1st May in Spain (primer de Mayo) is a celebration. And, as Spain is nothing if not liberal with holidays, Spanish celebrations have inevitably come to symbolise free time. And free time means travel.
1st May this year was no normal bank holiday; it was a super puente, with the working week slashed to two days so that the holiday lasted from Wednesday – Sunday. With the prospect of so much free time on our hands, my friends and I decided that this holiday had serious potential and necessitated some forward planning. It being May, and the start of summer, our main requirement was a beach. After investigating (and subsequently rejecting) a few hundred holiday resorts, including the Algarve, Mallorca, Barcelona and Ibiza, we finally chose Málaga, the seaside city that would provide us with a touch of culture and (as we desperately hoped) a lot of sunbathing opportunities.
On the Wednesday morning, we set off on the coach from Méndez Alvaro bus station and prepared ourselves for the six-hour journey down South. The coach was relatively comfortable and, anticipating my instinct to eat whenever I get bored, I had packed an ample supply of snacks. The first hour was torture as the entire city was self-evacuating for the long weekend. We crawled along the motorway through suburb after suburb, unable to penetrate the bubble that is the region de Madrid. Finally, the traffic dispersed and the scenery began to change, as flat plains transformed into luscious green mountains.
Seven hours and two terrible movies later, we caught our first glorious glimpse of the ocean. Fifteen minutes after that, the bus pulled into Málaga bus station. We disembarked. A thermometer on a bus stop informed us that it was 28 degrees. ‘Heavenly!’ we thought. As we began to stroll towards the city centre, heavenly had become mildly irritating which quickly became hellish. By the time we had walked for twenty minutes, I was panting for breath, embarrassingly sweaty and struggling to keep hold of my bag and the two coats I had somehow been convinced that I would need. When we finally found our hostel, nestled in a corner of a plaza, I dropped everything I had been holding with ill-disguised relief.
We were staying in a place called Feel Hostel, in Plaza del Carbón. Coincidentally, two more of my friends had also decided to come to Málaga and so we had all booked into the same hostel, the bus crew in a 4-bed room and the others sharing a double. Our room was small but bright and clean, with the extra surprise of a small balcony to liven up the inevitable steel bunk beds. We had hoped to have the room to ourselves, but later that night the fourth bed was taken by a middle-aged lady from California, who had travelled to Málaga on a whim to see Picasso’s birthplace. We had only a few interactions with her over the days we were there, most of which involved us trying to make polite conversation whilst awkwardly rubbing aftersun into each other’s backs.
That first evening the sun continued to shine, so we strolled down to the port, which is lined with shops and cafes and usually buzzing with people. We sat at an outside table and enjoyed cocktails and Italian food with enormous grins on our faces.
Later that evening, we decided to enjoy another drink before going to bed. Our hostel was in a very central location close to a lot of bars and shops, and we were quickly accosted by promoter after promoter, all desperate to bring business to their bars. Drawn in by the cheap drinks, we decided to take one of them up on their offer and followed the promoter in question into a nearby bar.
Pushing open the door, we entered into a small club, with neon lights, pulsing music, and a projector showing music videos on the far wall. At first we thought the club was completely empty. Then we spotted a group of four people loitering by the bar, comprised of two dumpy middle-aged couples, the women in crop tops, bopping to the beat. It was hilarious.
Perhaps surprisingly, we didn’t turn around and walk straight back out again. Instead we headed for the bar. The €3 gin and tonics more than made up for the shabby atmosphere! The music turned out to be brilliantly old school, and we ended up having a ball dancing around like lunatics to ‘Man I Feel Like a Woman’ and ‘Lady Marmalade’. At last, exhausted from our mental dance moves, we returned to the hostel and piled into bed.
The following morning we headed to a small café (ironically called Café Madrid) for breakfast and were given free heart-shaped churros along with our toast and coffee by the flirtatious waiter (moving as pack of girls in Spain guarantees you attention).
First stop was the cathedral, which, handily, was right next to our hostel. We walked around the outside and peered in through the door but none of us were particularly interested in going inside, especially as Málaga seems to be another Spanish city guilty of overcharging for its attractions. Instead we powered onwards towards the Picasso museum. There are two museums in the city dedicated to Málaga’s most famous export; the first is a gallery showcasing works from across his career and the second is the house where he grew up, where you can see articles belonging to his parents and read information about the Spain of Picasso’s childhood and admire a few of his works.
We headed to the first museum, the Museo Picasso Málaga, located in the Palacio de Buenavista, a beautiful Moorish building organised around a courtyard. Student entry was only €3, although we would have gladly paid more. We spent a leisurely hour strolling around the museum admiring the spectrum of works. The only Picasso I had seen in the flesh before was the Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and it was amazing to see the progress from his early sketches to paintings finished in the year before his death.
After we had finished in the museum, we visited the Alcazaba and power-walked up the steep hill overlooking the port lined with cruise ships and out to the Mediterranean beyond. The Alcazaba de Málaga is the best preserved of its kind in Spain and is positioned on an inland hill in the city centre. The ancient walls line a winding pathway that leads you through decorative gardens up towards a network of towers, which provide you with beautiful views over the city. Like most of the Alcazabas in Spain, the building was built originally for defence purposes (in this case, to protect the city from pirate attacks) but was later used as a palace by various Moorish rulers. What differentiates this Alcazaba from its Andalucían relatives is that it was constructed on the ruins of a Roman fortification. Evidence of this immense cultural history can be readily found in the 1st century BC Roman Amphitheatre, which lies adjacent to the Alcazaba and is now undergoing restoration. On the day of our visit, the theatre was being used by a group of people in Roman dress, performing some kind of strange play to a group of students and a couple of stray tourists. We peered through the barrier for a while (you can see the theatre from the street through wide fencing) and laughed at the camp dramatics, but it was actually quite reassuring to see the people of Málaga making use of their ancient heritage, even with a low-budget production.
The sun was peaking out from between the clouds and we decided it was finally time to hit the beach and try some sunbathing. We stopped at La Sureña on the port for lunch (La Sureña is a tapas chain which became our go-to food place for the duration of the holiday) and then went round the corner to Playa de la Malagueta, the closest beach to the town centre. We set up our towels in to make a giant blanket and relaxed in the intermittent sunshine. With the constant clouds it didn’t feel particularly hot, but we lay there for about two hours, chatting, listening to music and napping. When we finally decided to go back to the hostel, we realised that the sun had been a little stronger then we originally thought. In our complacent state, my bus friends and I hadn’t put on any sun cream and were now turning pinker and pinker. By the time we got back to the hostel, certain parts of my body were a violent shade of red and radiating heat. My friends and I spent an intimate 15 minutes or so with an enormous bottle of moisturiser, smothering into our poor burnt skin and resolving to buy some aloe vera in the morning.
That night, we found a cosy restaurant for dinner and ordered a mound of tapas and a jug of sangria, chomping our way through it all in record time. We then went to another bar for a glass of wine, but were all so tired from the sightseeing and the sunshine that we soon decided to call it a night.
After breakfast the following day, we went to the other Picasso museum. The Museo Casa Natal de Picasso is in Plaza de la Merced, in a white building with yellow and dark green shutters. As well as housing a selection of works by Picasso, the museum has a wide range of work by other artists, many of them Malagan locals, with a particular focus on engravings. We explored and admired, reading quotes by Picasso painted on the walls and studying newspaper clippings and advertisements detailing events in Málaga in the late 19th and early 20th century.
We then met up with another friend from Madrid who was spending the Puente in Nerja, a town just around the coast from Málaga and her American friend who was staying in Málaga with friends (and who, as the only male in our little group, was significantly outnumbered by the girls). We enjoyed a menú del día lunch on the port before deciding to take the long trek up to the Castillo de Gibralfaro (the Moorish castle). The Castillo is located on the top of the enormous central hill in the city, connected to the Alcazaba by a double wall. The building is famous for a three-month siege against the city of Málaga by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. Finally the starving Malagueños were forced to surrender.
There are a few ways to reach the Castillo entrance, but we chose the most difficult – the zigzag steps leading up from the Plaza del General Torrijos. It takes some serious energy to reach the Castillo building itself, especially in the sweltering heat, but it’s the most direct route to the top. The castle ramparts have been restored so that you can walk all around them, which is exactly what we did, pausing at the various viewpoints to photograph the pinewoods, ocean and bullring. At the entrance to the Castillo is a small military museum, with a map of the old Malagan defence system, uniforms from different nations and various military artefacts. We had a little wander around before going up some of the towers and admiring the city panorama.
As the sun was burning overhead, we agreed to follow the recommendation of the group’s token male and catch a bus along the coast to Playa de Pedregalejo. This is a true locals beach, lined with small bars all crowded with Malagueños enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We found an outside table facing the sea and sipped gin and tonics as the sun went down. It was heaven.
Hours later, we began walking back to bus stop but became a tad distracted by the beach playground. As there were no kids around, we gave ourselves free reign and ran wild, swinging on the swings, jumping on the zip wire and hanging upside down on the climbing frame. Eventually we remembered that we were supposed to be catching a bus, and dragged ourselves away from the childhood flashback and headed back towards the city centre to another La Sureña dinner and bed.
Breakfast the next day was in the upstairs café of a patisserie, where you had to press a little button to summon the waiter (who then took his time to arrive – a little overworked, bless ‘im). After breakfast, we headed out for a spot of shopping and left the shops armed with new bikinis, blouses and shoes. Despite it being only a few hours after breakfast, we were dangerously tempted by a road-side ice cream shop and sampled a few delicious flavours on our way to the beach to try out our purchases.
We had learnt our lesson from the other day and coated ourselves in sun cream, ready to enjoy the incredible weather. We spent most of the day on the beach, sunbathing, paddling in the sea and frolicking in the sand. Lunch was a picnic from La Sureña, which we enjoyed lying on the beach, too happy to move.
That evening, we pushed our way through a party outside some student halls to have dinner at a vegetarian restaurant and ate an incredible amount of incredible food, including hummus, homemade pasta and empanadas (pastry stuffed with spinach and ricotta). By the time we were finished, none of us were able to move.
We then met the token man and a friend of his for drinks at the Plaza de la Merced, before heading to the infamous Bodegas El Pimpi Málaga wine bar. This bar, nestled down a small side street, is a Málaga hotspot, completely rammed with locals and tourists in the know, all enjoying glasses of Iberia wine. With a front room, a back room and an enormous upstairs area, the bar seems to go on and on and the atmosphere is buzzing. The walls are lined with photographs of visiting celebrities, including John Malkovich, Antonio Banderas and Sean Connery. The strange thing is, for all its popularity and glamour, it is surprisingly untouristy. We had no idea that it even existed until a local recommended it to us. The fact that it has managed to stay out of the guidebooks means that it has retained an old-world charm that clashes amiably with its youthful clientele. I personally enjoyed the wine (although many of my companions didn’t), but even if you’re not a fan of sweet sherry, the bar is worth a visit for the atmosphere alone.
The following morning was the final morning for my bus mates and I. After a final breakfast, we bid a sad goodbye to the girls who had arrived ahead of us and watched glumly as they headed off to a final day of sunbathing, whilst we mooched off to the bus station. Seven hours later, we arrived back in Madrid, already missing the smell of the ocean.