72hrs in Malaga
Few places in Europe possess such a rich, varied and lengthy history as Malaga. It is, in fact, one of the oldest established cities on the continent, having been founded by the Phoenicians some 3,000 years ago, while evidence of indigenous civilisations harks back thousands of years before that. Locally discovered Neandertal relics and cave paintings dated more than 30,000 years old indicate that the Malaga region supported human life from its earliest development.
As a bridge between Africa and Europe, a continuing mix of cultures in the area was inevitable, and the warm Mediterranean climate and ideal growing conditions made this southernmost Andalusian province an attractive home across the millennia. The Phoenicians brought olives and vines with them and began organised cultivation that would influence the economic and gastronomic development of the region from then until present day. Indeed, Malaga today still cultivates the same variety of grape that the Phoenicians brought with them, the Moscatel de Alejandria (Muscat), and olive oil production is a core industry crucial to the local economy.
Within the port city of Malaga itself, many historical remnants are still easily discovered with a minimal amount of digging. The “Alcazaba”, the old Moorish fort reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada, is the most obvious example. Highly visible atop a hill overlooking the city, the Alcazaba stands as a monument to the era of Islamic rule (from roughly the 8th to the 15th centuries) when all of “Al-Andaluz” belonged to the caliphate centred in Cordoba and Granada. Bring comfortable shoes for the steep walk up to the fortress, but once on site, visitors enjoy not just a fascinating walk back in time, but some of the best views over the city and expansive coastline. At the base of that hill, an incredibly well preserved Roman amphitheatre sits at the edge of the historic centre of Malaga. Some glimpses of the ancient city wall are visible at points in the city, while the influences of Andalusia’s three cultures, Jewish, Islamic and Christian, show through in the impressive architecture of the old town centre.
With any visit to the city of Malaga, short or prolonged, an aimless wander through this labyrinthine old centre is a must; it’s entirely pedestrianised with many a surprise around every corner and superb people-watching. Perhaps best experienced on arrival day as a means of orientation, the old town immediately reveals the wide Calle Larios commercial shopping avenue with a few high-end shops and merchants of all variety on the narrow side streets. This leads to one of many attractive plazas within the centre, Plaza de Constitucion. Take a load off at the bustling Café Central and enjoy a coffee at this iconic hotspot showcasing Malaga’s unique take on the preferred coffee to milk ratio.
Any route through the old centre should also reveal the famed Renaissance cathedral with its beautiful Baroque façade. Construction began in 1528, and while the official completion date is 1782, in reality, the cathedral still has not been completed. One of the two main towers was left unfinished when funds dried up, leading the locals to dub the cathedral, “La Manquita”, or “the one-armed lady”. From here it is a short walk to one of Malaga’s other most popular plazas, Plaza Merced, lined with traditional tapas bars and cafes and a view to the backside of the Alcazaba above. Pablo Picasso was born in a home on the corner of the plaza, now housing the Picasso birthplace museum, and there is a hip new market adjacent with the elegant Cervantes theatre, housing various stage performances and Malaga’s city orchestra just behind. After nightfall the plaza attracts youngsters in droves, preferring to sit and sip socially on the steps before the memorial obelisk at the centre of the plaza.
For an evening meal on an introductory tour of the city, and for a typical Malagueñan experience, a tapas tour is essential. Malaga city and the wider province are experiencing a major burst of gastronomic excellence, with more Michelin stars than any other Andalusian province and a growing influence on the international scene. Yet the humble tapas bar is not simply a convenient place for a snack to keep the engine running and soak up that added glass of wine, but an integral experience around which the social scene in the city is at least partially founded. And, it can be damn fine.
Try La Farola de Orellana (Moreno Monroy, 3) for a truly traditional taste in one of the oldest and most favoured tapas spots in the city, or El Tapeo del Cervantes (Carcer, 8) where they rely on seasonal market offerings by the day to deliver fresh and creative fare with extensive off menu items depending on the whims of the kitchen. For something a little more upscale and modern, sample a few rations from Uvedoble Taberna (Calle Cister, 15), or Cosmopolita (Calle Fresca, 12). And for a more populist take, drop in on the outdoor terrace at El Pimpi, where native son Antonio Banderas is a stakeholder and the interiors are plastered with photos of celebrity visitors. The main Atarazanas food market is also a must for any food loving visitor, and an excellent spot to pause for some tapas in between peeping the incredible sights and smells of the historic hall.
Malaga, however, is not just a city, but an expansive and diverse province with varied and dramatic landscapes of rugged mountainous terrain and sweeping sandy coastlines, inland valleys and surprisingly verdant fields. Even with only 72 hours in Malaga, it would be a shame to miss this essence of Malaga. The Marbella area to the west of the city is well known, well documented and very popular for its sheen of glitz. If this is your avenue, take it. But to the east of Malaga lies the real Spain of antiquity, where time slows a bit and donkeys still do the leg work for the many agricultural workers supplying the olives, grapes and tropical fruit sustaining the local economy. To the north by Antequera and toward Cordoba, the olive oil produced here takes awards for at least half of the top ten oils globally each year.
To the east of Malaga, particularly in the Axarquia region, the coast is more natural and free of the apartment blocks and buildings that blight the coast to the west of the city. For a boat tour and, with luck, some dolphin sightings, it’s far better to hire an excursion from the busy fishing port of Caleta de Velez, for example, than from the port of Malaga. Check the Zostera Catamaran in Caleta for outings of 3-8 hours, with or without a fresh seafood lunch prepared on board. If you prefer to dine before your outing, the owners of the Zostera Catamaran run one of the best restaurants along that stretch for the freshest of seafood prepared simply but with precision.
Just inland from Caleta de Velez lie such quaint and quintessentially Spanish white-washed villages as Canillas de Aceituno below the peak of La Maroma mountain and Frigiliana, perched above the popular seaside town of Nerja, with endless shopping and some of the best restaurants between the city of Malaga and Almuñecar at the edge of Granada province.
If it’s vineyards and winemaking that capture the imagination, Malaga has two main regions. The aforementioned Axarquia region is the centre of sweet wine production, carrying on the tradition established thousands of years ago with the very same Moscatel grape the Phoenicians brought. The Ordoñez winery (largest importer of Spanish wine to the U.S.), Dimobe bodega of A. Muñoz Cabrera, Sedella Vinos, and Bodegas Bentomiz all base their production in the hills of La Axarquia with ideal growing conditions and salty sea air. Further inland and to the north west of the city of Malaga, the scenic town of Ronda has evolved into the most sophisticated wine producing region in the province. Here they produce some very fine reds and dry whites in addition to the more common sweet Moscatel. For tours see Cortijo de los Aguilas, Bodega F. Schatz, Bodega Descalzos Viejos, or Bodega Doña Feliza.
To wind down a short stay in Malaga, a visit to one or more of the 30+ museums in the city of Malaga adds a deeper touch of culture. Whatever you fancy, there’s something for everyone. As the birthplace of Picasso, there is a fine collection at the Picasso Museum and the Picasso birthplace museum is a curiosity for fans of the artist. Fine arts aficionados will enjoy the Carmen Thyssen museum, the Museo de Malaga, the Museo del Patrimonio Municipal and the Pompidou Centre, a satellite museum housing works from the main Pompidou museum in Paris. The Centro de Arte Contemporaneo (modern art) has ever-changing display of intrigue; and beyond that, there is an Automobile Museum alongside the Museum of Russian Art, the Museum of Glass and Crystal, the Wine Museum, a Doll House Museum, an interactive music museum popular with youngsters, and a Flamenco Art Museum to name just a sampling. Wander the streets of the SoHo district for an open-air art experience, where impressive graffiti art and massive murals adorn local structures.
If there’s still time for some sunny relaxation on the beach, it’s not even necessary to leave the city, with the Malagueta beach situated near the bull ring just east of the port. But for a more quiet and natural setting, schedule a beach stop with the tour east of Malaga and La Axarquia. The beaches to the east of Nerja, itself an attractive beach layover, are less populated and remarkably beautiful as the cliffs fall into the sea and the sand stretches along without interruption and without urban developments.
On the final night of a short stay in Malaga, a visit to one of the finer dining establishments makes for a very satisfying conclusion. Restaurante Jose Carlos Garcia is widely accepted as the best restaurant in the city of Malaga. Located at the Muelle Uno port development (also great for shopping), JCG earned its first Michelin star a few years ago and has grown from strength to delicious strength with Malaga’s native-born chef at the helm. Marbella is loaded with Michelin stars as well, including Dani Garcia’s self-named restaurant that recently earned him a third star.
Malaga airport is only a short taxi ride away from the city centre, at about 10 minutes. This will hopefully afford time for a last look at the old town and a stop for “churros” and chocolate with a final deep breath of fresh sea air to take in the local scents, flavours and customs. If you’re looking for a boutique hideaway for your Andalusian trip, do view Cortijo el Carligto. Ultimately, there’s more to do in Malaga than a 72-hour stay can afford, so don’t say “adios” but “hasta luego” and make a return just as soon as possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alan Hazel is a Malaga devotee and owner of Cortijo el Carligto, a rustic-chic hideaway based in Malaga province.