Malaga. Why Not?

Why don’t the British come to Malaga?

Well, they do of course, at least to the airport. In their hundreds of thousands all year round. To their villas in the hills and to visit their parents retired to the hinterland or the nineteenth hole nirvana of the Costal Del Golf. So in fact most hire their cars or pick up their coaches and turn right towards Torrem0linos, Fuengirola, Benalmadenda, Mijas, Calahonda, Marbella, and even Estapona never sparing a thought for the city that gives its name to the airport.

There is a delightful chattering class snobbery that frowns upon the likes of Benanmadena and Torremolinos. The same folk would wax ignorantly lyrical about Falmouth and Padstow. The old Costa del Sol towns deserve a break. They were victim to hideous exploitation, but somewhat willing victims – their souls and the weather were all they had to sell back then.  These days they have recovered something of their former selves and with it their Spanish hearts, moving themselves gradually up market with the help of grass, sand, landscaping, small white balls, bad clothing and a few hundred thousand ex-pat apartments. Yet despite all this Malaga remains an undiscovered country to the British who, like I did for many years, continue to turn right off the airport spur road towards the first tee.

Selfishly, I’d say long may it remain thus. Their loss.

Malaga remains resolutely Spanish, untouched by half a century of development and tourist comings and goings around it. That’s not to say the city doesn’t have visitors. It has many, but they are mainly other Spaniards and a smattering of Italian and French – very much a Mediterranean destination.

The other half of me wants to say, “come broaden your horizons and experience some of this”.

Malaga is a great weekend destination, possibly THE great Spanish weekend destination: cheap and plentiful flights; easy city access that is improving all the time – the construction of a second runway and new terminal may be taking a long time but some improvements are already in place; the city centre is compact and entirely manageable on foot. But to ‘do’ Malaga real justice takes more than one weekend – this city will stand up to several visits. Compact it may be but there is plenty to fill a week or more.

At the centre is a historic ‘old town’ where the planners have resolutely defended character, a distinctive look and some classic Mediterranean Spanish architecture. Magnificent restoration is all around and ongoing, much of it fronting expensive, spacious apartments. Malaga may be a working class city, but they populate the outskirts and not the centre where you will need at least half a million euros for something of reasonable size.

At the centre of the old town is the City’s cathedral, still a tower short of the full basilica. Going inside is worthwhile – pay the three euros or discretely sneak into a service for nothing or you could join the Saturday spectator sport of wedding watching. Spanish weddings, at least at this venue, seem to carry off traditional style without the visible discomfort experience by the British at dressing up. From an outdoor table at one of the admittedly overly tourist oriented cafes on Plaza del Obispo will usually guarantee you a series of well put on comings and goings.

A lot of Mediterranean towns and cities as far north a Perpignan have a claim on Picasso. Malaga more than most as it boasts his birthplace. As a result Malaga can offer two Picasso museums – the birthplace itself (Plaza Merced 15) and Museo Picasso Malaga at San Agustín 8. The museum costs a modest six euros and offers a beautifully presented walk though early and later works. There may not be ‘the dead famous ones wot you get in poster shops’ but it’s a collection that if you apply a little thought as a visitor and actually LOOK at the exhibits it is possible to come away with a better understanding of both this painter and post-reproductive art in general. It is also, by the way, a rather beautiful building with a moderately interesting archaeological site beneath that tells the story of the city from its Phoenician foundations at around 600 BC to its incorporation into Christian Spain at 1487.

A short walk away from the Picasso is Malaga’s most prominent attraction, the Alcazaba and Gibralfaro castle. Both involve significant climbs and are not to be trifled with in the summer heat – a bottle of water is just sensible. The views are certainly worth it – and good value at 2.6 Euros for the Alcazaba and 3.4 euros for both. The Alcazaba is a pretty good example of the Moorish fortress thing and though while not quite on the scale of Granada’s Alhambra nor as lavish as Seville’s faux but brilliant Alcazaba Real it is worth both time and effort with the significant advantage of having fewer people waddling about. A third cultural diversion – three is usually enough certainly for a weekend – is CAC Malaga (Centro de Arte Contemporaneo de Malaga), a warehouse space on Alemania. Exhibitions, as ever with contemporary art, vary in both scale and quality, but the presentation is consistent and as entry is free, it is one worth of repeat visits – it is also open on Sunday mornings when nothing much else is.

While it would be a stretch to describe Malaga as a ‘great’ shopping city, it is certainly a good one. The old town centres around Calle Marques de Larios, where, were you feel inclined to do so, eating your lunch off the marble pavement would probably be a hygienic option.  Larios, the adjoining Plaza del Constitution and the streets around boast international and Spanish high street chains – Zara (including Zara Home,), Mango, Pull and Bear, Massimo Dutti and many more as well as designer boutiques, notably Bimba and Lola and Hoss Intropia. The central shopping area is on a scale that is humane with sufficient variety and quality to occupy dedicated retail devotees as well as casual browsers. Those who demand more can walk for 15 minutes or so to the ubiquitous Spanish department store El Corte Ingles and beyond to the Larios Centre mall (same name, different place).

But whatever consumer offerings Larios may boast, consumption in Spain really translates to food and drink, conversation and nightlife. There is, by writers of varying experience, more drivel talked about tapas than any cuisine could reasonably bear.  Tapas are fun, but lets call a shovel a shovel here – Spanish food, tapas included, can be a crushing, lard-laden, oil swimming bore. 

In Malaga you can have either. Try Lo Gueno on Marin Garcia for traditional tapas and a regional specialities. There is a fair share of tourist traps and an awful lot of mediocre tapas but weaved within the streets around and to the north of Larios there are excellent eating places with a modern twist on Spanish cuisine. Ranking highly among them is Clandestino at 3 Nino Guevara  where the cocktails are potent and the plates groan under well presented yet plentiful portions. Two courses are surely enough and a single desert between two or three will do more often than not. Service is frantic and copes well with a restaurant filled with the usual Spanish mix of 8 to 80 year olds eating in the middle of the night. Less of an age range can be found at Lamoraga on Fresca just off Larios where tapas gets a much needed twist toward modernity. Beautiful preparation and a range of tastes where individual ingredients come through in tasty morsels that look as good as they taste. Sushi meets tapas. Have the cherry gazpacho, have the muscles in a sardine tin – well, actually, have everything – particularly the sangria cocktail.

More rustic, but also with a modern twist, can be found at Gorki on Calle Strachan. Gorki is essentially a canapé wine bar serving bocadillo bites and miniature crepes. It’s easy to end up ordering far too much but quite possible to spend the whole afternoon nibbling along to a vanilla-rich white Rioja, though the service is patchy. Nearby at La Barra on Calle de la Bolsa serves a modern Mediterranean menu that’s best described as ‘lightened up’. Tempura style batters and salads paddling rather than drowning. La Barra’s good honest take on eggs and ham is worth a try, as are their pasta dishes, once again in generous helpings.

Close by are two cocktail venues with views of a sort. On top of the Molina Lario, Malaga’s top rated four star hotel, Bar Piscina Lounge transforms from the daytime hotel pool to an evening cocktail venue with intermittent DJ. Over the road is the more restrained Terrasa on floor 15 of the AC Palicio Malaga, also the hotel pool by day and cocktail lounge/restaurant after dark. The Palico may be less clubby, but the views win hands down – it’s pretty much the tallest thing in town and provides 360 degree vistas from the Med to the Mountains.  Both hotels offer excellent value for what they provide if you look out for the right offer. If you want to drink till 4am, however, head for Sound at Calle Grenada (cocktails at 3 Euros between 11 and 1) or there are many others nearby around Marques de Guariaro and from Plaza de la Merced to Calle Pena. For a touch of tradition certainly not staged for the benfit of tourists hit Kelipe (Galarias Goya, Plaza de Unicbay) or Amargo on Roman Franquelo for flamenco.

Malaga, because of its combination of culture, cuisine, consumption and climate stands up to repeated visits. Even if you don’t want any of that Malaga is a good place just to flop for a few days – the beaches at La Malagueta, largely patronised by the locals, are as good if not better than any on the Costa. Long may Malaga remain overlooked.