The draw of Picasso
Malaga is set to become the next cultural hot spot.
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Tourism is set to grow thanks to quayside developments. Culture vultures should go now to beat the crowds
Most tourists can't get out of Malaga fast enough. They take a cheap flight to the airport, hire a car and head for the Costa Del Sol. Cruise passengers hop off at the port, many on to a waiting tour bus, to take them on to Grenada.
It's an undeserved reputation, but one which has meant Malaga's authenticity, culture and beauty has been shielded from the heaving pink and white masses of British tourists.
And the culture can compete with all of Spain's major cities. Picasso and Malaga are linked as inextricably as Gaudi and Barcelona.
The red-blooded fervour surrounding an upcoming bullfight or the Holy Week parades in Spring can match any you see in Seville.
And the quiet beauty of La Manquita, the cathedral nicknamed "the one-armed lady" because of one missing spire, with its Moorish-domed tabernacle and carved saints, can compete even with the cathedral of Grenada.
But there are grand plans afoot in Malaga. Even now, 700,000 passengers come on cruise ships alone, and the city is hoping to keep them there with an ambitious quayside development including a shopping plaza with big name brands from Mango to Massimo Dutti, bowling, bars and entertainment. Completion is due this summer.
Flights: Low-cost Monarch flies direct to Malaga from Luton, Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. 08719 40 50 40
Stay at: , in the centre of Malaga's main shopping district, with a gorgeous rooftop bar. www.room-matehotels.com
Many will stay in the quayside development; others will take the short walk into the town for a cultural tour of the city's Picasso museum, cathedral and the Alcazaba de Malaga.
The message is clear. Get there before they do. For now, the city is maintaining its southern Spanish charm which so many of its sister towns along the coast have lost forever. But for the tourists who do come, its main lure is still as the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.
Born in a comfortable, canary yellow apartment in the central Plaza de la Merced, young Pablo left the city when he was nine years old, eventually making his permanent home in Paris as an adult, but his descendents have kept close links to the city.
The apartment is now a museum, the Fundacion Picasso which opened in 1998. The tiny collection includes paintings by Jose Ruiz Blasco, father of Pablo. Specialising in drawing pigeons he gave his son his first art lessons in 1888.
Looking out of the windows on the square, the birds that inspired Blasco still strut and coo, but now perch atop the bronze sculpture of Picasso, seated peacefully on a bench on the newly pedestrianised square's nearside.
To take the "Picasso route" head across the square and down Grenada street, passing the Parroquia de Santiago, the church where the artist was baptised, and close to the city's Jewish quarter. Get lost in the winding cobbled streets, where houses lean together up above, and it's easy to imagine housewives hanging washing from the balconies and traders hawking wares along the side streets.
In between the Plaza de la Merced and the Cathedral is the Museo Picasso Malaga, at the Palacio de Buenavista. These private pictures of Picasso's family, friends and lovers were donated by his family, and include some breathtaking works; which would not look out of place in the Louvre. The cool white palace, reminiscent of a Moroccan riyad, is a beautiful place to relax and linger, escaping the heat of summer.
Also unmissable is the 11th to 15th century Alcazaba de Malaga, the Muslim fortress of the city with its Moorish style pools and walled gardens. Across the square is a statue of Solomon Ibn Gabriol, a Jewish philosopher and poet from Malaga, who lived here 1,000 years ago.
But even when the crowds do arrive, there's parts of the city many will never reach. The sprawling botanical gardens La Concepcion on the northern outskirts of the city has a shady, Amazonian feel, although plants come from every corner of the globe. In the summer heat, you can wander through the glades, under wisteria-covered arbour, palms and groves of bamboo.
In the early morning, before the ships dock, locals head for Atarazanas, the beautiful Moorish covered market, a former 14th century shipyard with sunlight pouring in through the intricate stained glass windows. Inside, enormous fresh fish is piled high, mixing with the scent of olives and strong cheeses. Stalls stock a rainbow of spices, and most tourist leave with a sack of Almendras Fritas, crisp, salted almonds in olive oil, a bargain at 4 euros.
For a truly local Sunday afternoon experience, head to the east for tapas or a chargrilled catch of the day at the charming former fishing village Pedregalejo at one of the hundreds of candy-coloured eateries the maritime promenade, yards from the sand.
The catch comes in from the bay of Malaga and North Africa, including sea bream, sea bass, cod and anchovies.
Here, local families and trendy young professionals dink a pint of sangria watching the fishermen in their traditional 'jabegas" boats. Las Acacias, the beaches here, are in family-sized small coves, perfect for paddling. In the cooler evenings, dancing is compulsory in the lively bars, many with live music.
Back in town, locals and tourists rub shoulders at the city's most famous restaurant, Bodega El Pimpi, with its fine selection of cheeses and tapas including sharps of deep fried aubergine drizzled with molasses, a Malagan speciality. The vast wine barrels which tower up the walls of the restaurant are signed in chalk by the restaurant's famous customers, including Antonio Banderas, a Malaga boy, and members of the Picasso family.
Although the outskirts of the city are still packed with cars, central Malaga has been transformed into a haven for pedestrian shoppers as the city focuses on wooing the tourists. The main shopping street, Calle Marques de Larios, leading up to Constitution Square, and the surrounding winding cobbled streets have been pedestrianised.
Cycling is the best way to get to know the city, whizzing along the boulevards, around the bullring and along the coastline all the way to Pedregalejo. A blissful four-hour tour, with delightful and witty guides, is available from Malaga Bike Tours, and suitable for the wobbliest cyclist.
Luxury liners might be a great thing for the Spanish economy and Malaga's profile, but hope they don't spoil one of the last bastions of Spain on the Costa Del Sol.