For the last few months I’ve been on what I’ll call “a sabbatical”. This has put me in a prime position to do some traveling – in particular to take advantage of some last-minute deals. And I mean really last-minute, as in “buy now, fly tomorrow”. I’ve always wanted to explore Spain – especially its fortified towns and Moorish palaces. So when a C$400 RT offer to Málaga popped into my inbox, I couldn’t resist. I quickly hopped onto airbnb and found a lovely 1br apartment next to the cathedral for C$77 per night and I was all set.
Of course the disadvantage of a last-minute whim is that you really don’t get to plan, nor to devise an itinerary that will maximize the number of sites, climbs, and cultural experiences you can squeeze into the available time. Fortunately, one of the things I love most is to drop into a place/culture and just discover it for myself. So that’s exactly what I did in Málaga/Granada for five nights.
Arriving in Málaga, there’s a cheap & easy bus that heads downtown. However my airbnb host had football tickets for that evening, so paid for my cab to ensure she wouldn’t be late for the game. The old town centre of Málaga is really lovely – polished stone streets, gorgeous warm lighting, and tons of restaurants, bars, and shopping. It’s a tourist town for sure, but a manageable one, especially in late November. I dropped my bag and headed out into the evening, and turning the first corner from my apartment, I ran into this;
Like so many Mediterranean towns, Málaga has a Roman past. I stared at it for a while, drinking in the warm, quiet night and bookmarking it to revisit the next day. Heading west, you then pass the cathedral and enter the lively and fully pedestrianized old town. As I mentioned, it’s touristy and expensive, but totally worth a stroll to people watch and enjoy the car-free splendour. Along the main shopping street (Calle Marqués de Larios) workers were installing truly elaborate Christmas decorations and the place was buzzing.
But to really experience a place, I always prefer to leave the tourist centre. And in Málaga you really only need to move a few streets North or West to do just that. To the North, you’ll find Plaza Merced, where the restaurants get slightly less touristy, and where you can dine al fresco in a more leisurely manner. There are also a couple of good craft beer joints – Cerveceria Arte&Sana and Central Beers. To the west you’ll find another pedestrianized zone anchored by the Calle Puerta del Mar – this one a bit less upscale and clearly more focused on local customers. Follow this street south across the Almeda Principal, and it becomes the Calle Córdoba. Just off this street you’ll find the El Rincón Del Cervecero – the best of the craft beer bars, also featuring their own brews. Every beer comes with little tapas – normally just some chips or ham – and with expert advice from the excellent staff.
After a good night’s sleep, and an excellent breakfast at Cafe Berlin, it’s time to climb. The Roman amphitheatre sits at the base of a hill, with a small fortress just above (the Alcazaba). The fortress is a good place to visit, not just for its history and lovely views, but because of its construction. While technically a Christian fortress, it was built from what was at hand, incorporating Moorish and Roman elements.
Climbing farther up the hill you are rewarded with stunning views of the city, mountains and harbour. It’s a steep but manageable climb, and eventually takes you to the ruins of the Moorish fortress at the summit. The city has done a great job of preserving what remains and letting visitors use their imagination to look into the past.
Málaga also features some lovely parks, beaches, and a cruise port. The latter is exactly what you’d expect – upscale shops and tour hawkers designed to fleece cruise ship passengers as efficiently as possible in the limited time available. You can skip this, with one exception. There’s a terrific piece of public art here – a branch of the Parisian Pompidou centre. I wasn’t able to get a good shot of it due to some maintenance work – but it’s a fantastic design. Google it.
Five nights is too many for Málaga alone. Fortunately, it’s very easy to grab a bus to Granada. A bit less easy to visit are Seville and Córdoba, as the train links are quite slow. If you really want to give those cities their due, consider adding a night there. However, Granada is a piece of cake to get to by bus. From the bus station you can pick up a local to get downtown. Or if you’re masochistic me, you can just walk (about 30 minutes).
Most visitors to Granada are here to see the Alhambra palace. For last-minute visitors like myself, a ticket to visit the interiors is nearly impossible. The Alhambra strictly limits the number of daily visitors (a good thing), and these tickets sell out weeks and even months in advance. However you can still hike up there and visit the grounds without a ticket, and I highly recommend doing so.
From central Granada, you can walk up to the Alhambra gates – the walk is lovely and winds through medieval streets. Once you reach the main gates, you see the image above. The one to left goes up to the palace, and the one to the right follows a different hill from which you can get distant views of the palace. The walk is the thing. Once you reach the palace, it’s a photographer’s paradise of mountain and castle views.
In the interior courtyards of the palace, you’ll find manicured gardens and lots of paths to explore. I recommend leaving the grounds via a different gate to hike down. Eventually all paths lead back to the city centre. Save some time to walk around Granada’s historic centre, visit the ancient market, and really just explore. I love stumbling across views like the one below – which seems almost a carbon copy of one I encountered in Mexico City.
I very much need to go back and continue this exploration of southern Spain. I need more time in Granada, Seville, Córdoba, Toledo… Time to check the latest last-minute offers!
SIDE NOTE: Often these last-minute low fares involve a connecting flight. In this case, that was an excellent thing. It enabled me to arrange a 2-night stopover in Porto, one of my favourite cities. Flights to Málaga on TAP always involve a connection in Lisbon or Porto. Take advantage if you can.