Stay a while

Sat, Jun 9, 2012, 01:00

CITY BREAK MALAGA:IT’S A SMALL town with big ideas. Not so very small, actually: with a population of more than 550,000, Malaga is currently the fifth-biggest city in Spain. Once known mostly as the place people flew into before heading straight for the distinctly inauthentic Costa resorts, it’s now on a mission to persuade visitors to stay a while and experience a slice of authentic Andalucia – with a modest but satisfying helping of culture on the side.

Culture, you ask? What culture? Well, it may not be Madrid or Barcelona, but Malaga unquestionably punches above its weight in the culture department. The city already has two top-notch art venues in the Picasso Museum and the Carmen Thyssen Museum, and work is well under way on an enormous new fine arts museum at the Palacio de la Aduana, which will bring visiting exhibitions from the Prado in Madrid.

Add a graceful Arabic fortress, a great hunk of cathedral right out of Spanish Inquisition central casting, a museum of contemporary art and an up-and-coming football team whose blue-and-white striped jerseys will be competing in next season’s Champions League pre-qualifiers, and you’ll find all the angles are covered.

And that’s without even mentioning the pleasures of browsing through a maze of pedestrianised streets on warm evenings, stopping here and there for a glass of wine and a plate of tapas. Or strolling through the park to the port for a café solo with the beautiful people on brand-new Muelle Uno, a gleaming modern harbourside location which, up until a few years ago, was a rusting, unloved eyesore. Now lined with shops and restaurants – there’s everything from a sandwich place to a Michelin-starred joint – it has a vibe which is uncannily like that of Sydney’s fabled Circular Quay, except without the jetlag.

The combination of cultural chutzpah with geographical compactness makes Malaga hugely attractive as a weekend citybreak destination. A two-and-a-half-hour flight gets you there in the blink of an eye. Hop on the train at the airport and you’ll arrive in the city centre in less than 10 minutes, having paid the princely sum of €1.30 for the privilege. There is a brace of hotels within five minutes’ walk of the Centro Alameda station. After that, everything you’ll need is accessible on foot – and for the rest, or when the sun-drenched local microclimate makes walking too bothersome, there’s the hop-on hop-off bus.

First port of call, even for those who don’t profess to be mad about Picasso, has to be the Museo Picasso Malaga on Calle San Agustin. You’ll find paintings here which have never been displayed elsewhere, as well as some fantastically funky ceramics. The building itself, meanwhile, is a treat; light and airy inside, its 300-year-old mahogany ceilings are intricately carved, and the modern architectural touches — a courtyard filled with bamboos, windows dressed with simple but elegant blinds made from local reeds, an outdoor café where single pots of massed red geraniums glow in the sunshine, a gift shop crammed with tasteful Cubist knick-knacks — make it an uncommonly pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. Be warned, though, everyone else has the same idea, including the hordes who arrive from the cruise ships which glide into Malaga’s harbour at the crack of dawn. Book before you go, or wait until the afternoon, or both.

Around the corner, just off the large square La Plaza de la Constitución, is the Carmen Thyssen Museum, a brand-new cousin of the gallery of the same name in Madrid which opened in March 2011. Another glorious giftshop, another salubrious café, another exhibition of hugely tasteful art works, many of which have a specifically Andalucian connection.

If all that indoor culture has you longing to be outside with the wind in your hair, you can always get on your bike. There’s no better woman to get you going than Kay Farrell, whose cycle rental business is tucked into a tiny pasaje just off Malaga’s main traffic artery, the Alameda. Push off by yourself or join one of her guided tours, in which you’ll find yourself hurtling along Calle Cervantes at a satisfying clip. Before we knew it we were cycling right into the Malagueta – the bullring where the infant Picasso sat on his father’s knee to watch the action – and out on to the beach of the same name.

Malaga’s cathedral, La Encarnación, is nicknamed La Manquita, or one-armed lady, because it has only one belltower. Not that you’d miss it because the interior is cavernous. It’s a relief to get out from under the heavy-handed medieval crozier and back into the sunshine to head up the hill to the Islamic fortress and former royal residence known as the Alcazaba.

The tip here is to take the elevator – tucked discreetly under the hill, so it’s easy to miss – then wend your way downwards. From the top there are, of course, stunning views of the city and if you’ve been wondering why the canny seafaring Arabs who ruled Malaga for so long would build their castle so far back from the harbour, you can see at once that the shoreline used to come up to its very doors. It’s a hugely evocative place where it’s easy to imagine yourself striding down those elegant fountain-strewn gardens in your manly white robes (women, one suspects, didn’t have such an elegant time of it).

After that you might want to spend a day just lolling around on the beach – make sure you camp near one of the chiringuito barbecue restaurants, which offer delicious fried fish al fresco – or indulging in some retail therapy. Malaga is a stylish shopping town, with bags and shoes especially tempting. But if you’re still not museumed out, there are still a fistful to choose from. Visit the tourist office at the Plaza de la Marina for an astonishing variety of themed walking maps: romantic Malaga, contemporary Malaga, botanical Malaga, religious Malaga, or my favourite, Malaga: Ruta de la Piedra y el Agua (Malaga: Route of Stone and Water).

The Automobile Museum is located in a magnificently restored tobacco factory. A stupendous collection of vintage cars which belong to a Portuguese millionaire – from a diamond-studded affair once owned by Elizabeth Taylor to a Mercedes which carried Himmler to do his day’s dirty work, plus dozens of others including a custom-built “picnic car”. La Concepción, Malaga’s botanical garden, is home to a wide range of sub-tropical plants and a beautifully sane way to avoid the heat of the midday sun.

After that, take your pick. There’s a doll museum, a wine museum, a football museum, a flamenco museum, a science museum and an eco-museum. Somebody counted and got 27. But after that first bottle of rioja, who’s counting?

How to . . .

FLYBoth Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Malaga. Return flights in early June work out at approximately €250. The annual Feria de Malaga runs from August 10th to 20th this year, which means expensive hotels and thronged streets but also flamenco, processions, live music, bullfighting and general mayhem. Holy Week is also a major annual festival in the city. Malaga’s film festival – the brainchild of its second most famous son after Picasso, Antonio Banderas – takes place in April.

STAYFor understated and utterly contemporary luxury, try Malaga’s only five-star, the Hotel Vincci Selección Posada Del Patio. A double superior can be had in early June for less than €115.

If you want to look down from a great height in great old-world style, nowhere is situated better than the Parador of Gibralfaro, perched on the side of the mountain near the fortress. A double superior costs €240.

For a quiet waterside location check out tiny three-star La Chancla. It’s on the beach in an attractive, quiet suburb a 15-minute bus ride from the city centre, but one of its eight rooms will set you back a mere €50 a night.

EATNeed fuel to keep you going on the retail therapy front? Perch on a high stool outdoors at Tabernas-Casa el Volapie on Strachan Street, where you can join the locals in munching such favourite delicacies as banderillas de boquerones (anchovies wrapped around olives; €6). Salted prawns in a paper cone (€10) go down really well with a bottle of Banderas Ribero del Duero Tempranillo (€13.50).

For a super-stylish lunch head to the new marina area, Muelle Uno, where Gorki offers a new, blini-based take on tapas with “enteras” portions priced at under €5, salads at €8 and a plate of first-class foie gras for €12.50.

It’s hard to go wrong on the eating front in Malaga: there are fistfuls of good tapas bars around the city centre, including the easygoing D-Gustar on Plaza de los Flores, just off the main shopping street, Calle Marques de Lorios.

Afterwards, head around the corner for ice-cream at Casa Mira. The best in Malaga, say locals – especially if you try the rum-and-raisin flavour made with local wine.

* Arminta Wallace travelled to Malaga courtesy of Aer Lingus, and stayed as a guest of Malaga Tourism.

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