Mapping the drifters: Free love and the Costa del Sol travel bug

LAST UPDATED: 8 Aug, 2014 @ 12:24
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Mapping the drifters: Free love and the Costa del Sol travel bug

By Jared Garland

‘If a young man, no matter how insecure, can’t make it with the girls in Torremolinos, he had better resign from the human race’, writes James Michener on the first page of his blockbuster 1971 novel, The Drifters.

It’s an introduction to Joe, one of six young people from across the world who meet up by chance at a Torremolinos bar called The Alamo, forming lasting bonds of friendship as they travel Europe and Africa together on a journey of self-discovery.

They were the backpackers and gap year students of another era lost in time, looking for peace, love and adventure in the days when Torremolinos and Fuengirola meant dope, LSD, topless Scandinavian girls and a permissive society.

For anyone interested in a snapshot of life on the Costa del Sol in the decade of free love and flower power, it’s a must-read.

There are still people living on the coast today who remember Harry’s Bar in Torremolinos, on which The Alamo is based, and its owner, the irrepressible Harry Hubert. In fact, it still exists today in another of its many reincarnations.

Every July, back then, when the Costa del Sol was little more than a cluster of fishermen’s cottages, itinerant adventure-seekers from all over the world would drift into Harry’s Bar, from there to embark on the annual pilgrimage to Pamplona.

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Harry’s Bar was the heartbeat of the expat scene on the Costa del Sol throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.

The bar was decorated entirely in tribute to Pamplona’s famous San Fermin bull run, which was already enjoying literary fame from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. There were bulls’ heads mounted on the walls, plaques from San Fermin paneling the bar counter, pictures and posters from the event everywhere. Pride of place was given to a letter from Irish-American bull-running legend Matt Carney, signifying the lifelong bond of friendship they shared (pictured ____).

Without Harry Hubert, the bar’s Brooklyn-born owner, the book could never have been written. Much as Michener draws on Torremolinos for inspiration, his novel is also heavily based on the friendship that developed between Harry and Matt Carney, also a central character in the story.
Draft-dodging and bull running

Harry, the San Fermin aficionado, connoisseur of San Miguel beer and serial philanderer, became Joe, Michener’s central character in The Drifters. Joe is The Alamo’s American owner, a pacifist who dodges the Vietnam draft by fleeing to Spain. Matt Carney is the model for the novel’s seasoned bull runner, Harvey Holt, who introduces Joe to the magic of the high adrenaline sport.

Michener writes that Holt always ran the bulls with a grin on his face, and it’s true: the real Matt Carney could not help but smile as he evaded death on the Estafeta, the last and most treacherous road of the corrida.

Unlike Joe, however, the real Harry was never a draft-dodger. Born in 1932, he enlisted as a Marine in the Korean War at 18, just shy of the legal age for joining the military. After the war, living on a Veterans Association disability pension, Harry drifted into Torremolinos where he used the money to open up his first hostelry, Bar Central.

This bar, still alive and well in Plaza de la Gamba Alegre, has changed hands multiple times – so many times that Harry Hubert’s name rings hollow in the ears of the establishment’s current bar staff.

When Harry ran the bar, it was the stuff of legend. The music continued long into the early hours when there was no one left to dance to it; the beer flowed, often freely, when Harry was too drunk or having too much fun to keep tab; joints were lit well into the night. The bar became a magnet for American, British and Swedish girls bitten by the travel bug and attracted to Torremolinos by the sunshine and the cheap cost of living.

Along with their suitcases, they brought topless sunbathing, sexual liberty and even the occasional orgy to Torremolinos (even in Franco’s day, when practically everything was illegal). But Harry was the glue that bonded them and his bar was the place where he could almost always be found.

To all those who knew him, he became an icon of almost religious significance. When asked about what kind of guy he was, most friends let the stories speak for themselves.

Realtor John Harper knew Harry for 20 years. When I asked him for reminiscences, his eyes lit up as he started to tell me how Harry got demoted in Korea.
“He was asked to clean the latrines and he said ‘let’s do this the easy way’ and chucked a grenade into the lot of them.”

Then there was the time when Harry was drinking in his bar, as usual, and two Scandinavian girls walked in, asking if he remembered them. John delivers the line as if Harry was speaking, adopting  his gruff, no-bull Brooklyn accent: “I said to them, ‘no I don’t’ and they said ‘But Harry, we were here last year on holiday, you slept with us,’ and I said ‘Oh, yeah. You was Wednesday and you was Thursday’.”

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But maybe it’s best to let his old pal, Matt Carney, speak for Harry. In a tribute he wrote called Insect Telepathy, he tells the story of a butterfly Harry found stuck to the windshield of his car, still barely alive.

‘Harry took a piece of paper and very carefully disengaged the stuck physique,’ he wrote, and for the whole day, ‘the butterfly stayed with him’.
The butterfly, just like everyone who met him, couldn’t resist Harry. It fluttered around his face and wouldn’t leave him alone for the rest of the night.

It is from this iconic bar in Torremolinos that the six adventurers in the novel set forth – peseta-poor but rich in company – to witness the spectacle of San Fermin and, of course, start the party all over again.

They arrive in Pamplona – more than half-way through the novel – at what Harry Hubert’s friend Jesse Graham calls the “hardest hotel to get a room in during ‘the season’,” but to which, of course, the well-connected Harry had keys.

Notoriously Hemingway’s favourite lunch spot (he ordered the cod ajoarriero), Marceliano’s was a pension ‘whose joys would not translate into a travel brochure’, but ‘people would do literally anything to get a room there.’ And every July 3, before the running of the bulls, the owner would clear every inhabitant out of the hotel just so that Harry could fill the rooms with his personal entourage of 30-or-so travellers, including Matt Carney.

Allen Carney, Matt’s son, remembers staying in Marceliano’s.

“It was a constant gutter party there,” he says. “Maybe the most classic place in Pamplona. Because it was near the start of the encierro, all the runners would gather outside and drink caldo (broth), and it’d be busy at all times of day.”

Before he became a San Fermin aficionado, Matt also opened a bar on the Costa del Sol, which Harry invested in, but the police shut it down for the excessive drug use on the premises.

Harry’s Bar stayed open until his death in 1993. From here, every year without fail for nearly 30 years, Harry and his gang set off for Pamplona from the Costa del Sol, cementing a permanent bond between San Fermin and Torremolinos.

Drifters Cover

James Michener is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Tales of the South Pacific (1947), on which the famous 1958 musical was based. It wasn’t until decades later that the novelist took an interest in the Costa del Sol with The Drifters, published in 1971.

After its release it quickly shot to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list, putting Torremolinos on the map for millions of readers, many of whom became bitten by the travel bug just like the characters in the book.

The story is narrated by Joe, whose journey is loosely based on Harry Hubert’s. A 20-year old student at the University of California, he drops out to dodge the Vietnam draft, hitchhiking first across the U.S., and then making his way to Torremolinos, where he takes over The Alamo bar.

Here he meets 18-year-old Britta from Norway, who arrives on holiday but decides to stay, taking a job as a barmaid.

They are soon joined by African-American university student Cato Jackson, who has fled Pennsylvania after his girlfriend was stabbed.

The gang is completed by Yigal, a young Israeli who fought in the Six-Day war; Gretchen, a Bostonian who was sexually assaulted at riots surrounding Eugene McCarthy’s nomination; and poor little rich girl Monica, from England, whose father is a titled diplomat. Later, the sixsome meet Harvey Holt who opens their eyes to Pamplona.

After the wild success of The Drifters, Harry Hubert received a letter on behalf of Michener, granting him his ‘full legal, moral, and spiritual blessing’ to rename the bar ‘The Alamo’ in order to boost trade. But most of his friends were much more interested in the real-life Harry than Michener’s version. And Harry, who cared little for money, kept the bar under his own name.

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20 COMMENTS

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  1. HI, I HAVE LIVED HERE ON THE COAST FOR THE LAST 46 YEARS AND KNEW HARRY HUBERT AND ALL THE GUYS IN THAT ERA. WHAT I DID NOT KNOW WAS THAT MATT CARNEY HAD A BAR HERE AND THAT IT WAS CLOSED DOWN MATT LIVED IN PARIS AND WAS FOR MANY YEARS ONE OF FRANCE,S TOP MALE MODEL AND HAD MANY ADD,S ON TV THERE ARE SO MANY STORIES I COULD GO ON AND NO BUT WILL KEEP THEM FOR ANOTHER DAY,
    TOM FIRST BARMAN IN THE THRREE BARRELS IN TORREMOLINOS

  2. Brings back some fine memories. I had the privilege of experiencing my first feria at Pamplona of 1969 and one day as I walked by the Windsor,there was James Michener seated comfortably signing autographs.
    Little did I know he was writing “The Drifters” at the time.
    Years later,1993, I read the Drifters which led to a 22 year pilgrimage to sweet Pamplona to run the bulls and join up with friends that I love and respect forever.
    Each July 6th is just as exciting as it was in 1969 and hope to experience many more.
    I make it a point to have my coffee down at Marcelianos before each run. The caldo is more traditional but I never acquired a taste for it.

  3. Caldo is often served mixed with Jerez, or sherry. It tastes better, and not only warms you up from the cold morning air, but also fortifies you for the upcoming run!

  4. For Tom Ferguson,…we probably know each other,email at the end, i also spent “time” on the coast 67-82. My understanding of the history of “Harrys’ Bar”. It was Matt Carney ( a couple of Pamplonas’ finest & myself visited his grave in Galway last summer)who bought the local in La Gamba Allegre, David Black opened the place as “The Dirty Old Man”, then Harry took over.
    He was having far too good a time & leased (probably under the counter) to Lloyd, who had Betty (Big Lous’ wife) & Marge LE Touche sorta run the joint.Then it was closed for several years til it re-opened as “Mikes”. by Mike & Troudy (who now have book stores in Dubai and UAE.) Then it became “Clowns” then i left….[email protected]….Tom if you get this & remember,….please send a photo…..thanks

  5. Jared, are you saying that the Bar Central you mention is the one that was a few doors down from Peter Kent’s Pedro’s Bar on the Plaza Costa del Sol? That one was there in March ’61. Thought it belonged to a Spaniard. Unfortunately the wonderful website, aqueltorremolinos, seems to have disappeared. All Torre. info was there, and Dawson’s Memories of Torremolinos mentions that much of his research comes from there. Oh well.

  6. I was In the Air Force stationed in Morone from 1965-68 and went to T-Town every time i had a chance. All the people mentioned here were my friends. After leaving the service i returned yearly to Spain and T-Town & San fermin. My last visit was in 1980. I have some picks of my times there. Will send to anyone who may want them.

  7. Very interesting article, but it brings up quite a few questions too. I have seen many subsequent names for Harry’s Bar (Marco’s , Tina’s, etc) as well as locations: Plaza de la Gamba Alegre, Calle San Miguel, across from the Hostel Micaela, etc. that from a distance makes it difficult to place the bar. Furthermore, I have never seen a picture, new or old, of it, which I would dearly see. I was in Torremolinos in the late 70s but never made to Harry’s Bar.

    • Gil, Harry’s was on the North side of Plaza Gamba Allegre, a not very imposing structure. I have looked for photos of Harry’s but have not found one—a shame.

  8. Very interesting article. But it brings up quite a few questions too. I visited Torremolinos in the late 70s but did not make it to Harry’s Bar. I have come across so many subsequent names for the bar (Marco’s, Tina’s, etc.) on the Internet, that one doesn’t know what to believe or know what might be the current name. As to the location, I have read: Plaza de la Gamba Alegre, Calle San Miguel, across from Hostal Micaela, a fisherman’s hut at the end of the steps, etc, etc. From a distance it is difficult to get an idea of where this bar is or was. Furthermore, although much has been written, no one has yet posted a picture, new or old, which I would dearly see, of this famous bar.

  9. Does anyone remember the Red Lion??
    I hung out there with some Canadians and other English speakers in 1976-7
    Not too far away an American owned a large house and he had a baseball field on his property!
    One day he invited us in and I remember he had water/river passing under the floors of his home. Very cool stuff for a 20 year to see.

    • I remember the Red Lion. It was on a bend of the stairs that went down to the beach. I was resided at Casa Suacia for much of the Summer of 1977. It was a short way up the stairs from the Red Lion. I ate breakfast there every morning, snacked on patatas fritos in the afternoon and closed the place if I made it home before last call. Those were wonderful times with fascinating people from all over which made almost every minute an adventure.

    • The big house with the baseball field could have been Harry Hubert. I remember great parties up there when he had ball games in the 70’s

  10. An AF buddy and I flew from the UK to Spain on 3 weeks leave. We frequented Harry’s bar quite often during our stay in Torremolinos. This was back in the summer of ’67. Great times were had by all.

  11. So they enjoyed bullfighting, definately not in keeping with most young people then. Also the only Spanish girls that would come across would only do so for money – professionals.Not surprising that North Europeans and Scandinavians got a name for themselves amongst Spanish men. Heavy drinking was a no-no, Khatarma black was the choice back then.

    Much more in keeping with the times were the hippies who lived in the caves high up in Paradise Valley, Morocco or on Ibiza where the summer of love really happened.

  12. Reading this brings back a lot of fond memories. In 1974 I headed to T-town because I had read the Drifters! I hung out the most at the Three Barrels but googling Torremolinos has reminded me of many other locations, names of which I had forgotten. I was there for 10 months in 1974-75.

  13. I was there in 1972, just driving around in my 1957 Ford Popular. I went over to Morocco for a while and then came back to Torremolinos and hung out with some friends in The Fat Black Pussycat, The Three Barrels, The Duke of Wellington and La Cascada, loved to eat gumbo’s on the beach…good times.

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