Friday, September 27, 2013

Tearing Down 6 Spanish Stereotypes

Except for three months home for the summer, I’ve been living in Spain for one year now. After reading countless blogs about the country, running into my fair share of tourists, and sharing my experiences with friends and family, I’ve gotten a sense of the sort of stereotypes that Spanish culture has in the minds of the rest of the world. In this post, I’ve gathered six of them that I find particularly annoying and have tried to break them down, giving more accurate examples of what Spanish society is really like. Let me know what you think of them in the comments section once you’ve finished reading!

1) Paella is the national dish

Seafood paella in Valencia
Paella (pronounced “pah-AY-yah” [paˈeʎa]) is a famous rice-based dish that originated in the Mediterranean region of Valencia. Saffron gives the rice its warm, golden color, and the savory rice is usually cooked with vegetables like artichokes and meat like rabbit, chicken, or various crustaceans and shellfish. It’s a big part of the culture of eastern Spain, and families often have paella for dinner on Sunday much like a Sunday roast in the UK.

But I need to emphasize that paella is a regional thing; it wouldn’t be correct to label it “the” national dish at all. While folks across Spain will order it for dinner or make it themselves every once in a while, there are other dishes that you can find all over the country that are dear to every Spaniard’s heart. I suggest as more appropriate national dishes the tortilla de patatas—a potato omelet eaten hot or cold—and the many varieties of jamón—whole cured ham legs, the meat of which is sliced super-thin and served on its own or in sandwiches, with cheese, etc.

2) Everyone loves bullfighting—¡olé!

Pamplona bullring
Bullfighting is a centuries-old sport art that involves a series of opulently-dressed toreros (bullfighters) taunting testy bulls before finishing them off with a huge sword. In many parts of Spain even the smallest village will have its own plaza de toros (bullring), and the bullfighting season from March through October draws big crowds in Madrid, Sevilla, and town fairs.

While el toreo still commands a large, devoted following, it’s still understandably controversial. Movements to ban it have succeeded in Cataluña and the Canary Islands, and you would be hard-pressed to attend a fight in Galicia, where only a single bullring exists. I personally know a handful of Spaniards who refuse to patronize bars and restaurants decorated with bullfighting memorabilia and stuffed bull heads.

There was an article published last week on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown blog that claims “Spain has at least one common thread: bulls.” Ha! Hardly. Want to know the real national sport? ¡FÚTBOL!

3) Sangría is the national drink

(Source: Mitchell Bartlett)
Sangría—emphasis on the I, not the first A—is a mixed drink of red wine, chopped fruit, sugar, brandy, and usually something fizzy. Spaniards usually drink sangría in the summer, often at parties or at get-togethers for friends and family. Think of it as kind of like punch, as it’s sometimes served in the equivalent of a punch bowl.

It’s the mark of a green tourist, though, to order sangría at every meal; although many places do, indeed, make pitchers of the stuff, it’s as weird as ordering fruit punch with your hamburger in America.

Instead of sangría, Spaniards tend to imbibe a similar refreshing wine-based drink called tinto de verano, “red (wine) of summer.” They add some ice cubes and lemon slices into a glass before they fill it halfway with gaseosa (sweetened carbonated water) and top it off with a few glugs of red wine. It’s also called vino con casera (“wine with Casera,” a brand of carbonated water). This isn’t the national drink by any means—wine from Rioja will cover that—but it’s a more authentic beverage than touristy sangría.

4) Everyone can dance flamenco

(Source: Peter Johnen)
Flamenco, a unique style of music and dance combining western and eastern rhythms and sounds, began hundreds of years ago in Andalucía, where the gypsy community is strongest. This passionate genre involves not just dance but also guitar-playing, hand-clapping, and extremely soulful singing. I can’t get enough of it, whether it be local youth flamenco contests or spontaneous saetas sung during Holy Week.

However, flamenco—be it the dance of the accompaniment—is an art form that people have to study and practice all their lives, mainly people from the southern half of the country. Your average Spaniard walking on the streets of Córdoba or Sevilla, while probably very familiar with all things flamenco, wouldn’t be able to break out in claps and fancy footwork on cue unless they’ve been trained. You’d have a much better chance of running into somebody who knows the fancy footwork to the traditional jota dance or a Catalan who can join in on a sardana.

5) It’s always sunny

San Sebastián, seen from Mount Urgull
Probably because of Spain’s reputation abroad for its thousands of kilometers of sunny Mediterranean beaches, many people assume that all of Spain is always sunny. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To be fair, temperatures in the central meseta plateau can reach 100+ (40+) in the summer, often accompanied by months without rain. But Spain has seasons, too, y’all! This past winter in southern Spain was one of the most brutal I’ve ever experienced: overcast skies and rain at least once a week, for days at a time; temperatures hovering above freezing—WITHOUT central heating; and strong winds blowing in from the flat plains to the north. This was the norm from, oh, November through March, almost half the year!

Additionally, the entire northern coast of the country, famous for being lush and green, is equally famous among Spaniards because llueve mucho there, it rains a lot. Regions like Galicia and Asturias are called the Irelands of Spain because the climate there isn’t Mediterranean Paradise™ but temperate rainforest—much different from the stereotypical sun and heat!

6) Everybody takes a siesta

(Source: Manuel Romero)
Now, although Spanish society shuts down between the hours of 2 and 5pm for the midday siesta, this doesn’t necessarily mean everybody lies down to take a nap. In fact, most Spaniards, if asked, would probably admit they don’t sleep during siesta, either because lunch stretched for a long time (a good sobremesa conversation), or because there simply wasn’t enough time for it (having to go back to work or take the kids to activities).

A custom that a majority of Spaniards partake in, however, is the paseo, or afternoon stroll that immediately follows the siesta. The contrast outside can be rather jolting for first-time visitors to Spain, as the previously-deserted streets are now full and bustling with people going for a walk, meeting up with friends, walking the dog, or getting a pick-me-up cup of coffee. The paseo lasts anywhere from 5pm until suppertime.

Do you agree with how I’ve torn down these stereotypes about Spain? What would you add to this list? Talk about it below in the comments!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Guided Tour of Úbeda, Spain

So far, I’ve written an homage to Úbeda—the city where I lived for eight months while teaching English in southern Spain—as well as a post outlining my favorite restaurants in town. To conclude Úbeda Week on the blog, I’d like to present a (free!) Guided Tour of this really nice village I once called home. Famous for its Renaissance architecture, its tradition of pottery that dates back to Moorish times, and its bottles that overflow with high-quality olive oil, Úbeda is a small city but with plenty to keep you occupied.

Úbeda, Spain
Holy Chapel of El Salvador
So I’ve put together three itineraries in this post that you can follow, combine, or rearrange if you like. Obviously, opening and closing hours may not always correspond with the given path, but hopefully these routes give you an idea of what there is to see in town so you can put together your own personalized plan of attack.

A Tourist Map of Úbeda by yours truly (click to enlarge)
I’ve also drawn up a map of Úbeda (thanks Google Maps!) with the routes through town highlighted in red, brown, and blue, so you can follow along as you read below. The old town still conserves its medieval mess of streets and alleyways, so don’t feel bad if you get lost—it’s part of the adventure.


I’ve made a fancy new interactive Google Maps Engine map with all these cafés, restaurants, and more you can check out here!

Itinerary #1: Monuments

Úbeda, Spain
Roof of one of the towers of the Hospital de Santiago
Start at the bus station (estación de autobuses) in the west part of town and walk due east on the main drag, Avenida Cristo Rey, which quickly becomes Calle Obispo Cobos. Look to the north (your left), and gaze up at the Hospital de Santiago. Finished in 1575, this former hospital (surprise, surprise) is the first work on our itinerary by Andrés de Vandelvira, a Spanish architect who single-handedly brought the Italian Renaissance to southern Spain. Two huge towers define the space on the east and the west, and behind the central patio is a soaring chapel that is now used for the town’s musical concerts. Úbeda’s bullring is directly to the south, hidden by a residential block.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza de Andalucía with the clock tower
Continue walking east on C/ Obispo Cobos, which forms the main shopping street along with C/ Mesones. You’ll soon reach the exact center of town, the Plaza de Andalucía. In medieval times, the area this lively square occupies today would have directed you to the Puerta de Toledo (Toledo Gate) at the northwest corner of the old walled city. Although that gateway is now gone, the tall defensive tower that would have stood guard near it today functions as a clock tower.

Úbeda, Spain
Church of the Santísima Trinidad
In the northeast corner of the plaza is the Church of the Santísima Trinidad (“Most Holy Trinity”). This church is a Baroque anomaly in typically-Renaissance Úbeda, but go to the west façade and you’ll be greeted by a riot of swoops, shields, and swirls. Fun fact: the two cloisters of this church’s former monastery now serve as an elementary school, and the town’s post office sits on what once was the third cloister.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza 1º de Mayo
Now, take the narrow winding street near the clock tower and the BBVA bank. Soon you’ll be heading down the hill along what was once the main commercial street but is now a hotspot for bars, cafés, and restaurants—C/ Real. Turn east (left) at C/ María de Molina and continue on into the Plaza 1º de Mayo (“May 1st”—a.k.a. Labor Day). The site of the medieval market and later the place for spectators to watch bullfights and Inquisition executions, this center of the historic walled town still is a popular place to hang out even though Úbeda’s center of gravity has clearly shifted to the Plaza de Andalucía. Observe the façades of the houses that look into the plaza; although they are all similarly designed, they add a Plaza-Mayor-of-Madrid air of respectability to the square.

Úbeda, Spain
Old town hall
At the southwest corner you can find the old town hall (antiguas casas consistoriales), the current musical conservatory. A square Renaissance structure with a pleasant, double-arcaded façade, it housed the town council until it moved to its present seat in 1869. It’s always nice to walk by it in the afternoon and hear piano notes drifting out from the upper balcony, where hundreds of years ago dignitaries would have watched toreros fight bulls heretics, uh, burn. Moving on…

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How to Spend 48 Hours Eating in Úbeda, Spain

Although living in a town of only 35,000 sometimes had its drawbacks, something I found really refreshing about living in Úbeda this past school year was that there were virtually no chain restaurants (especially American ones), which forced me to patronize local restaurants and eateries instead of corporate carbon-copies. Okay, so there was a Telepizza, but that was it. Eight months of hanging out with friends and going out for tapas later, and I think I may have formed an opinion or two about what places I like in Úbeda. In this post I’d like to follow the “48 Hours” guide popularized by publications like the New York Times and the Independent, but focusing solely on food. Get hungry!

Day 1

Breakfast
If you’re craving some chocolate con churros—long, crunchy donuts that you dip in molten chocolate—then Churrería ANPA is where you need to go. Nº 18 on the busy Avenida Ramón y Cajal (northeast of the Hospital de Santiago), this simple but popular churros joint is welcoming and serves ‘em how they’re meant to be: a heaping mound of fresh, hefty, handmade fried dough with thick, good-tasting chocolate. They also make a mean cup of coffee and great toast, too!

Food in Úbeda, Spain
This is the real deal, y’all

Lunch
Off a shaded, L-shaped street west of the bullring (C/ Cronista Pasquau) you can find the simply-named restaurant Bocata, “sandwich.” They basically serve the cheapest burgers and sandwiches you can find in town, and they’re great quality, too! The brightly-lit, white spacious seating area is perfect for chowing down on a bocadillo de tortilla y pimientos fritos—a huge Spanish potato omelet sandwich topped with pan-fried green bell peppers; hardly more than three euros!

Next door is El Yelmo, named for the highest mountain in the nearby Sierra de Cazorla range. They serve massive free tapas with whatever you get to drink, often half a baked potato with garlicky aioli sauce or sliders of green peppers and pork loin. The cozy interior is decorated with faded photographs of wildlife and the landscape of the mountains to the east.

Coffee hour
If you walk east past the historic center’s Plaza Vázquez de Molina, you’ll end up on C/ Baja del Salvador, which comes to a T at the Santa Lucía lookout point. At this scenic corner is Café Tapería El Mirador, which occupies a generous terrace with grand views of the surrounding hills. I liked to come here on winter afternoons and warm up with a Cola-Cao (Nesquik-style hot chocolate powder in steamed milk). But seriously: most stunning views in the province just yards away.

Food in Úbeda, Spain
C/ Baja del Salvador

Dinner
Museo de la Tapa, C/ Alonso de Molina Nº 6 across from the Mercadona supermarket, means “Museum of the Tapa,” and if I remember correctly, has about a hundred (100!) different tapas you can choose from that come free with your drink order.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Homage to Úbeda, My Pueblo in Spain

Although most people encounter the medium-sized town of Úbeda as a quick daytrip on tours of Andalucía, for me it was something quiet different. Úbeda was where I lived for eight months while working in southern Spain, my first introduction to Spanish society, my home. From appreciating Renaissance architecture, getting lost in Moorish-era streets and alleyways, eating ALL the tapas, to adopting the local accent, a year abroad in this town of 35,000 was one of the best experiences of my life, and I will (read: already do) miss this place a lot.

Úbeda, Spain
Holy Chapel of El Salvador
Now, I’m sure you wondering, where is this crazy town Trevor keeps blabbing on and on about on his blog? Well, Úbeda (pronounced “OO-bay-dah” [ˈu.βe.ða]) is one of the biggest cities in the southern province of Jaén, about three hours south of Madrid, two east of Córdoba, and two north of Granada. As it’s located in northern Andalucía below the Despeñaperros mountain pass, Úbeda is at the crossroads of most traffic going into, out of, and across the region. The town itself sits on a plateau between the Guadalquivir and Guadalimar rivers, and is bordered on all sides by countless olive groves that produce some of the best olive oil in the world.



So, how did Úbeda get to where it is today? Its history follows the general trend of the rest of the country: Iberian peoples >> Romans >> Visigoths >> Moors >> Castilians. The hills the town occupies have been inhabited since Neolithic times, and there was a small Roman town to the south called Colonia Salaria, also known as Úbeda la Vieja or “Old Úbeda.”

The city didn’t really get started until 852 CE, when the Moorish caliph Abd-al-Rahman II ordered the fortification of Madinat Ubbadat al-Arab, “The City of Úbeda of the Arabs.” Where the name Úbeda comes from is still rather unclear, seemingly deriving from such mythical characters and ancient place-names as Ibiut, Idubeda, or Bétula.

Úbeda, Spain
Archives, town hall
For almost 400 years Úbeda remained part of Moorish al-Andalus, and even had its own alcázar fortress and Grand Mosque. But there were rumblings that it would not always be called “Ubbadat.” In the year 1212, the king of Castilla, Fernando III, led his troops to victory at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa—which was called in Arabic chronicles the “Battle of Úbeda.” This watershed event brought the Spanish Reconquista deep into the heart of Muslim Spain, and 21 years later the city was conquered and incorporated into the Castilian.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza Vázquez de Molina
Something really remarkable happened during the Renaissance, Úbeda’s golden age and Spain’s Siglo de Oro, too. Local son Francisco de los Cobos y Molina became Secretary of State to King Carlos I (a.k.a. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). Because of his important position in the government, he was able to direct funds (his income?) to the construction of a sort of mausoleum-cum-church in the historic center—a glorious Renaissance gem called the Holy Chapel of El Salvador, where he and his family are buried. Cobos’ nephew, Diego de los Cobos, would go on to become Bishop of Jaén and sponsor the building of the grand Hospital de Santiago. Diego’s brother, Juan Vázquez de Molina, followed in his uncle’s footsteps and became an important advisor to King Felipe II. He built the palace that today houses the municipal government, and the historic center’s plaza is named after him.

Spanish architect Andrés de Vandelvira was the main man responsible for designing a large part of the monumental works in Úbeda and elsewhere in the province. Without him, it’s hard to say whether the Italian Renaissance would have ever come to southern Spain! By the 21st century, Úbeda’s outstanding architecture had been recognized by UNESCO, which named it and neighboring Baeza as a World Heritage Site in 2003.

Úbeda, Spain
Hospital de Santiago
Úbeda, however, is famous not just for its wonderful palaces and churches. Like I said above, in my highly-biased opinion, the surrounding region produces the world’s best olive oil, and a half a dozen oil co-ops are based in town. My favorite brand was Los Cerros de Úbeda, bottled right in town, but my choice denominación de origen label goes to the mountain-sourced Sierra de Segura stuff. Both quality varieties are strong without being too sharp or bitter, smooth without tasting watered down.

Pottery (alfarería) is also an ubetense specialty. Three of the six Spanish kilns leftover from Muslim times have their home here, and few different guys who go by the nickname “Tito” are famous for their craftsmanship. A distinct green glaze—unique to Úbeda—covers plates, jugs, and cups; the glazes’s warm green color comes from copper added to it, and the gleaming dark blue alternative derives from cobalt. You can find shops selling these beautiful ceramics near the town hall, the Holy Chapel of El Salvador, and in the potter’s district, the Barrio de San Millán, to the northeast of the old town.

Úbeda, Spain
Alfarería Tito
But living in Úbeda wasn’t a never-ending tour of Renaissance mansions, olive oil factories, or pottery shops. It was just like living anywhere else but with a Spanish twist to things. I lived in a fifth-floor apartment…with two other Spanish guys. I learned how to cook for myself…eating lunch and dinner at 2 and 9pm. I went grocery shopping, ran errands, and sent postcards…during inconvenient business hours. I taught a couple of private English classes around town and sometimes went to monthly intercambios or language exchanges. I went for paseos or afternoon strolls…around the medieval city walls.

Úbeda became my adopted pueblo, a term used by Spaniards to describe their ancestral hometowns that they return to, summer after summer, despite having moved away to one of the big cities. In true Spanish form, I’m moving this fall to the big city of Santiago de Compostela—the almost 100,000-strong capital of the Galicia region—but Úbeda will always be home, the place where I grew up in my knowledge of Spanish culture, whose accent I embraced, whose thousand-year-old streets now hold one year of my life in their memories.

Úbeda, Spain
Calle Almadén, where I lived
I couldn’t end this post, however, without giving a big shout-out to two of my American language assistant friends that I hung out with a ton—Ashley and Reina—and my favorite Brit in next-door Baeza—Nicola. From meeting each other on the bus on the way home from orientation, cooking Thanksgiving dinner together, traveling, to being each others’ support group on the weekends, I’ve really got to hand it to them; I don’t think I could have made it through the year without these sweet friends who just so happened to be English-speakers in a foreign land. So thanks guys!

Blogging note: This isn’t all I have to say about my beloved Úbeda! I’ve got a gigantic guided tour post in the works as well as one on how to spend 48 hours eating your way through town. So get excited, ‘cause it’s Úbeda Week on the blog!

Have you ever adopted a second hometown after living abroad or moving across the country? I want to hear about it below in the comments section!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How I Fell in Love with Jaén, Spain—the Queen of the Olive Groves

Oh, Jaén—the capital city of the province of the same name, the province where I lived and worked for eight months in southern Spain this past year. Jaén, a city I have really come to love, a city that, despite its central location, is completely bypassed by tourists on their way from Granada to Sevilla. Jaén, this anonymous yet very typical Andalusian city, enchanted me over the course of the school year until I nearly teared up leaving town for the last time back in April.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Jaén, Spain
Panoramic view of the city from the castle
I remember my first visit to Jaén (pronounced as a throaty “khah-AYN” [xaˈen]) in late September; my bilingual coordinator was taking me to apply for my NIE and TIE (residency) since the oficina de extranjería or foreigners’ office in the capital was the only place you could do so in the whole province, about the size of the state of Connecticut. We hopped on and off new stretches of highway that crossed through the hordes of olive trees that are grown in the region, and as we approached the Sierra Mágina mountain range, the city came into view: a sprawling municipality fanning out from its medieval nucleus at the feet of the Santa Catalina hill. Dominating the skyline was the town’s cathedral, whose massive size made me feel like I had been transported to a powerful metropolis in Central America.

Once within the city limits, we parked, dashed across a brand-new but never-used tram line (apparently the bus company objected after construction was finished), and sought out the foreigners’ office, which was in the modern, ugly Franco-era part of town. An hour or so of standing in line, paperwork-signing, and finger-printing, and we were heading back to Úbeda in the center of the province. Safe to say, immigration bureaucracy probably didn’t care nearly as much about my opinion of Jaén as the tourism board would have.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Pilgrimage to Fisterra, Spain

After walking 115km (72 miles) along Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in June, I finally arrived at the end point to the Way of St. James: the city of Santiago de Compostela. Hooray! It was an amazing feeling to look up at the Baroque façade of the cathedral in the Praza do Obradoiro on that gray Sunday morning, but my journey was not finished yet—there were three more days left!

Camino to Fisterra, Galicia, Spain
Fisterra, at last
Although my Camino across northwestern Spain formally ended at the cathedral of Compostela, I decided to take the plunge and continue walking 89 more kilometers west, all the way to the ocean. Three long, hard days later, the Atlantic was in my sights.

What the Camino to Fisterra is

Camino to Fisterra, Galicia, Spain
The fisterrana
You can think of this pilgrimage to the fishing village of Fisterra (a.k.a. Finisterre) as a coda or a victory lap for the main Camino de Santiago, although there are some important traditions and rituals associated with making your way to the sea. Upon arriving at the beach just past the lighthouse at Cape Finisterre, medieval pilgrims would burn their hiking clothes and stinky boots, bathe in the ocean, and watch the sun set and rise again the next morning (assuming it wasn’t typically rainy and cloudy). Having finished at last this great pilgrimage, they would begin their return journey east.

Many believe that, like many Catholic traditions in western Europe, the Fisterra pilgrimage was adopted from earlier customs of the Romans, who believed that Fisterra (< finis terrae) was the “End of the Earth” and had constructed an Altar of the Sun on the cape.

Nevertheless, a coastal village to the north called Muxía (pronounced “moo-SHEE-ah” [muˈʃi.a]) also draws pilgrims, both from Santiago and this westerly cape. Many people choose to make a loop out of the hike to Fisterra by circling north to Muxía, where they stop at the Church of Nosa Señora da Barca. Dedicated to “Our Lady of the Boat,” this sacred church sits on the spot where, according to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James as he evangelized in Galicia.

Today, upon completing your hike to Fisterra and Muxía, you can receive little certificates—the fisterrana and the muxíana, respectively, to hang on your wall.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mérida, Spain: Extremadura’s Living Reminder of Rome

On my way between moving out of Úbeda and going up north to hike the Camino de Santiago this June, I stopped off for two nights in Mérida, the capital city of the westerly Extremadura region. For the longest time I had wanted to visit this town because of its well-preserved Roman ruins. After all, Mérida, or Emerita Augusta in Latin, was once the capital of the Lusitania imperial province that included most of modern-day Portugal as well as west-central Spain. Because of that status, it was bestowed with all the standard things you’d expect out of a Roman city: buildings like theaters, forums, arenas, and temples. Despite 2,000 years of history passing through the region, much of Mérida’s ruins are surprisingly still intact.

Mérida, Spain
Toga-wearing tourists at the theater

Aqueduct

Mérida, Spain
The aqueduct from the train window
Train pass between the Los Milagros Aqueduct as they leave the train station going west. Although they aren’t nearly as impressive as, say, Segovia’s aqueduct, it’s still a reminder that Romans were able to bring fresh water from a lake 5km away into town every day.

Alcazaba

Mérida, Spain
Alcazaba de Mérida
On a commanding position next to the Guadiana River sits Mérida’s Alcazaba, or Moorish-era citadel. It was the first such Moorish castle to be built in Spain, for not long after the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, Mérida revolted against the new Moorish regime. In the early 9th century CE, these rebellions were put down and the emir Abd al-Rahman II ordered an alcazaba to be built along the river; the Roman wall was torn down and its stones were used to construct the castle. Although this fortress came long after the Romans had left, I’ve included it on this post because its construction material is directly linked to the city’s Roman past. If stones could talk, as they say, these guys would have an earful for us!

Amphitheatre

Mérida, Spain
Anfiteatro romano
Think of the local Amphitheater as Spain’s miniature Colosseum. This arena would have seated 14,000 people for gladiator fights typical of the era. What I loved about this was that you could crawl all around the grounds, across the sandy field and into the spooky galleries. Obviously, much of the upper seating has vanished over the centuries, but it’s not that hard to envision wild, raucous crowds lining the elliptical structure.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Málaga, Spain: More Than Beaches

Málaga: Spain’s sixth-largest city and the capital of the Costa del Sol—the Coast of the Sun. In the image that the rest of the world has of Spain, Málaga (along with the rest of the entire Mediterranean coast) is almost exclusively known for its beaches and summer vacationing. However, there is so much more to this major coastal town than just playas.

Málaga, Spain
Playa de la Misericordia beach
Now, when I visited the city in early May, I did lay out on the Playa de la Misericordia beach and soak up the sun. After a long, rainy winter and spring, it felt so very good to take in some solar rays (with sunscreen, of course) and dash in and out of the icy sea. I’m not writing this post to judge people for flying down to Málaga for the beach; it’s great! But you’re completely missing out on a really nice place if you don’t explore beyond your hotel and the sea.

A “one-armed” cathedral

Málaga, Spain
Málaga Cathedral
From an architectural standpoint, Málaga’s lovely cathedral isn’t very different from other Renaissance ones designed by Diego de Siloé—churches like the cathedrals of Granada or Almería—but what makes it stand out is that only one of the two originally-planned bell towers was ever constructed. The legend goes that the funds raised to build the second, southern tower were sent to America to assist the thirteen colonies in their rebellion against mutual enemy Britain. Locals have nicknamed it la Manquita, which means “the one-armed,” and the south bell tower still stands unfinished today.

Not one, but two castles!

Málaga, Spain
Alcazaba de Málaga
I had literally no idea there was more to Málaga than beaches until I happened across a poorly-taken photo of the city’s alcazaba half a year ago. What’s an alcazaba, you ask? Well, I just so happen to have written a post about that very topic, but in short, it’s a Moorish castle that takes its name from the Arabic word for citadel, al-qasbah. The palatial complex is fun to explore and it’s possible to crawl up on the walls and balance dangerously along the ramparts. There’s even a few halls, rooms, and courtyards a là Granada’s Alhambra, but are nowhere near as insanely beautiful. Still, it’s fun to appreciate the Moorish plasterwork and fountains that would have been used by local rulers from the 11th century until Málaga was conquered by the Christians in 1487.

Málaga, Spain
Castillo de Gibralfaro
Further up the hill is the Gibralfaro castle, which takes its name from both Arabic jabal (“mountain”) and Greek pharos (“lighthouse”), for a lighthouse had stood there since Phoenician times until the Moorish caliph Abd-al-Rahman III ordered a castle to be built. After the Reconquista, it was used as a garrison for troops and arms, and today a small museum houses military artifacts, a miniature model of the city, and a diagram of what Moorish Malaqah would have looked like on the eve of the Castilian siege of the city. Pro tip: this is where everybody gets their postcard-perfect shots of the Malagueta neighborhood as seen below. It’s a steep hike but definitely worth it!
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