Málaga is steeped in history, beautiful architecture and delicious food. Donna Dailey shares all about her recent trip there, when she decided to step away from the beach and head into the city to explore all it has to offer.
I wouldn’t normally be drinking wine before noon. But I’m at the Antigua Casa de Guardia, Málaga’s oldest bar, and it would be a shame not to taste the sweet, fortified Málaga wine that has been produced in the region for centuries.
Like many visitors to the Costa del Sol, I had always bypassed Málaga and headed straight for the beach resorts. But this time, I’m here to explore this vibrant regional capital, the second-largest city in Andalucía after Seville. Beyond the sprawling, concrete suburbs that greet you on the airport road, there is a captivating old town at its heart that blends culture and tradition with exciting new art galleries and museums.
Antigua Casa de Guardia is the perfect place to start. Founded in 1840, this atmospheric bodega (winery) and tavern has a double row of ancient-looking wine barrels behind its long, wooden bar. Bartenders fill tumblers straight from the barrels, and tally your bill with chalk on the counter. They will also fill a bottle for you to take away. The wines, made from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes, are so tasty that the winery was named a Supplier of the House of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
As I sip a glass of Moscatel named after the Queen, I survey the happy scene of chattering Malagueños, drinking and snacking on plates of fresh local mussels and shrimp. The ochre walls are lined with old photos of the city, including some of its famous son, Pablo Picasso.
The artist was born in Málaga in 1881. Although he moved away when he was 10, he returned for summer holidays during his youth. Picasso had always dreamed of opening a museum in his home city. But he was unable to achieve it in his lifetime, as he had vowed never to return to Spain while Franco ruled.
Picasso’s daughter-in-law and grandson, Christine and Bernard Ruiz Picasso, finally accomplished the artist’s request and established the Museo Picasso Málaga, which opened in 2003.
It’s a pleasant, 15-minute walk from the bar. I head up Calle Marqués de Larios, a bustling, pedestrianised shopping street with upmarket fashion and designer shops, which ends in Plaza de la Constitución, in the heart of the old quarter.
Nearby, in Calle San Agustín, the Picasso museum is housed in the 16th-century Buenavista Palace. During the renovation, excavations in the basement revealed the remnants of a Phoenician city wall and towers that date to the 7th century BC, remains of a Roman factory and an earlier Arab palace. These archaeological finds are also on display.
The collection of more than 200 artworks centres around those Picasso kept for himself or gave to his family and friends. Many have never been shown elsewhere. As I browse the galleries, I’m struck by the intimate portraits of his sister Lola, painted when he was just 13; his baby son Paul; and his wives and lovers. There are also sculptures, drawings, engravings and ceramic pieces.
Picasso’s birthplace, a few streets away in Plaza de la Merced, is now part of the Picasso Foundation. Museo Casa Natal, the Birthplace Museum, is set in the building where he was born in 1881 and contains a small exhibit about his life, as well as some of his artworks, books and family possessions.
After my visit, I sit for a while in the square, one of the most beautiful in the city, imagining how it looked to the young Picasso. I can picture the boy playing bullfighter games with his cousins, using a stick and a rag for a cape. The bars selling churros (fritters) and the birds after which he named his daughter (Paloma means ‘dove’ or ‘pigeon’ in Spanish) are still there.
Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians around 770 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in Europe. Ruled subsequently by the Romans and the Moors, it harbours some impressive landmarks from both eras.
Another day, I start at the city’s most impressive viewpoint. The Gibralfaro Castle crowns the skyline at the summit of a steep hill. Its defensive walls were built for a Moorish ruler in the 14th century, though its origins are much older. After a quick browse in the museum here, I walk around the extensive ramparts, enjoying the glorious panoramic views over the port and the city.
It’s easier going downhill, so I walk back along a path beside the double walls that lead to the Alcazaba. Built in the 11th century on the ruins of an older Phoenician fortress, this was the palace of the Arab governors until 1487. It’s a gem of Moorish architecture. The decorative arches, tiles and stuccowork hint at the sumptuous lifestyle here during its heyday, while the lovely courtyards and gardens still offer a quiet retreat with pools, orange trees and bougainvillea.
Beside the entrance to the Alcazaba is the Roman theatre, built in the 1st century BC. Now restored, it makes a grand outdoor entertainment space.
I stroll on into the old town, where something interesting beckons round every corner. There are hidden churches, beautiful squares, shop windows full of curiosities, winding passageways and atmospheric streets lined with overhanging balconies.
At Mercado Central de Atarazanas, the old covered market, I enter through a massive, intricately carved, 14th-century Moorish gate. Beneath the iron-and-glass roof, stalls are piled high with a cornucopia of seafood, meats and local produce. A fabulous stained-glass window fills the archway at one end, depicting medieval sailing ships and historical landmarks of this proud port city.
All that food whets my appetite, so I make my way to El Chinitas, a traditional restaurant with mosaic tiles, hams hanging from the rafters above the bar, and pictures of matadors and flamenco dancers on the walls. I opt for the delicious tapas menu and take a pavement table to enjoy it as I watch the passing scene.
From here, I can see the single tower of the enormous cathedral rising above the end of the passageway. Funds for the second tower ran out in 1782, leaving the unfinished building with a nickname: The One-Armed Lady. Inside, highlights include the exquisitely carved wooden choirstalls and a pair of huge pipe organs. Opposite the cathedral is the beautiful baroque façade of the Palacio Episcopal (Bishop’s Palace). It has small collections of religious and African, temporary exhibits and a pretty little garden.
In Parque de Málaga, a couple of streets to the south, I take a break from the city. Running parallel to the port, its palm-lined promenade, botanical gardens, fountains and sculptures offer a peaceful green haven en route to my next attraction.
Málaga’s historical landmarks are impressive, but the city is not resting on its laurels. In the past three years, new world-class art museums have opened here, giving it one of the largest cultural offerings in Spain.
As I approach the port, a large, multi-coloured glass cube rises atop a low building at the head of the piers. It’s the Centre Pompidou Málaga, the first off-shoot of the famous Parisian art gallery outside France. Inside, in the permanent collection I find works by Magritte, Chagall, Giacometti and other leading artists including, of course, Picasso. Temporary exhibitions are also held here throughout the year.
Outside the city centre, another unexpected addition is the Collection of the Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Málaga. The first of its kind in Spain, it features hundreds of artworks from the 15th to 20th centuries, ranging from icons to revolution paintings.
These new museums join Málaga’s other top cultural attractions. In the old town, the Palacio de la Aduana - Museo de Málaga is set in the remodelled Custom House. It holds extensive provincial collections of archaeology and fine arts, including one of the best collections of 19th-century Spanish paintings.
Near Plaza de la Constitución is Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga. Housed in a 16th-century palace, its collection of more than 200 paintings comprises one of the most complete displays of 19th-century Andalucian art in the country.
CAC Málaga, the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, is a large exhibition space set in a former wholesale market building along the river. There are changing exhibits from the permanent collection as well as temporary shows featuring Spanish and international artists.
In addition to these leading galleries, I discover that Málaga has an amazing number of special interest museums. They include the Automobile Museum which boasts Europe’s largest vintage car collection; the Interactive Museum of Music (MIMMA); the Wine Museum of Málaga, the Museum of Flamenco Art, and the Museum Unicaja of Popular Arts & Customs.
At the port, there’s the Alborania Museum Hall of the Sea and at the bull ring, where Picasso used to go as a child, there’s the bullfighting museum.
As interesting as some of them may be, the beach is calling. They’ll have to wait for another day. With its delightful old quarter and atmospheric tapas bars, there’s much more of Málaga to explore. It won’t be long before I’m back for another visit to Picasso’s home town.
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