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.

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 they’re nowhere near as 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!

Roman ruins

Málaga, Spain
Roman theater put back in use

Even though the city began as a Phoenician trading post called Malaka, as the Romans conquered the Mediterranean basin, this settlement became a fixture in their Iberian territories. Below the hill of the Alcazaba castle are the ruins of an ancient Roman theater. When I was visiting, it had, in fact, been put back in use and actors and actresses wore togas and armor and were playing out a Roman tragedy of some sorts.

A museum of Picasso works

Málaga, Spain
Museo Picasso Málaga

Although the über-famous painter Pablo Ruiz Picasso spent most of his life in France, he was born in Málaga and lived here until he was nine years old. Housed in a converted Renaissance-era palace, the Málaga Picasso Museum opened as recently as 2003 and will celebrate its tenth anniversary next month. Although I didn’t really care for Barcelona’s Picasso museum, I actually enjoyed Málaga’s wide-ranging collection, which was donated by two of his descendants. From his early years past Cubism, and from canvases to sculpture, there was a little bit of everything. Yet because of the palace’s intimate setting, I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of works. Two Cubist-era paintings I really enjoyed seeing in person were Jacqueline Seated (1954) and Woman with Raised Arms (1936).

A beautiful old quarter

Málaga, Spain
Central Málaga

One of my favorite things about touring Málaga this May was simply strolling around the casco antiguo or old quarter. Much of it has been pedestrianized in recent years so everyone is out and about, running errands, catching up with friends at a café, or struttin’ their stuff for their afternoon paseo. Most of the apartment blocks, churches, and houses are in great condition and are painted a variety of bright colors. This lively neighborhood is full of good places to get some fresh seafood and even a Moroccan-style tetería (teahouse) or two.

Amazing food

Málaga, Spain
La Malagueta neighborhood

Ah yes, the food. Before I begin, I need to give a shoutout to Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores, who wrote a helpful blog post about the local cuisine a week before I was about to journey to Málaga. Going off of her recommendations, I tried ajoblanco for the first time and really, really loved it. This cold, runny white soup was basically an almond-, garlic-, and bread-based savory smoothie—sounds weird but tastes great when served with grapes and olive oil.

Another dish I sampled was sardinas al espeto or spit-roasted sardines. Four or five cleaned-out sardines are skewered on a spit (wooden or metal rod) and allowed to cook over natural, smoky flames, usually on the beach. My server explained that before consuming them, you have to pull off the aletas or fins on each side; after doing so, I chowed down and enjoyed the best fish I’ve ever had in my life: extremely tender and deliciously flavorful.

If you’ve ever been to Mediterranean Spain before, did you ever explore the city beyond the beaches? What did you think?

Málaga, May 2nd, 2013

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