Flamenco and fairy lights, Picasso and poinsettias. Malaga may be best known as a gateway to the Costa del Sol, but nowadays the Andalusian capital is bumping up its profile as a Christmas getaway, con cultura. Arriving in the city last week, the seasonal fiesta fever was immediate. Below the balcony of my downtown Marriot hacienda, vendors were setting up stalls at the city’s Christmas markets to the palm-lined backdrop of Malaga’s marina and mountains. Qué Bonita! Who needs Glühwein when you’ve got hillside wineries on your doorstep?
As one of Spain’s most vibrant cultural hubs, Malaga boasts an impressive portfolio of artistic attractions and first on my list was the museum of its most famous native, Pablo Picasso (sorry, Antonio Banderas). The Museo Picasso (€6) in the heart of Malaga’s gleaming and largely pedestrian centre, offered a fascinating insight into the eccentric’s catalogue, which included earlier academic art works Picasso maestroed, before ultimately going gaga for Cubism. For more traditional art aficionados, the Carmen Thyssen Museum (€6) in the Malaga’s Moorish quarter was equally captivating with its historical slideshow of Andalusia art through the centuries.
Malaga’s newest yet rather retro attraction is the city’s Automobile Museum (€6), located in the elegant Sevillian Baroque environs of a former tobacco factory. I marvelled at a starting grid of one hundred classic motors (from a Belle Époque Richmond picnic car, to Bond era Aston Martins) as well as the museum’s exhibits of vintage Chanel and Dior driving apparel. All in all, a yesteryear Geneva Motor Show with the Gok Wan treatment.
With December 1st about to dawn, Plaza de la Constitución was the scene for the city’s annual Christmas lights switch-on. It seemed Malaga and its mother had emerged for the tradition, where Basque singer Alex Ubago was setting the mood festivo with the (inexorable) support of Michael Bublés Christmas hits. Tres…dos…uno countdown complete, Malaga was soon twinkling in jubilant unison, from the flower-power tannenbaums flanking the avenues, to the glowing nativity scene outside the city cathedral. Elsewhere in this unlikey winter wonderland, I discovered the spectacular Gibralfaro Castle, where millennia of history lay illuminated, in perhaps the city’s finest display of all.
The art of dining is perhaps the greatest allure of Andalusia, however, and my gastronomic highlights included a Fruits de la Med lunch at the panoramic Parador restaurant, a sumptuously simple ensalada of avo and Iberian ham at Strachan, and a spread of tantalizing tapas at Il Pimpi. The latter, a buzzing bodega set in a former convent has become one of Malaga’s iconic hang-outs and was quite the haunt to toasty up with sweet Malaga Virgen wine before donning my winter woollies for the midnight nip.
For a final nightcap, the serendipitous strum of a Spanish guitar lured me towards El Jardin, a vine-draped restaurant located in the shadows of Malaga Cathedral. I sat down to a hearty Rioja as a gypsy-blooded dancer strutted a dramatic Flamenco; an elder troubadour, her passionate accompaniment. It was quite the spectacle; amid percussive guitar slapping and frantic clapping, el señor’s powerful vibrato suddenly crashed as he fell to his knees to a rapturous chorus of “Olé!”. He could only have been lamenting a lover, I surmised, unless he’d just gotten wind of the election results in Catalonia.
And so came my own Malaga curtain call but with my taste of la buena vida being so teasingly brief, I’d simply have to add a return visit to my Christmas list. Or perhaps a timeshare in Torremolinos.
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com), flies from Cork and Dublin to Malaga from €132 return.
For a budget-friendly yet plush base, the AC Hotel Malaga Palacio (0034 952 215185; marriott.com/AGPMG; from 40pps) has a prime location between old town antiquity and seafront bling. While there, enjoy your free mini-bar or fiesta at one of Malaga’s most happening roof terraces.
For more info, visit malagaturismo.com