MÁLAGA, SPAIN — On one side of the Plaza del Obispo stands this sun-drenched city’s imposing Cathedral de Málaga. I’m on the opposite side, separated from the iconic sandstone structure by a horde of tourists. Getting through the throng looks impossible. I’m trapped.
A local man sees my frustration and comes to the rescue.
“Come with me. I will show you how to avoid the tourists,” says my new friend Alejandro.
So I follow him down one of the narrow streets leading off the Plaza del Obispo and after a few twists and turns, we arrive at the cathedral’s ornate Gothic side door entrance. There’s not a tourist in site.
“Only we locals know these shortcuts around the plaza,” says Alejandro, a musician who eagerly shares his enthusiasm for this fascinating capital of Costa del Sol, the southern-most province of Spain where the sun shines 300-plus days a year.
Above: Málaga is best known for its lovely beaches and they attract a lot of tourists, especially from England.
“The cathedral actually started out as a masque (Almohad). It was built by the Moors when they ruled Málaga (for over 800 years),” he tells me.
Many of the original Moorish arches were incorporated into the church’s design, making it architecturally unique. However, because it was built over a period of 200 years, it also features many different architectural styles, like Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.
“And, as you can see, it’s still not finished,” says Alejandro, who points to the basilica’s two towers, one of which — the south — remains incomplete.
“They just ran out of money,” he explains.
While the church’s exterior is breathtaking, it’s no match for what awaits inside. The cathedral’s exquisite choir stalls, numerous frescos and incredible sculptures by the likes of Pedro de Mena leave visitors awestruck.
To raise money to build the basilica, 12 elaborate chapels were constructed and sold to wealthy local families. According to my makeshift guide, some of the most prominent families of ancient Málaga are now entombed there.
Above: Málaga's unfinished cathedral with its ornate entrance, centre, and its coloruful City Hall are among its many spectacular buildings.
While the Cathedral de Málaga dominates the city’s Old Port area, it’s certainly not the only historic treasure you’ll find in this compact district. Over the centuries, many different cultures, starting with the Phoenicians, have laid claim to Málaga. Along with the Moors, the Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks and Christians also set up camp in Málaga and each society left artefacts behind.
There’s no better example of that than the two massive hilltop citadels, Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, that date back to the city’s Moorish period. Their ruins still loom large over a modern skyline and can be seen from almost anywhere in this now favoured holiday retreat for the British.
At the foot of the ancient fortifications is a Roman Theatre built in the time of Emperor Augustus. It still hosts live shows and is one of the most visited sites in the city.
Málaga remains an active seaport but these days its harbour is filled mostly with giant cruise ships, whose passengers are lured here to see the works of its most famous citizen, Pablo Picasso.
Many of Picasso’s great abstract works are housed in the former Palacio de los Condes de Buenavista, a 16th century architectural masterpiece located on Calle San Agustín in the Old Port area.
Above: Málaga's most famous son if artist Pablo Picasso and the museum that honours him is full of his works.
The museum features more than 200 of the artist’s works (paintings, sculptures and ceramics) and is located next to the home where Picasso was born. Down the street is the Church of Santiago, where Pablo was baptised in 1881.
While it’s the most popular, the Picasso is not the only museum in culture-rich Málaga. The Museo del Vino, Museo del Flamenco and colourful Centre Pompidou de Málaga also deserve a visit.
One of the most unique attractions here is the Plaza de Toros, the red brick bull fighting ring, which dates back to 1874. It’s still used today for the unsavoury sport but only during the annual mid-summer Málaga Festival.
Boasting 15 spectacular beaches, over a dozen championship golf courses and a plethora of condos and apartments to go along with its endless summer, it’s no wonder Málaga has become a retirement haven for many different nationalities, including Canadians.
Short stay visitors have a variety of accommodation to choose from but the aptly named Gran Hotel Miramar is the city’s most desired address.
Above: Colourful mansions adorn the Old Town and thanks to its sunny days, walkways are lined with lots of shaded trees.
The castle-like property has been the centre of style and glamour for the city since it opened in 1926 and its opulent Moorish-style entrance makes it one of the most unique hotels in the world.
Thanks to its seafaring heritage, Málaga offers up some of the best seafood restaurants in Spain. While the Old Port area is dominated by tapas dining options, the beach front is lined with rooms where the catch of the day is fresh from the surrounding sea.
Málaga is a city of neighbourhoods and the trendiest is Pedregelejo, where the range of clubs, bars and restaurants is hard to match.
Because of its pleasant climate, the city is flush with lots of tropical flowers and trees. The best are gathered in Málaga’s beautiful botanical garden, which is home to over 2,000 different plant species from Europe, Asia, America, Africa and Oceania.
The city’s English Cemetery (Cementerio Inglés), a tranquil 19th century promenade, is another botanical wonderland and the final resting place for some literary notables, like Irishman Robert Boyd, American Gamel Woolsey and his British counterpart Gerald Brenan.
Málaga is place you never want to leave.
Above: Málaga's Old Town is dotted with narrow streets and the Roman theater, right, draws a lot of attention.