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A Dozen Reasons to Fall in Love with Málaga


Balconies beckon

Museo Picasso

Quiet beach at sunset
by Ben Cooper

[From Spring 2010] Standing outside the Málaga bus station the early signs are, it’s fair to say, not terribly encouraging. A grim, suburban wasteland seems to stretch away endlessly in every direction. Strike out eastwards, though, and these quite suddenly give way to a bustling historical core that’s packed with charm, atmosphere and authenticity. Which makes it all the stranger that it’s not packed with visitors. Maligned isn’t quite the right word (although it’s obviously tarred a little by association with the largely overdeveloped Costa del Sol); criminally overlooked is more the crux of it. So, starting from the top – reason number one to fall in love with Málaga: because, historically speaking, precious few others have bothered to try.

Here are a handful of other – fairly personal – reasons to fall in love with the place.

Because it’s not Sevilla, Granada or Córdoba... Don’t get me wrong, magnificent cities all. And Málaga certainly has nothing to compare with Granada’s Alhambra, Córdoba’s Mezquita, or Sevilla’s Barrio de Santa Cruz or Alcazar. But with outstanding beauty and history – and the inevitable tourists they bring – can come a certain self-consciousness. One of the things that makes Málaga stand out is its relaxed charm; as if it knows that its flashy neighbours are going to grab all the attention, but that it’s not really all that bothered about it.

Because of the fried fish... Locals are known as boquerones – and anchovies there are aplenty. Along with dogfish, cod, haddock, and the king of fried ocean dwellers, puntillitas (or baby squid). Out to the east in the lively suburb of El Palo, El Tintero is the place to go to shout out your order and have a plate of mixed fried fish slung in front of you by a hassled waiter in a grease-spattered white shirt. If that’s your kind of thing.

For a time, though, my favourite spot used to be down a little alley to the north of the Alameda Principal (it's easy enough to find), where I’d slip off and eat hot fistfuls of fried baby squid while standing ankle deep in crumpled up napkins. All washed down with a couple of ice-cold beers or a glass of fino. Hardly fine dining, but one of the most satisfying gastronomic experiences of my life, nevertheless.

Because of the Atarazanas Market... The Atarazanas Market is like a museum of foodstuff. If a museum were run by large, bellowing fishwives bearing meat cleavers, that is. It’s not for the squeamish (as so many things involving food/animals in Spain tend not to be) though, as sheep heads, skinned rabbits, pigs’ trotters and the like dangle in front of your eyes. If the noise, the scrum and the sights and smells get a bit much, there’s a handsome and largely original Moorish gate to inspect out front.

Because of (or in spite of) Picasso... Bloody Picasso. He’s done more from the grave to make Málaga a genuine tourist destination than anyone alive. The great man once said: “When I was a child I could paint like Raphael; it look me a long time to learn to paint like a child again.” There’s nothing childlike about the Museo Picasso; it’s a proper grownup museum in a lovely old palace. A tip, though: the Contemporary Arts Centre (CAC) is arguably just as interesting. And nobody really bothers to go there.

Because of El Pimpi... An institution. And in fairness, El Pimpi’s been working harder for longer than most places in Málaga to draw in the visitors. It is an outrageously picturesque bar: a sprawling warren of colourful tiles, plant-festooned patios, barrels... and photographs. Lots and lots of photographs. For every sepia-tinted bullfighter, former dictator’s daughter, 70s Spanish singer and obscure celebrity of yesteryear, every now and again a leering Antonio Banderas will jump out at you.

Because of Málaga wine... The Victorians knew when they were on to a good thing. But since then, dessert wines have tended to be sniffed at by the wineoscenti. While it’s obviously no sherry (or Ribeira, Rioja or Albariño...), this sweet, faintly medicinal concoction of Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes has always been liberally swilled in its hometown, where it goes down nicely with, well, pretty much everything. At its best on cool, damp winter evenings.

Because of the people... Malagueños are great. Seriously. In a region of a country where people define themselves first and foremost in relation to their pueblo, changes in personality can be quite marked from place to place. And Málaga is just about the friendliest city in the south of Spain. Which probably makes it one of the friendliest places in Europe by anyone’s reckoning.

Because of the sun... There, I’ve said it. Because of the sun. And if citing the weather as a reason for loving a place is dangerously close to why all too many incurious expats have made their home in the strip of concrete running away to the west of the city, it’s pretty hard to deny: one of Málaga’s chief attractions is its climate. Because there really are few things that can beat sitting out and watching the world go by (in no particular hurry, as a general rule) on a gorgeous February afternoon. One of the best spots for a bit of mid-afternoon sunning is the row of pavement cafes that line the north side of the Plaza Merced; here, bohemian hangout Café con Libros rises above the rest for its freshly made fruit juices and smoothies.

Because of La Manquita... If it had been finished, the Málaga Cathedral would be just another grand but ultimately rather ugly Baroque structure. But it never was. It’s only got one tower. And it’s that which gives it its nickname – La Manquita or the 'one-armed lady.' Which is somehow so endearing.

Because of the flower ladies on the Alameda Principal...
It’s not exactly one of the world’s great flower markets; in actual fact there are only a handful of vendors. But clustered around their booths in the shade of the ancient ficus trees with their colourful wares laid out around them, they make for a pleasing sight. The early evening is the best time to head down there. When you’re done – it won’t take long – you can always drop into the Antigua Casa Guardia (a 160-year-old bar), for a fortifying something or other in traditional spit and sawdust surroundings.

Because it doesn’t have many world-beating hotels... Tired old hostales there are plenty. Backpackers’ hostels, more than a couple. But good luxury hotels in Málaga are a little thin on the ground. And who’s to say that’s not necessarily a good thing? Because if Málaga had lots more great hotels, then hordes more visitors would probably come to the city. And that would never do. On the high-end accommodation front, what there is, however, is excellent, with sister properties Lola and Larios leading the way.

Because you change and it stays the same... It’s very hard to pin down the essence of a metropolis, endlessly shifting as they tend to be, like litter stirred up by a gust of wind. But in small(ish) cities like Málaga the character of the place stays more or less the same. It’s changed precious little in the years I’ve been visiting it – a little richer and a bit more polished maybe. But I suspect it will always be more or less the same.

If You Go -
For Málaga accomodations, visit TravelIntelligence.com. From the U.S., Delta offers non-stop seasonal service beginning July 11, 2010, from New York's JFK. Coach fares start at $US1060. Several airlines offer service from European ports, including British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet, Alitalia, Iberia and Air France.
Eating, Drinking and Other -
El Tintero, Carretera de Almería 99, Tel 952 20 44 64‎
El Pimpi, C/ Granada 62, Tel 952 228 990
Antigua Casa de Guardia, Alameda Principal 18, Tel 952 214 680
Museo Picasso

Story photographs by Ben Cooper
Homepage photograph © Mariano Pozo Ruiz/Fotolia



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