the Civil War, both of which contributed to the loss of traditional architecture as well as lives. And you can add to that the extreme poverty of much of the 20th century which led to many houses falling into ruin.
Today the last working-class barrio is La Chanca, on the western flank of the alcazaba. It’s home to a large immigrant community, as well as a few gitanos – and this wonderful pigeon-fancier who paints his feathered friends to create a ‘leader’ – so he told us.
As you walk towards or back from the fortress, down a side-street you’ll spot a sign for Al-Medina, a Moroccan tea-room and cosy restaurant that spills out into an alleyway full of plants. It’s been going for 15 years, a family affair run by father, daughter and son who take huge pride in their immaculate restaurant. Authentic Moroccan food includes lamb couscous, kebabs, spicy harira soup, delicious tagines and a tempting list of fresh fruit juices and teas. It makes a perfect shady spot at high noon.
Otherwise, Almeria’s offerings focus massively on seafood – you just can’t escape it, as this southeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula is blessed with a swathe of Mediterranean packed with fish. If you descend into the bowels of the food market, you’ll find mouthwatering displays of our piscine friends (though not as varied or abundant as those of Cadiz market or Santiago de Compostela’s). Large red prawns (gambas rojas) from Garrucha feature strongly, and reappear on many a restaurant menu – they’re a local favourite though pricey due to a limited fishing area. Like the castle, don’t miss out and make sure you suck the heads which are full of juice.
One good (budget) way to sample them, along with other seafood, is inside the market on the ground floor where chirpy Inmaculada at Café Express will fry or grill whatever you bring her (cleaned by the fishmonger) for a flat rate of 6€. The same system works outside at the back of the market at Café Habibi where they’ll cook up meat, fish, shellfish and/ or veg for 1 – 2 people for 5€. It’s a great system at a generous price – and both places serve beer and wine too.
Tuna, swordfish, langoustines, anchovies and red mullet are almost as common in the market, however in bars they have strong competition from… yes, that old chestnut – jamon! This pic above shows Casa Puga, Almeria’s oldest bar dating from 1870, that trades on its age rather than quality these days. That said, it has an inviting interior for a copa + tapa if you dodge the dangling hams. As elsewhere in Almeria, the first tapa comes free with your chosen tipple, while anything more you pay for. Until your second drink that is. For more addresses, read my post on Almeria’s top tapas. bars
Casa Puga is in Calle Jovellanos (above), the tapas hub of Almeria’s old town which unfolds into a network of tight winding streets. Search a little and you’ll find the welcoming Bodega Las Botas (below), similarly adorned with hams. Here I indulged in those choice red prawns, simply grilled and sprinkled with coarse salt, followed by a half racion of delicate red mullet. Perfect with a chilled Verdejo.
Seafood heaven for me at least – before the Mediterranean is completely depleted. And for once I managed to bypass the jamon, leaving it for another destination, another day in Andalucia…
And finally – here’s the llisticle I was researching in Almeria for The Guardian