Malaga: most of us know it as the destination airport we select when we’re booking a holiday to the Costa del Marbs. I’ve passed through the airport countless times myself without considering it as a destination.
But the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, home to well-preserved Roman sites and a thriving Jewish community, deserves more than that.
Arriving at the Gran Hotel Miramar feeling frazzled after roadworks doubled our 45-minute drive, our stresses quickly disappeared as we were ushered into the calm oasis of the hotel — and welcomed with a glass of bubbly.
First opened in 1926 as a hotel, its recent £54 million overhaul has left the décor beautifully modern whilst still retaining its historic origins.
The building became a field hospital during the Spanish Civil war, and later the Palace of Justice until 2007. It was then bought and restored to its former glory, re-opening its doors as a hotel once more six months ago.
The elegant central inner courtyard dazzles with light while the bedrooms feature Arabic, Mediterranean or modernist styling — ours were all white with a contemporary feel. It felt a bit like being in a James Bond lair, with a hidden TV and a concealed interconnecting door to our children’s room.
After just a quick look at the pool, we headed straight to the city centre. Having done our research, I knew there was a lot to do but with only two days, we had to choose carefully.
The old town is only a 15-minute stroll away, all cobbled narrow streets, beautiful buildings, stunning architecture, interesting Roman ruins and plenty of places to eat.
We had lunch in a true Malaga institution — El Pimpi — where everyone from the Picassos to Antonio Banderas have tried its tapas, including a variety of delicious veggie and fish options.
As you would expect for a tourist hotspot, it wasn’t cheap with lunch for five costing around £85. But it was good food in a pretty spot, and much needed sustenance for our afternoon plans.
After a quick walk through the old Roman theatre, free to visit, we had to decide which of the two steep hill climbs to attempt — knowing our children would not manage both.
Choosing between either the Alcazaba, the best preserved Moorish fortress in Spain, or the Castillo de Gibralfaro, the ruins of another Moorish Fort, we plumped for the latter. It was quite a climb for little legs and not so easy for big legs either but we all enjoyed its stunning views (and ice cream) .
For a gentler stroll, the Playa de le Malagueta beach is great for kids as it’s dotted with play areas and cafes, along with a lovely boardwalk adjoining the harbour of the Puerto de Malaga further on.
Between the restaurants and little shops, there’s also a small Centre Pompidou housing modern art.
Malaga itself is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and there are references to him everywhere, as well as the Museo Picasso in the old Jewish quarter. Housing one of the foremost collections of his work, it spans the eight decades of his life and art.
As we quickly discovered, this is not a museum designed for small children. Many of the works weren’t behind protective glass and the security guards were suitably attentive to their job, making us slightly paranoid as we found ourselves accompanied by one keeping a watchful eye on the kids.
With relief, we exited the museum without newsworthy incident and headed to the elaborate cathedral at the heart of the city, one of the largest in Spain.
Malaga’s own history dates back around 3,000 years, to the time of the Phoenicians, with a rich Jewish past — although the fate and fortunes of this section of the city’s population rose and fell depending on its rulers.
Under Roman rule, as an important colony, the Jewish community traded freely with other cities along the North African coast. But with the coming of the Visigoth hordes, Jews were almost totally enslaved, and by 711 there were none publicly practising in the city.
Life under Muslim rule drew many back and by the mid 11th century, the Jewish population had reached 200 before being expelled under Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century.
It was only in the early 1960s when Jews returned in significant numbers, coming from North Africa.
The now thriving community numbers more than 1,200 and the city has a synagogue and a kosher deli, although there’s not much left to see of the old juderia, surrounding the museum.
Between exploring, the hotel was the perfect place to unwind. The swimming pool is semi heated in the winter, including Easter holidays, and the kids loved it — although I found it just about bearable. In the summer, there’s also a kids club with a children’s swimming pool, along with a gym and spa (both yet to open when we visited).
And with five restaurants at the hotel, plus a rooftop bar with sea views, we even managed a romantic dinner at their fine dining restaurant the Principe de Asturias — the kids occupied with iPads after gobbling down their plate of pasta and cheese.
With so much to do, culturally, historically and gastronomically, that we couldn’t cram it all into two days, simply passing through the airport is a quick way to miss out.