Malaga, like a seductive lady from Andalucia, hides coyly under her shawl, and thus remains sadly unexplored by many. Discreetly positioned at the centre of the Costa del Sol, the town has retained its highly unique character and yet is beginning to be appreciated by visitors who are lured by the historic charm and character of the place - and the people.
Part of the city's attraction is that of its intriguing layout which makes it particularly appealing for exploring. There are endless narrow streets, historic buildings and quaint old-fashioned shops which have remained largely unchanged despite the passage of time. This means that Malaga literally has something for everyone; a unique appeal which for one person may derive from the vitality and hospitality of the people, another from the architecture and, still another from the overall ambience and graciousness of the city.
One of the first rather delightful aspects which a visitor will notice, however, is that the Malagueno never walks around with a fixed purpose in mind as he always seems to have time for that impromptu coffee with friends or stroll through the park. In essence, this is true hospitality which is considered perfectly natural and normal. Interestingly, this is a trait which is also reflected in the Arabic cultures of the world, which is hardly surprising given the Moorish influence over the entire province of Andalucia.
Another equally endearing trait of the Malagueno is his (or her) extrovert character. Conversations are light-hearted, boisterous, peppered with amusing stories and subtle jokes. Malaguenos do not take themselves too seriously and don't expect others to either!.
A strong cultural identity and respect for age old traditions is reflected in such annual events as the Holy Week at Easter while, more light hearted, yet just as respected is the flamenco which can still be heard on an impromptu basis at several of the bars in the historic part of the city.
In Malaga, as all over Andalucia, life takes place on the street. The year round mild climate encourages the delightful custom of "promenading" which, again reflects the social, agreeable nature of the people. Winter and summer here are, in reality, autumn and spring elsewhere in the world Such seasons make the town an easy place to live, eat and enjoy as well as adding to its dynamism and appeal. On a more serious note, the city is also an important centre of administration in the business and financial world.
The streets of the historic centre preserve an age old ambience and reflect the vitality of a modern town. To fully appreciate all this area has to offer, it is necessary to spend several hours exploring the tiny backstreets which still are distinctly Moorish in character, contemplate the many churches and monasteries, stop for a coffee or a fino in a typical bar or perhaps purchase some "biznagas" (small bouquets of fresh jasmine) from a gypsy or vist the Casa de la Guardia for a sip of "pajarete"; a wine which is a virtual national symbol and generally served with a tapa, such as mussels and shrimps.
The custom of accompanying a drink with a small snack is yet another indicative factor of the Malaguenos, hospitality and habit of socialising in the bars and pubs where they spend long hours sipping wine and chatting. The actual name tapa comes from the word for a small plate which was often requested by customers in order to cover the wine so it would not evaporate in the heat. A few enticing tit bits were placed on these covers (tapas) which in time became so popular that they were a standard request.
During the night Malaga is as brightly lit as any city. However, this town has the obvious advantage of a coastline. This is when the view of the bay is at its best and there a number of excellent restaurants beachside, or the more informal may prefer a picnic with such appropriate dining fare as grilled sardines and a frothy glass of veritable cerveza!
Background and History
In order to take full advantage of Malaga's magnificent position, it is recommended that you climb the Mount Gibralfaro. From here the old town is a mosaic of buildings and narrow streets with rooftops at every level and, again, an utterly captivating Moorish ambience.
La Alcazaba and the castle of Gibralfaro both sit proudly on the hilltop and comprise an impressive monumental complex.
The former is one of the most important military constructions of its era, particularly regarding defence. Classic columns, taken from the ruins of a Roman theatre have been used and there is a charming plaza with portico, pool and garden, close to the complex of the Nazarean Palace and a small, inhabited barrio dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Within the palace buildings is the provincial archaeological museum that has an interesting collection of Paleolithical and Neolithic antiquities, as well as Roman art, models of the Alcazaba and the cathedral. Naturally enough, there is plenty of Muslim art here also, dating from the 10th to 14th centuries.
The Gibralfaro Castle takes up a large part of the hilltop. According to Muslim chronicles, a Phoenician lighthouse once stood there, thus it is know as Jabal-Farouk or "lighthouse hill". There is a project underway to build a lift from the base of the hill up to the patios of the castle, which would make the journey a little less arduous than the current seemingly endless steps. The Roman theatre is just below here. Some of its parts were used to build the Alcazaba where renovation is already underway. Further down towards the left is the Muslim Patio which is particularly captivating with orange trees and lots of brightly coloured flower beds. The cathedral, called La Manquita, (the one armed) is so named because the southern tower was never completed. Apparently, the money designated for construction was used instead for such laudable causes as the war of Independence in North America. The cathedral is built on the site of an earlier mosque and, in order to cover the costs of construction, the town was authorised in the 17th century to impose a tax on all wine, raisins and oil that moved through its harbour. The actual building lasted more than two centuries which is why the result is such a potpourri of styles, gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classic etc. The interior is surprisingly well lit and full of artistic treasures.
Currently however, the cathedral is in a sorry crumbling state and the Town Hall has started a campaign for its renovation, calling on all Malaguenos to participate. Numerous cultural events have been staged in order to raise funds and individual companies are starting to pledge large amounts to show their support. As far as the actual physical labour is concerned, the Department for Culture and Tourism is working together with the Institute of Employment and creating workshop programmes which will train students in the skills necessary for the restoration work.
In front of the Manquita is the Bishop's Palace, which in fact comprises two palaces, one built in the 16th century the other in the 18th century. The museum of religious art is housed in the latter and includes an excellent collection of paintings and goldsmiths' works. There are also two garden patios with an impressive number of plants. Still another part of the palace serves as a gallery or exhibition hall.
Carrying on down San Agustin Street we arrive at the Buena Vista Palace of the 16th century, which today houses the Museum of Fine Arts; a building full of contrasts; ornately plastered doors, a magnificent tower clearly reflecting a Mudejar influence, as well as some distinctive Renaissance elements, such as a patio with looming columns. The palace contains some twenty galleries where painting and sculptures are exhibited featuring such well known artists as Murillo, Zurbaran, Morales "the divine", Alfonso Cano, Ribera and Lucio Giordano. More recent art includes works by Sorola, Martinez Cubells and Picasso (among others). There is also an excellent collection of paintings from the Malaga school of the 19th century.
From San Agustin through to Granada Street, we arrive at the Plaza de l Merced which is quite the example of 19th century architecture; an era when Malaga was one of Europe's most important cities in terms of trade and commerce. For example, this is the site of the country's first large textile factories and ironworks.
The monumental plaza includes the birthplace of Picasso which has been converted into a small museum and includes a research library which is funded by the Picasso Foundation.
No discussion of Malaga centre would be complete without mentioning the Larios Street which divides the historic heart of the city. Constructed over a mere four year period, the street is grandiose and attractive with a harmony of architecture which is considered nowadays as being a particularly fine example of town planning. One of the small by-streets is the Chinitas alley which got its name from the famous theatre café immortalised by Federico Garcia Lorca and which has seen quite the best singers of the era, as well as writers and intellectuals from the 1920's.
Continuing on and just before reaching the ancient walls of the old Moorish city, there stands the Atarazanas Market, once a mosque and named after a monumental gate with the characteristic Arab style arch. The rest of the construction is Neomudejar from the 19th century. In fact, the building only lacks the original roof in order to be a perfect Arabic bazaar. Notwithstanding, the atmosphere is contagious with all the banter and barter of a genuine souk, not to mention heady aromas of spices, herbs, fresh vegetables and fish. It is said that this is the best place for the latter which exude all that "catch of the day" freshness. Brightly coloured, freshly picked fruits and vegetables line the aisles and are at least half the price of the equivalent further down the coast. If you can't find the market, don't worry, just follow the shoppers baskets…
At the very core of the city lies the Paseo del Parque, a botanical masterpeice with tropical plants and trees. Dating back some one hundred years, the original house of the senior gardener has now become a central tourism office. Although only 90 square metres large it is so splendid that it appears almost palatial. There is also the Town Hall, a neo-baroque building with a façade which boasts impressive iconographic renderings dating back a century or more.
Vision of the Future
Malaga does not only depend on tourism but also on high tech industries and environmental enterprises. A local Technological Park is about to become a reality. 168 hectares of which two thirds will remain "green". Currently, a kindergarten, health centre (for employees)) and telecommunications centre are under construction, together with an emergency medical centre which will be operational next year.
Malaga continues to hold a prominent role merely because of its position as a gateway to the Costa del Sol and the infrastructure supports this with impressive new highways and marina ports, as well as a train which links the city to Fuengirola.
In short, Malaga has a lot to offer visitors and residents alike and should not be missed. From the delicious fried fish to the real live flamenco, the city is an intrinsic reflection of the real Andalucia due, in part, to the very fact that it is not yet on the coach tour circuit. As such, the city has remained untainted by the surrounding tourism boom and therefore should be visited soon.
This article was first published in 1995 in the Andalucia Costa del Sol Magazine.