A few men in red robes stride through the street, holding their conical hats under their arms, as rows of spectators with plastic bags of sandwiches and drinks secure the best viewing spots along the walls of the dry river bed.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) has begun and Malaga is heaving. Antonio Banderas was here last night, standing one floor above us, high up on a balcony in Larios street, applauding the spectacle below. By midnight tonight, tens of thousands of hooded penitents wearing robes of red, blue, green, purple or white will have walked through the city streets. Carrying huge gold pedestals topped with scenes from the bible (there’s Jesus carrying the cross, and the Virgin Mary in a red and gold bower surrounded by hundreds of lit candles and flowers), some penitents wear the uniform while others follow the floats walking barefoot or wearing blindfolds to offer up their pilgrimage in prayer. By morning, the rubbish is gone, hundreds of streetside chairs are stacked up against the walls (many locals own the chairs, paying an annual tithe of €70 for ringside seats), and the smooth polished streets are covered in small, hardened drops of wax from thousands of candles. Locals eat churros in Plaza de las Flores, dipping the deep fried dough into cups of thick chocolate and read the paper in the morning sun. In a little square beside the 16th century cathedral, an elderly man does his crossword and two Spanish ladies sit awhile and chat and read their books.
A decade-long city improvement plan has yielded a new marina for cruise ships, a new archaeological museum and a vintage motor museum displaying the Aston Martin driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger. Next year, the first Pompidou centre outside France is due to open in a futuristic glass cube beside the city’s main port.
But this city of more than 500,000 inhabitants doesn’t need to try so hard. There is enough to do here to tempt tourists to stay.
Switch off any preconceptions of Malaga along with your smartphone navigation apps, and get lost among the tiny alleyways leading to unexpected cafés or shops where little boys play football in the side streets beside a wall of ornate tiles, a roughly-drawn tracing of Picasso’s Guernica and faded Mickey Mouse posters.
Bounded on one side by the sea and on the other by the river, Malaga is a city of water. It flows through the stone courtyard channels and dripping fountains in the Alcazabar palace and in a small park beside the 16th century cathedral.
We spend an afternoon at the recently opened Hamman Al Andalus Arabic baths. I lay my head against the warm stone tiles in the heated pools, and twirl the handles on a row of little metal boxes to inhale the scents of rose, lavender or orange contained within. After a 15-minute massage, I sip little cups of mint tea poured from a silver teapot before beginning another circuit of freezing, cool and hot pools.
Malaga is a city of old stones, artists and writers. “In one morning you can pass through the centuries,” says our guide, leading us past the Roman amphitheatre (built in the time of Augustus) and ancient basins belonging to a salt fish factory, and up flights of stone steps to the great stone Alcazabar, built by the Moors in the 11th century to defend the port.
Picasso is everywhere. Tourists pose beside his bronze statue in the Plaza de la Merced, and a gaudily painted stripy-shirted Picasso advertises a restaurant menu on a wooden easel. We take a guided tour of the Picasso museum and a short ramble around the house where he was born.
Even if you’re not interested in 19th century Spanish art, it’s worth visiting the Carmen Thyssen Museum for a wander around the converted 16th century town centre mansion, complete with water channels and fountains and Arabian, pointy-arched windows.
Malaga is also a city of food and drink. Ordering coffee in Malaga is a ritual and has a language all of its own. Invented by the owner of Café Central, a handy infographic explains nine words (unique to Malaga) for ordering the perfect coffee. There are no bland skinny lattes here or low-fat cappuccinos. Instead there is ‘sombra’ (a ‘shadow’ of coffee), or ‘nube’ (a ‘cloud’ of milk enhanced by a drop of coffee), or ‘solo’ (hot, black, strong coffee in a glass).
Outside Bodega El Pimpi, we drink little cups of mead served by a Spanish woman in traditional dress who dips a long spoon into a barrel and presents the sweet liquid with a flick of the wrist. We gorge on thin, triangular slices of Manchego cheese and roll sweaty, chewy Serrano ham between our fingers.
At El Cabra (located in Pedregalejo, a 30-minute beach walk from the port), we bite the head off sardines barbecued in charcoal on the beach, eyes and all. We eat a 12-course tapas menu and watch a bouffant black haired elderly singer with an open red silk shirt set up along the promenade, and a lean elderly jogger wearing the shortest shorts stopping mid-run to dance delightedly for the tourists. There’s tomates alinado (tomatoes in oil and garlic), tuna salad, cockles dipped in melted butter, anchovies in tempura, lightly fried slices of aubergine dunked in local maple syrup, and fried chunks of fish with wedges of lime. All cut and shared with used forks and fingers. We drink jugs of Tinto de Verano (red wine and lemonade) that are thumped onto the table, red drips sloshing onto the napkins.
We sample modern tapas in Los Patios de Beatas wine cellars, where we drink Salmorejo (a cold soup made with tomatoes, olive oil, salt and bread) with anchovy and roe croutons, and crunchy cubes of squid ink rice and cod.
And on the last day, we allow ourselves a final cup of churros, take the 20-minute taxi ride to the airport and hop on an easy flight back to Ireland. Where the diet begins immediately.
Aer Lingus flies daily from Cork/Dublin to Malaga from €250 return.
Ryanair flies daily from Dublin from €200 return; and from Cork on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from €200 return
Travelfox is promoting Royal Caribbean cruises for next year. An eight-night Norwegian Fjords holiday is €799 in May, while a 14-night September offering to Madeira, Azores and the Canaries is €1,329. Free flights from Cork and Shannon included. Telephone 1800-432432 or www.travelfox.ie
Insight Vacations has a Treasures of Eastern Europe tour organised for August 13 with historical visits to a host of destinations back to when the region was ruled by powerful royal dynasties.
Priced at €2,099 flights will cost an extra €260 ex-Dublin. visit www.insightvacations.com
Incredible India offers nine-day cultural and spiritual tours to India from now to mid-September, with departures from Dublin and Cork. Included is a visit to one of the four holy places of Buddhism. The tours are priced at around €2,300 inclusive. Contact 0818-300204 or email@example.com
The build up is taking place to the Taste of West Cork Food Festival which runs between September 5 and 14 in venues throughout the region. There will be guest chefs from all over the world in towns such as Schull and smaller places like Durrus and Ahakista. Check out www.atasteofwestcork.com
Cork’s Clarion Hotel has linked up with Fota Wildlife Park to produce a family package including accommodation and a visit to the 75-acre east Cork tourist attraction. Packages for two adults and two kids start from €148. Details on 021-4224900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org