More familiar as the gateway to the Costa del Sol, the breezy Mediterranean port of Malaga is also a perfect spot for art-lovers to while away a weekend
Before he grew up and ran away to France to live a wild bohemian life, rich in passion, and revolutionary in its effect on modern art as we know it, Picasso spent his early years in the elegant port town of Malaga, on Spain’s Costa del Sol. It is in the city's central square that I now sit, quietly sipping a café con leche. The waiter raises an eyebrow casually as I order my toast, like the locals, doused in olive oil.
Back in history, a huge earthquake destroyed the town, flattening 10,000 houses. Some art experts claim the memory of this event, reverberating through the centuries, provided some of the inspiration for Picasso's famous scene of destruction and horror in the war allegory painting 'Guernica'.
The second largest city in Andalucia is a buzzing modern survivor with a vibrant historic core. Malaga’s coast, with its Moorish aspects, is a reminder of the influences it has felt throughout its history from the African continent across the water.
Picasso went off to experiment with artistic styles and live a life full of friendships and love affairs with beautiful women. Malaga may not have the outrageous attitude of its famous son but like many good paintings, it strikes its own harmonious balance between quiet elegance, lively fiesta and cultural kudos.
While cheap flights arrive into Malaga airport in abundance, the town itself is surprisingly unharmed. Amid the gentle pace of leafy streets, history is finely rejuvenated beneath a vibrant Mediterranean sun. The attractive historic quarter of the city is set around the two main squares of Plaza de la Constitucion and Plaza de la Merced. Watch the locals pace calmly through the day and join the youth in alfresco drinking in the evenings.
Picasso is purported to have once said, ‘Give me a museum and I’ll fill it’ - something he has managed to achieve in more than one glamorous world capital. A long time in coming, the Picasso museum in Malaga opened in 2003 and has ensured the city's place on the cultural map. The elegant Palacio de Buenavista (San Agustin 8) houses more than 200 paintings, drawings, ceramics, engravings and sculptures, delivering an insight into Picasso’s prolific progress and experimentation with artistic styles from the late 19th century until his death in 1973.
Most of the city's main sights lie just north of the Paseo, in a web of crumbling 19th-century streets. Searching further into Picasso’s past, steps away from the impressive collection of paintings, is a small museum in a house on Plaza de la Merced, celebrating the place of his birth.
The visual culture moves forward: Malaga’s contemporary art museum houses a permanent collection of around 400 works from the mid-20th century onwards, with artists including Miquel Barceló, José María Sicilia and Juan Muñoz.
Step back in time and Malaga, like much of Andalucia, was under the influence of the Romans, the Moors and the Phoenicans. The 11th-century Alcazaba palace is redolent of them all, and Roman mosaics and Arabic ceramics are on display in a museum inside. From a hill above the city, where two castles sit, travellers steep themselves in centuries of the port’s history. The Gibralfaro and Alcazaba speak of days when such exhilarating views were for defensive function rather than pleasure.
With the light of the late afternoon bouncing off the buildings, the shady streets of the old town are a welcome sanctuary of cafes and bars. Indulge in Andalucian delights such as cured ham sliced off the dried haunches of an acorn-fed pig or the typical dark brown muscatel wine the town is known for. When the sun sets, there is life to be lived in Malaga’s balmy night air, watching the frenzy build as you sip your glass of vermouth and contemplate a seafood supper.
As Picasso once said, ‘You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.’
Where to stay
The Parador de Malaga Gibralfaro is a luxurious modern hotel near the castle of the same name. Doubles from E220.
Hotel Molina Lario is a stylish boutique hotel in the centre of town. Doubles from E100.
Where to eat
El Jardin, next to the palm-fringed gardens of the cathedral, is a pleasant spot to savour a morning coffee. Calle Canon, 1.
Aceite y Pan, in the well-heeled La Malagueta area, serves up classic Mediterranean seafood such as stuffed crab claws and hake in parsley sauce. Calle Cervantes, 5.
Beachside fish specialties are served up to a lively local crowd at Miguelito el Cariñoso. Paseo Maritimo (El Pedregal), 77.
How to get there
British Airways and easyJet both fly to Malaga.