Seville, Granada, Cadiz … these are the cities that spring to mind when you talk about southern Spain in winter. Cities with rich architectural history, stunning old towns, vibrant cultural attractions and a charm guaranteed to steal your heart. Malaga? Not so much. Unless, that is, you’re on the hunt for ugly cement resorts, overly crowded beaches, shady tourist restaurants, and an old city swallowed long ago by the forward march of industry and excessive tourism. At least, that’s the Malaga I expected. My lazy Google pre-trip search did little to assuage my concerns. Photos from above showed me a modern city with beaches and a skyline marked by the jarring sight of ugly hotel elbowing its way in front of ugly hotel. A perusal of a few top 10 things to do in Malaga lists further cemented my plan to use Malaga and more specifically its airport as a cheap way-station to get into and out of as quickly as possible.
Yet, that’s not the city I discovered. The Malaga that awaited me was a city that was surprisingly charming and elegant. A city that, while most definitely possessed of all the annoying tourist traps, also still seemed to maintain its own spirit and soul. While I’m sure much of that is swallowed up by the throngs of tourists during the summer and a shift in the spirit and atmosphere of the city – Malaga in January had much more to offer than I anticipated. Enough that instead of the one day I had allocated to see the hilltop fortress before moving on, I added a second day to continue my perusal and exploration of the city.
I’m sure the surge of Vitamin D coursing through my veins helped work in the city’s favor…not to mention trading Copenhagen’s dark, windy, and gloomy weather for sunshine, blue skies, and long days. Still, Malaga’s charm was also enough to stand on its own.
The city’s inner district is a fun warren of shopping streets, back alleyways and lovely little plazas. My hostel (Oasis Malaga) was situated centrally about a 5 minute walk from the main Cathedral. It gave me ample access to the inner city and let me wander around carelessly: partially lost for most of the day. Enjoying each new area I discovered. My meanderings took me up to the castle, out to the lighthouse along the posh waterfront, down the city’s large sand beach, through the main Cathedral and several of its younger siblings as well as outside of the city core into the local’s part of Malaga. Other than the prolific amount of dog crap which reminds you you’re in a Spanish city, the marble and sea-stone streets added a polish to the city that at times teased my memories of Split in Croatia.
The scent of the sea is ever-present though not pervasive. Its mildness and the light salty humidity that goes with it was present, even in January, though I can only imagine it is oppressive in the summer months.
One of my favorite parts of the visit was watching the sunset from an overlook situated near the top of the hill next to the city’s ancient fortress. The overlook requires a bit of a trek but is well worth it. As the sun slowly slips behind the nearby mountain, the city presents different faces behind a mixture of varied masks as new colors bring out new textures within the sea and skyline. Then, as the sun drifts behind the mountain and the city starts to transition into darkness, the lights click-on casting long shadows and painting the city’s massive cathedral and old Moorish fortress in golden yellows and rich purples. To the left you’re greeted by a similar sight; only this time its the white-ish light of the city’s bullring as it sits nestled at the base of the mountain.
As I sat enjoying the sunset, taking some photos, and filming a time-lapse a stalwart biker arrived at the platform. With a mild hint of awe in my voice I struck up a conversation and quickly learned that he had been a Taxi driver in Paris before being robbed and having his chest “opened up with a knife from here to here”. Not only had he survived, he had begun to take long biking trips every other year to many of Europe’s most extreme points. This trip was taking him along the coast to the southwestern part of Spain before cutting back up to the northwestern tip. He shared with me stories of the French island he now calls home, of his trip, and previous adventures by bike. While I can’t imagine it’s the sort of trip or travel I’ll ever pursue, I always have a strong sense of admiration for the folks who undertake such trips. Especially when they’re at least in their 40s like Eric – who had a dense salt and pepper beard to match his sun-worn features.
While none of the locals I asked were familiar with the artist or artists in question – I was thrilled to discover that the city is awash in absolutely stunning graffiti. The artist – Doger – has done a series of full-wall pieces throughout the city (and particularly around Calle Vital Aza) which feature stunning female figures and random fanciful characters from the pages of old world fantasy and myth. Most sit on cement walls where buildings have been demolished or along back alleyways, though some can be found in more prominent locations.
It took a few attempts, but eventually I finally tracked down a proper dive situated in the midst of the city. The place was overflowing with locals and spilled out into the street. It didn’t look like much but was the perfect solution for my grungy budget greasy spoon tapas hankerings. La Taskita – Alemana served up healthy tapas portions for 1 Euro a piece and had a bucket with 5 local beers for 2.50 Euro … for those keeping track that’s 50 Euro cents per beer. Sure beats the 5-7 Euro we pay back home.
While it might not hold up against similar venues outside the touristic heart of Malaga, it was hands down the best find of our visit and a much better option than the other venues suggested at the hostel. The clientele also added to the atmosphere as a boisterous mixture of characters drifted in and out of the shop throughout the hour or so we spent relaxing and enjoying our meal.
I caught the main cathedral in the late morning. Its ornate grandeur places it on par with many of Europe’s other grand cathedrals. The size, scale, and scope never ceases to awe me. Not only because the building remains standing and has done so for hundreds of years – but also because it was designed, engineered, and built hundreds of years ago in a time that pre-dated not only computers but electricity and most mechanized forms of machinery. All over decades (or in some cases centuries).
The cathedral is home to a number of beautiful sculptures and religious art pieces. It also has a series of gorgeous stained glass windows which are best enjoyed when the late-morning sun is hitting the windows. Parts of the grand hall was covered in rainbows of multi-hued light, while other areas were bathed in rays of liquid amber that brought a sense of warmth and awe to an otherwise gray and somewhat sterile interior.
Paying a few Euros extra for access to the Malaga Cathedral is also well worth it, even if you’ve done numerous cathedrals before.
Try as I might, I can’t make myself love Picasso. No, that’s a lie. I can’t even get myself to remotely like Picasso. Despite this, I decided to give the Picasso Museum a go since it seemed like one of those cultural things you’ve just gotta’ do. 8 Euro later I found myself walking the hallways of a beautiful museum artfully laid out. The visual style and installations were artfully presented and the museum was crisp, clean, and did a lovely job blending different types of art mediums with moving images to match the still paintings, sketches, and text.
With more than 250 items in the collection I wandered the hallways desperately hoping I’d find at least one piece that I found remotely attractive. You’d think that out of 250+ works one would speak to me? Right? Sadly, all it managed to do was cement my general dislike for Picasso’s artwork. I’ve had friends attempt at great length to persuade me about the brilliance of his work, the complexity, and the like. At the end of the day though I still see little more than a mixture of crude figures that remind me of cave paintings done in Southwestern France at a time when man was chewing charcoal and spitting it on cave walls. When not reminiscent of spit-art in a dark cave, his sketches remind me of pre-pubescent doodles drawn in middle school classes throughout the world.
If you find yourself of a similar opinion, it’s probably worth spending your 8 Euro on good tapas instead. If, on the other hand, you’re in the camp that finds Picasso’s art work inspired, ground breaking, and possessed of a rich character you’re probably going to love the museum and get a lot out of it.
For those eager for a quasi-aerial view of the old fortress, the Marriott hotel is a heaping skyscraper situated just next to the main cathedral. At 15+ stories it parallels the height of the cathedral and offers a 360 degree view of the city. It’s one of the best views of the port and hands down the best city-side view of the old fortress. Non-guests are welcome and there’s a great little terrace bar at the top for those inclined to stay for more than a quick view and photo or two.
While it’s a bit cold for a swim in January by my (and most people’s) standards, there were still a few diehards braving the crisp air and cool waters for a quick swim. The sand of the beach is fairly course and a dark pulverized stone-sand. It’s not the most beautiful of sand beaches or the best of textures…in truth it’s a bit dusty…but it is never the less by Mediterranean beach standards quite decent. The beach sweeps around in a large crescent and the waters possess those rich Mediterranean hues which cry out for you to dive in. Even though I was inclined to keep my boots (and jacket) on, it was a great spot to relax for an hour or two while enjoying the southern sun and forcing myself to pause, unwind, listen to a podcast, and enjoy the fine art of doing nothing.
While I haven’t made it out of Malaga yet, I’ve also been told that there are two wonderful daytrips from the city which are Nerja for a beautiful series of grand caves and Ronda for a historic bridge over a large gorge and what I’ve been told is the oldest bull ring in Spain.
If you find yourself debating an off-season visit to Malaga, hopefully you’ll also consider giving the city more than a cursory hat-nod in passing. Far from a sleepy little city or an overly bloated tourist trip – in off season the city is a destination in its own right. It always helps when expectations for a city are low. Still, having a city that I had written off surprise me is always a favorite experience and a very welcome surprise.
Have you had a similar experience? Have tips for my next visit? Eager to point out something I missed? Feel free to share in a comment.