For most visitors and many foreign residents, Málaga is simply an airport – a place to arrive at and pass through en route to other areas of the Costa del Sol. It is, however, much more than that. As the provincial capital it is a vibrant city filled with ancient monuments, beautiful gardens, remarkably clean beaches, fabulous restaurants and events that could fill your social calendar every night of the week. We thought it was about time to let the proverbial cat out of the bag and reveal what this marvel of Andalucia has to offer.
Málaga has a rich and colourful history. First occupied in the eighth century BC by the Phoenicians (who bestowed the name Malaca), and later part of the Roman province of Baetica, it became a prosperous trading port and continued to be so when it fell into the hands of the Moors early in the eighth century. Christian forces finally took control of the city in 1487 and the Moors were ruthlessly persecuted until a revolt that sent the city into decline. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the city prospered once again when families from the north of Spain began to invest in textile factories, sugar refineries and shipyards, and Málaga dessert wine became a favourite tipple of Victorian ladies. The city struggled through the Spanish Civil War as a Republican stronghold, finally falling to the Nationalists after being bombed by the Italians in 1937. In the 1960’s Franco set the tourism snowball rolling and Málaga began to flourish once again.
Most of the sights in Málaga lie to the east of the Guadalmedina river and are within easy walking distance of each other. Dominating the city are the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro castle; both built by the Moors in the eleventh and eighth centuries respectively. The path to the Alcazaba leads from a Roman Theatre (presently being excavated) and winds its way through cypresses and jacaranda trees – in full, glorious bloom in the springtime. The Alcazaba houses three palaces, one still in its original form, the others renovated and restored in the 1930’s and home to the archaeological museum which includes Phoenician, Roman and Muslim finds including some excellent Muslim ceramics. Towering above the Alcazaba, is the Castillo de Gibralfaro, an impressive structure which although originally constructed in the 8th Century, was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th Centuries when Málaga was the Emirate of Granada’s main port. Although the Gibralfaro can be reached by road, a far more pleasant way to approach it is via the path that leads from the Alcazaba which passes through gardens awash in flowery colour, rambling old towers and Moorish wells. Once at the top you can wander around the ramparts and lookout towers and take in panoramic views of the city; Málaga’s famed bull ring looks great from this birds eye perspective; at ground level, where it is dwarfed by many of the buildings that surround it, one never sees its full circular grandeur.
Dominating the city’s skyline from the Gibralfaro is Málaga’s cathedral. Begun in the 16th Century on the former site of the city’s main mosque, building went on for two centuries and is still incomplete. Thanks to a radical bishop donating the money allocated for the east tower to the American War of Independence against the British the cathedral is known affectionately amongst the local population as La Manquita (“the one armed lady”). The façade of the cathedral is 18th Century Baroque but the inside is Gothic and Renaissance in design with exquisite carved wooden choir stalls. Other churches in Málaga include the Nuestra Señora de la Victoria where the city’s Virgin patron is venerated, the Iglesia de Santiago with its original fifteenth-century Mudéjar tower, the Iglesia de San Juan containing a fine sculpture of San Juan by Francisco Ortiz and the sixteenth century Iglesia de los Santos Márires.
Probably one of Málaga’s most famous sons was the artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Born on the Plaza de la Merced, his birthplace is now the headquarters of the Picasso Foundation and although not strictly a museum, it contains photos of and some early sketches by the great master. The new Picasso Musuem is now open however and contains hundreds of the artist’s paintings, sketches and sculptures. Housed in the beautifully restored Palacio de Buenavista on Calle San Agustín, in addition to the works of art on permanent display the museum also holds regular temporary exhibitions.
A fun place to visit especially for children, is the Museum of Popular Arts (Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares). Housed in an old seventeenth century inn, it displays historical arts, crafts, furniture and general items connected with every day life. For those interested in Spanish dance, the Museum of Flamenco is a must.
Architecture & Gardens
Constructed in the late 18th Century, the Alameda Principal was the city’s main gathering point. The buildings lining both sides and the old trees from the Americas still make it a pleasure to stroll down, although these days it is a busy thoroughfare. Behind an inconspicuous entrance on the Alameda is Malaga’s oldest bar. The Antiguo Casa de Guardia has stood on the Alameda since 1840 when horse and carriages took the place of today’s cars and buses. Crumbling walls with peeling paint are adorned with old photographs documenting the bar’s history and behind the long wooden bar are three rows of barrels containing the sherries and dulces that have made the bar famous. This is a great place to sample Málaga’s famous sweet wines whilst savouring the atmosphere of this little corner of history; it even smells historic with over a century of sherry fumes giving the bar the aroma of an old bodega.
The Paseo del Parque is a haven of tranquillity in the bustling city and since its conception at the turn of the last century has been lovingly added to with architectural wonders as well as an extensive collection of botanical delights from around the world. Near the Paseo are the impressive buildings of the old Customs House (la Aduana), the art nouveau Town Hall (el Ayuntamiento) and the old Post Office (el Correo). Just outside the city are the beautiful botanical gardens (Jardín Botánico La Concepción), home to a dizzying array of flora from all over the world. Originally designed in the 1850’s by the daughter of the then British Council, the gardens are now owned by the council and have been converted into one of the best tropical gardens in Spain.
Eat, Drink & Be Merry Malaga harbour
If all the sightseeing has left you starving and parched, you will not be disappointed with what Málaga has to offer. The city is most famous for its fried fish or fritura Malagueña as it’s known, served at literally hundreds of cafés and restaurants around the city. However for the best, head out to the sea front promenade at Pedrealejo and further still to El Palo. This being Andalucia there is also no shortage of tapas bars to choose from. Try around the Pasaje de Chinitas, a charming series of high white walled alleyways once home to Café de Chinitas, a favourite haunt for artists, singers and bullfighters in the 20’s and 30’s who would flock here to hear the renowned flamenco. There are of course many other restaurants in the city offering more international fare. Málaga’s nightlife is a lively affair with bars and clubs often open well into the early hours and there are shows and concerts almost every night of the week – check with the tourist office for listings or purchase a copy of Guía del Ocio from one of the kiosks.
So……next time you have a few hours to kill before catching that plane, or are bored of the beach, go to Málaga and discover for yourself what lies beneath the surface of this fabulous city – we guarantee you won’t come away disappointed.
Jaqueline Roberts, Words & Pix