The city that once ‘lived with its back to the sea’ has been transformed — and now has a fine new place to stay
Through the window of my first-floor room came the sound of voices. Two ladies had stopped in the street and were gazing up at the facade of this grand mansion, forlorn and abandoned for years but now reimagined as a sumptuous old-town hotel.
“¡Qué maravilla! (What a marvel!)” breathed one.
“It looks so beautiful now, I almost wouldn’t recognise it,” mused her friend.
Sentiments of this kind are often heard in Málaga these days. As recently as 15 years ago, the Andalucían coastal city was something of a B-list destination, an unreconstructed harbour town with little to recommend beyond its situation on a sweeping Mediterranean bay and a subtropical climate blessed with 320 days of sunshine per year.
Despite its unofficial status as capital of the Costa del Sol, Málaga itself was mostly bypassed by tourists, who headed from the airport directly to the villas and beaches of Marbella and Fuengirola.
Its downtown streets were grimy, traffic-choked and best avoided at night.
One morning last month, I took the AVE train from a Madrid mired in midwinter gloom, speeding southwards through olive groves and forests of holm oak under a glowering sky. Around Antequera, the sun burst through; my mood lifted along with the cloud cover.
From Plaza de la Merced, where the taxi from the station dropped me, I sallied forth down Calle Granada past balconied town-houses painted deep pink, ochre and dusky blue. I found a famous old bodega called El Pimpi, lined with time-blackened barrels and faded bullfight posters, and lunched on fried aubergines dribbled with honey and prawns a la plancha, toasting my good fortune with a bracing glass of sherry-like Pajarete straight from the barrel.
Wherever you’re coming from in the northern hemisphere, you are likely to arrive in Málaga feeling overdressed and under-sunned. Pulling off various layers of clothing, I climbed up behind the Roman theatre to the Moorish fortress of the Alcazaba, whose turrets and ramparts loom over the city like a red-brick Alhambra. The view from up here was a wide-angle snapshot of Málaga old and new. To the east was the bullring, inaugurated in 1876, while stretching away towards the open sea was the white ribbon of the Muelle Uno, a dockside development of shops and bars that opened in late 2011. On the terrace of an old-town apartment, an afternoon party was in full swing.
How Málaga shrugged off its less-than-glittering reputation to become a first-division Spanish city — not to mention a first-class destination for a winter weekend escapade — is a tale worth telling. At the heart of its “Strategic Plan”, first outlined two decades ago under mayor Francisco de la Torre, was the idea of culture as a force for urban renewal.
Málaga had waited for centuries for a world-class art museum, then half-a-dozen came along in quick succession. First of the big guns were the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo and Museo Picasso, both opened in 2003, the latter revamped in 2017 and now among Andalucía’s most-visited sights. They were followed by the Carmen Thyssen Collection (2011), the Pompidou Centre and Russian Museum (both 2015), and the archaeological treasure-house of the Museo de Málaga (2016).
Meanwhile a programme of restorations and rethinks has brought visible improvements to the city’s quality of life. The Calle Larios, Málaga’s Regent Street, is now wholly pedestrianised along with much of the downtown zone. Visitor numbers, investment and property prices have all risen substantially.
The facade of the Palacio Solecio hotel, with its sgraffito paintwork and wrought-iron balconies, stands a minute or two from Picasso’s birthplace on the Plaza de la Merced
Inside the Palacio Solecio after a £30m restoration project overseen by hotelier Pablo Carrington
Until last month, only one thing was still missing: a really fine old-town boutique hotel. Palacio Solecio, a £30m restoration project overseen by tastemaking hotelier Pablo Carrington, ticks this box decisively. The building’s facade with its sgraffito paintwork and wrought-iron balconies, stands a minute or two from Picasso’s birthplace on the Plaza de la Merced. Antonio Obrador’s design scheme for the interior is a model of restraint, though aristocratic Andalucían taste is discreetly referenced in its fine traditional carpets and the occasional piece of antique furniture. Subtle lighting and Castilian oak doors inlaid with mirrors made even my high-ceilinged suite seem roomier and more luminous than it was.
The hotel is arranged around a galleried courtyard where Jose Carlos García, doyen of malagueño chefs, runs the in-house restaurant Balausta.
The palace would, I soon realised, be a great base for exploring the reinvigorated old town. Within striking distance, I found flamenco clubs (Kelipé, Tablao Los Amayas), tapas and sherry bars (La Campana, Antigua Casa de Guardia), and a new theatre, the Soho, reopened last year by Málaga’s famous son Antonio Banderas. There was even a hammam (Al-Andalus) where I soaked away the evening in a convincing replica of a medieval bathhouse.
The wrought-iron building of the Mercado Central de Atarazanas © Getty
Next day after breakfast, I walked along the wide avenue of the Alameda Principal — recently overhauled, its pavements widened — and under the Moorish arch of the Mercado Central de Atarazanas. Here was a big-city produce market to rival the best of Barcelona. Sunlight flooding through the high windows of the wrought-iron market building brought up the deep red of carabinero prawns and the rich orange hue of ripe mangoes. The spectacle reminded me what a well-stocked larder the city has access to in the subtropical coastline and the high sierras, the vineyards and vegetable gardens of its province.
Even the humblest things I ate here were memorable — from a saucer of crunchy green olives at Casa Lola to a plate of fried fish at a stand-up stall at the market, served piping hot with a squeeze of lemon. The menu at Balausta proved a useful primer in classic malagueño dishes such as salt cod salad with oranges and olives and gazpachuelo, a fish soup that had nothing to do with gazpacho.
Kaleja, a restaurant on an alley behind the Roman theatre, had been open just a week but was already firing on all cylinders. I sat in the kitchen for dinner and the chef, local boy Dani Carnero, brought me squid in black butter and bull’s tail stew with chicory, these generous flavours partly the result of Carnero’s fondness for the charcoal grill and long, slow simmerings.
But Málaga offers feasts other than edible ones. After a full day’s tramp around the blue-chip art museums, I couldn’t decide which one I’d most admired. They were all elegantly accommodated, one in an old tobacco factory, two in mansions with carved ceilings in arabesque designs and white courtyards with marble columns. The Thyssen Collection, in the renaissance Palacio de Villalón, changed my mind about the 19th-century Andalucían paintings I’d always dismissed as sugary and sentimental. At the Picasso Museum, I was charmed by some of the artist’s earliest works (like “Portrait of a Bearded Man”, which he painted at the age of 14) and intrigued by the Calder-Picasso show (until February 2), which sets up a conversation between two modern masters of light and joie de vivre.
The Museo Picasso, which was opened in 2003 and revamped in 2017. It’s now among Andalucía’s most-visited sights
Picasso’s ‘Three Graces’
With the big museums under my belt, I started on the smaller ones. Here too were surprises and delights — none greater than the Ifergan Collection, opened in 2018 by businessman Vicente Jiménez Ifergan. The brightly painted sarcophagus greeting me at the door was only the start: further inside, a mummified Egyptian head stared from a cabinet, its eyelids and hair spookily intact, and a darkened room at the back of the museum held a group of rare and precious Phoenician clay statues.
According to director Ruth Garrido, this magical hoard was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Lebanon. It was dispersed, but reassembled by the collector, making the Ifergan arguably the world’s most important private collection of Phoenician art.
Málaga in general is on a roll — that much no one can deny — but mayor Francisco de la Torre told me there were no ambitions to emulate Barcelona’s tourism boom. “What we want is to increase ‘quality’ tourism as a proportion of the whole,” he said.
“We’ll do this by decentralising our tourist offer geographically, and by attracting visitors from emerging countries, who usually have a higher spending power. As for our existing markets, we’ll use digital marketing to target those potential visitors who are looking for quality.”
On a Sunday afternoon a few days before the winter solstice, the outside temperature had crept up to a balmy 23C. Setting off towards the west in the direction of Torremolinos, I stopped for lunch at Chiringuito Maria, one of several beach bars standing at intervals along the Playa de la Misericordia.
The Paseo del Muelle in Málaga’s harbour © Getty
On the next table was Pedro Aragón, a property developer who had known Málaga during its unreconstructed years. “The harbour was ugly and grey. The old town was full of traffic: cars and buses. The city lived with its back to the sea,” he recalled.
On a day like this, Misericordia beach was a clean sweep of impeccable sand, but it wasn’t always so. Pedro beckoned to Rosi Cazorla, owner of the bar along with her husband Juan Manzano, to bring me a beer and some fried boquerones and give me her story of then and now.
Rosi showed me a photo of this same chiringuito back in the 1970s, with her young self serving behind the wooden bar. In those days the beach was a rubbish dump, she confided, the boardwalk a haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes. There was even a lead foundry behind the bar (the chimney can still be seen).
Rosi sat with me a while, watching the sun’s fierce glitter on the sea. “How much better it all is now!” she exclaimed. “Málaga has changed so much, it almost feels like a different city.”
Paul Richardson was a guest of Palacio Solecio (doubles from about €130). For more on visiting the city see malagaturismo.com
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