South in Andalusia, where flamenco strums, where sand and stones shimmer under relentless sunshine. Most visitors are drawn here by the allure of the Costa Del Sol, sunshine beach holidays made-to-measure, cheap beer and nightlife, the chance to get a real tan that looks just as ‘good’ as a fake tan. There is much more than that, of course. Spain reveals itself to those willing to look. Like a Dali painting it is blatantly exotic, often bizarre, its subtle shifts and trompe l’oueil hidden in plain view. Andalusia seems an ideal region for a self-drive tour; Seville, Cordoba, Granada and the Alhambra are rich repositories of Classical, Moorish and Renaissance heritage. It is the home of Flamenco, originally the music of the Gypsies, the theme for dancing at the crossroads of civilisation. Surprisingly at a longitude this close to Greenwich, east and west truly merge.
Thus far, for me, I’ve been restricted to the point of entry; Malaga, a jewel in the string of paste that is the Costa del Sol. It has been an important port for two millennia or more. Sixty miles to the east are the Pillars of Hercules, where the sentinels of Europe, at Gibraltar and Africa guard the pathway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Phoenician traders from Africa were the first to set up shop here and Malaga remained within the sphere of Carthage until the Romans established dominion over the western Mediterranean by the third century BC. The Muslim Caliphate established its fortress here after the fall of the Roman empire. The Emirate of Granada arrogated power over the region in the thirteenth century. Most stubborn of the Moors, they resisted the Christian Reconquest until 1487.
Overlooking the port, the hill of Gibralfar rises to the north of the city. At the summit is the ancient castle, now in ruins. Lower down, within the walls of the ancient Moorish city, the citadel of Alcazaba, was built in the eleventh century. Alcazaba is superbly maintained. Rising in terraces behind two defensive walls, you can, if you manage to screen out the tide of tourism, cast yourself back to life a thousand years ago. Today, there are so many Spanish schoolkids it feels like home. It seems the schools of southern Spain have emptied their pupils out for a bit of sightseeing. Still, it’s all part of the soundtrack of life and when in Spain …, or should that be Rome?
Early summer sun is already giving everything that parched feeling. We rise through a maze of alleyways a thousand years old, gardens and fountains emerging regularly. Gurgling water, sheltering trees and the scent of flowers mellow the near African harshness of the climate. It’s a good climb to the top, with spectacular views from the walls over the city and coast. Below, the old Roman amphitheatre, dating from the first century BC, nestles on the landward side. Radiating out from this, the medieval town still preserves its chaotic street pattern. Perfect for the stroller who doesn’t mind getting lost, you certainly won’t go hungry or thirsty with a full range of daytime and evening eateries and watering holes.
We stroll down Calle Marques de Larios, a pedestrianised street with gleaming surface, lined with elegant boutiques and shoe shops. From the seafront it cuts through the heart of the medieval area. Just off this street, the intriguingly named Calle Strachan, leads to the Cathedral de la Incarnacion. Construction began here in the sixteenth century on a site once occupied by the city Mosque. A grand though haphazard project, it exhibits the styles of the two or more centuries of its construction; Gothic, Renaissance and Barque. One completed tower soars to three hundred feet, but the project ran out of funds in the nineteenth century. Its second entrance tower was left incomplete, gaining the church the soubriquet, La Manquita, the one-armed lady.
There is a queue for entrance to the Cathedral, and admission price. We suffer constraints of time and money, so enter the souvenir shop at a small shaded garden to the side. I notice a guard pass through a side door and following, as Alice might, I find myself in the Cathedral. It is a gem. I can’t linger long though, and must go in search of herself, who must think I’ve been swallowed by the stones.
Much play is made of Pablo Picasso’s origins here. His designated museum is in the Buenavista Palace, a sixteenth century building on the Calle San Augustin, in the ancient Jewish Quarter. I have never owned a Picasso, but I make do with some postcards and souvenirs from a kiosk by the Cathedral. A smiling, mustachioed vendor makes the deal a pleasure. Funny how contagious is the smile. We follow a labyrinth of streets, aimlessly flirting with galleries and bars.
Making our way eventually down to the River, but as Don McLean might say, the river was dry. The Guadalmedina, literally the Town River, is typical of Spain’s urban rivers, a disappointing concrete esplanade, betraying all the hints of anti-social heaven. We head back towards the beach. Siesta time, maybe, but crowds gather in the Atarazanes, the nineteenth century Central Market, queuing loudly at stalls selling cervesa and tapas. We return through modern thoroughfares to the seafront. There is a lovely linear park, lined with towering palm trees, a green solace in the afternoon sun. Beyond the Marina we find a, relatively, quiet spot on the beach. Still lively though. Spend some time sketching from the shade beneath a stand of palms,vernacular poses and group tableau giving a rich range of subject matter.
Back at the Marina, the restaurants and bars are thronged. We squeeze into one, which is a self service, as I eventually discover. A welcome draft beer, at around two euro is just what the body needed. The soul too. The afternoon is simmering down, the crowds ebbing. The sea flows toward the Pillars of Hercules, the wild Atlantic waiting beyond.