ALICANTE, Spain — It's not the grandiose architecture of Granada's Moorish Alhambra Palace or Seville's Cathedral that is sparking a full-out defense of a "cultural asset." Nor is it flamenco dancing or Spanish guitar playing.
Rather, beach bars and restaurants have become the cause celebre.
These chiringuitos — the local lingo for the bars and restaurants built in the sand — dot the Spanish coast. But Spain's zealous Ministry of Environment could wipe them out with a new campaign to enforce coastal protection legislation that has been on the books for two decades.
Politicians, business owners and citizens, however, are rallying to save the chiringuito, saying they are part of the appeal of the coastline.
Andalusian politicians called them a "basic ethnographic heritage" when earlier this year they approved a motion in their regional parliament to preserve the chiringuitos. The bars are linked to Spanish Mediterranean gastronomy, traditions, identity and way of life, they said.
Chiringuitos serve drinks, ice cream and food. "If they take away the chiringuitos, they take away the beach's charm," said Raquel Miro, enjoying a calamari tapa with her mother and daughter at La Ponderosa, a restaurant on San Juan beach, Alicante. "Instead of having lunch at a downtown restaurant, we prefer to eat here, looking at the sea. It's comfortable and pleasant."
La Ponderosa is one of the restaurants targeted by the ministry for demolition. There are no private beaches in Spain so authorities grant land use permits — for a fee — so restaurants can do business. Permits are valid for a number of years, even decades, but time is up for many restaurants. Some will have to close; others will be relocated to the boardwalk. The Coast Law enacted in 1988 imposes strict conditions for renewals and new permits.
But the sweeping away of one business model has made room for another, less permanent one on some beaches this summer. In little more than a white-washed hut occupying 250 square feet, Buddha Alcoy serves beer and spirits, sodas, ice cream, chips and packaged, pre-cooked meals from 9 a.m. through 3 a.m. The wooden structure with a thatched roof and a few wooden tables in the sand is unimposing. Sunset brings a shift from Latino rhythms to chill-out melodies. "We have more people at night than during the day," owner Renata Forges said. "If there's a nice moon, this is beautiful, beautiful," she added. Buddha Alcoy will be dismantled without a trace at summer's end, until the next season.
It is the concrete restaurants built into the sandy beaches that are in danger. Many have septic tanks, but waste like cooking oil from frying fish and making paella still winds up in the sea in some cases. The law bans permanent construction within 320 feet of the shore and sets a limit of 1,600 square feet for restaurants — conditions that many chiringuitos, built years ago, do not meet.
"There's a lot of space here; chiringuitos are not invasive. If this were a virgin beach, with no buildings, I would understand the need to demolish the chiringuitos. But look at all those apartments," said Miro, pointing to the towering apartment blocks sitting a few yards from La Ponderosa.
"Nobody understands why they want to make chiringuitos disappear," said Israel, the Ponderosa waiter.
Even green organizations question the Ministry of Environment's focus on these beach restaurants and bars when there are other illegal coastal constructions. "Coast protection is vital, but the big disasters are large complexes, such as hotels and marinas, many built after the law came into effect," said Pilar Marcos, a Greenpeace spokeswoman. "A chiringuito is a small family business. It may be illegal, but so is a 21-story hotel built 14 meters [46 feet] from the water," she insisted. Greenpeace identifies 100 of these so-called "black points" along the Spanish coast.
Ecologistas en Accion, another green organization, supports the demolition of illegal chiringuitos but also says that picking on them causes "a smoke screen" to "distract attention from high-impact problems," which should be given priority, according to a press note.
The leading opposition political party, PP, recently cited economic arguments during a motion before Spain's Parliament to keep the chiringuitos. The party pointed to the 300 chiringuitos in Malaga province as an example, noting the area's chiringuitos are a tourist attraction that provides 7,500 permanent and 7,000 seasonal jobs, and that they spend 225 million euros on purchases from suppliers. Congress rejected the motion.
Casa Julio, a restaurant on Alicante's San Juan beach, has been serving meals since 1940. Alejandro Bolanos, a third-generation owner, said, "I don't believe in the beach without chiringuitos. They provide services. It would be like going to the Sahara desert." He said he collected 6,000 signatures in three weeks from customers against reducing the size of his place, now at 2,368 square feet. He serves about 300 meals a day in the summer and about the same amount on weekends during the winter. He said Casa Julio's permit was granted until 2043; but demolition for most other restaurants on this beach, whose permits ended in 2000, will probably start in October.
Or not. Israel, the waiter at La Ponderosa, is hopeful. He explained to a group of German tourists enjoying a paella in his restaurant that San Juan beach chiringuitos should have been gone in January but that authorities seem to be aware of the unpopularity of making more people jobless. "The crisis keeps us here, for now," he said.