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I came to Malaga, the favorite Spanish city of Hans Christian Andersen, known as the father of the modern fairy tale, to explore the Andalusia region known for its sunny weather and hospitality of the locals, walk the Caminito del Rey, which used to be one of the most extreme hiking paths, and climb to the ramparts of an ancient castle.
Andersen wrote that in no other part of Spain did he feel so happy and so at home as in Malaga. Today, the statue of the writer is to be found by the promenade under the palms, and the writer keeps enjoying sun 300 days a year.
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He is never alone: a famous character known as the Ugly Duckling looks out of his bag. Sitting on the bench near them, I am writing the fairy tales of Malaga.
The Abandoned Roman Theatre
A fresh smell of leaves hangs in the air, and I entertain myself with spotting parrots in the trees lining the promenade. When the wind picks up, I start walking through the park towards the Calle Larios, the liveliest pedestrian street in the city.
The yellow tiles are wet from the rain that fell earlier but, despite dark clouds, the city with its vivid colors feels like summer.
A youthful local guide called Álvaro Ruiz Tirado greets everyone with a sincere, cheerful smile, and briefs us on the history of Malaga.
Apparently, it’s not going to be easy to give the full picture in a few minutes, because Malaga is one of the oldest European cities, with its’ history stretching back about 3,000 years.
It all began when Phoenicians founded the city of Malaka. The name means “to salt” food, because of the fish that were landed and salted in the harbor. Over the centuries, the city was ruled by Romans, Muslims, and Christians, and the mixing of these cultures shaped Malaga’s spirit.
One of the churches resembles a mosque, because Muslims were spared to build it after Christians conquered the city. There is a wide Muslim influence to be seen today in the city – the name of Malaga’s fortress, the Alcazaba, originates from the Arabic “Al-qasbah”.
When Álvaro’s grandfather, who grew up in a village next to Malaga, came to the Alcazaba, he did not see what we see: the remains of the ancient Roman theatre lying at the foot of the fortress.
After centuries of being abandoned and hidden, the theatre was discovered in 1951, hidden underneath the House of Culture building (Casa de la Cultura).
Eventually, the House of Culture was demolished in 1995, to make way for the theatre, with along with Alcazaba fortress became Malaga’s top attractions.
The One-Armed Lady
Alcazaba was built as a military fortress, but it was also a palace that served as a home for its’ Moorish rulers. Walking up the stairs, we marvel at the characteristic arches, defensive towers, and a medieval water supply system.
“When you listen to the water running in the garden, smell the flowers, and pass by the towers, then you can sense how the ancient Muslim people of Malaga felt living there” Álvaro says, adding that the fortress is his favorite place in the city.
The hike to the viewpoint of Alcazaba (Mirrador del Alcazaba) takes a good while, but the effort is rewarding. Every time I stopped to take a breather, I saw the city from a different perspective.
The edifice of Malaga Cathedral, which I had passed in the morning, also stood out. I suddenly realized that one of its towers is unfinished. It turns out that the construction started in the 16th century, but part of the public money raised has been allocated for other works.
Apparently, authorities used them to repair roads to nearby towns Vélez-Málaga and Antequera.
Citizens of Malaga love the cathedral as it is, and the missing tower has become its distinctive feature. They call the cathedral La Manquita, which means “one-armed lady”.
Staying positive and not taking life too seriously is the local way. “We laugh about everything, and we like coming up with funny names whenever we can,” Álvaro says.
Coffee in the Cloud
After hiking to the viewpoint, we sit in a café on the square, and I learn to order coffee like a local. Apparently, in Malaga, coffee types have different names to those in the rest of Spain, so Álvaro was right when he said that people in Malaga like speaking in their own way.
The special terminology for coffee was first created at Café Central in Plaza de la Constitución at the Calle Larios, where we first started the walk.
The idea was to make ordering a perfect cup of coffee easier for the guests, and to avoid situations when a barista could make a mistake.
In the post-war years, when obtaining raw materials for coffee was complicated and expensive, seeing a customer wasting a coffee or not enjoying it, because the taste was not right, left nobody satisfied.
Eventually, the café came up with no less than nine types of coffee, with the strongest called “solo” and the lightest “nube” (cloud). The cafe owner, José Prado Crespo, wanted to round up the number to ten.
He asked around for ideas, until one of the employees suggested calling the last type “no me lo ponga” with an empty glass sign. This name can be casually translated as “don’t bother”, and the tenth “choice of choice” purely exists to increase the offer to a round ten..
The idea and concept of the ten coffee options was so popular that other coffee places in the city followed, and it has become a local tradition.
A Labyrinth of Wine Barrels
In the Merced Square stands the house where Pablo Picasso was born, and where he spent his childhood. When Álvaro tells the story, it takes him a while to pronounce the artist’s full name, which is twenty-five words long.
We then stop by the statue of Picasso in the square, and walk through the narrow street of San Agustín, towards the museum displaying paintings that visitors are unlikely to see anywhere else.
Leaving a possible visit for later (it’s best to book tickets online), we head to a legendary bar around the corner, where Picasso family members often used to spend their evenings.
The place, which has more than 50 years of history, is called el Pimpi, after the city’s first unofficial tour guides who accompanied ships’ crews around the city, showing them where to find typical food and drink.
The bar’s walls are decorated with photos of politicians, actors, and painters. The bar resembles a labyrinth, with the rooms named after the celebrities who visited them. Famous visitors have also signed the barrels of wine that decorate the rooms.
While I am reading the posters on the walls, we are sipping sangria accompanied by croquette with prawns.
The menu includes traditional tapas, such as the typical Spanish omelet tortilla and pepper salad, local wines, and homemade sweets. The sounds of Spanish guitar complement the experience, creating the unique vibe of this artistic ambiance.
Malaga is ever more cheerful in the evening, when people chat and laugh on the terraces with a glass or two of the local sweet wine, and Merced Square is decorated with lights. I call it an early night, preparing for tomorrow’s big adventure.
The King’s Little Path
Less than an hour from Malaga, there is a village called el Chorro, hidden in the rocks. Here, the Caminito del Rey, the King’s Path, begins.
Once known as one of the most extreme hiking trails, the path was built at the beginning of the 20th century for local workers and was later named after King Alfonso XIII, who traversed it for the inauguration of the dam.
The Caminito in Spanish means “little Camino”. The first few kilometers were relaxed in nature and resembled the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. The trail was mostly flat and went through forest, but when I reached the main gate, the true adventure began.
Although, after the renovation, the path is now safe, we were asked to wear hard hats and to be careful when taking photos.
The trail is pretty narrow, so I had to follow the other visitors for a while. On the bright side, it gave me more time to explore the rocks and the landscape.
The most exciting moment comes when crossing the Guadalhorce river, with the wind very slightly moving the bridge. A little disconcerting!
The whole path is about seven kilometers long, but the part in the rocks where helmet wearing is mandatory is only about half of it. The adventure lasts for about two and a half hours from your arrival at el Chorro train station.
From there, a shuttle bus takes the visitor to the starting point, and the trail ends at the forest close to the station. So there is no need to take a bus back, and I sat with a cup of tea taking in the sights by the river.
Giving myself some leeway with time was not a bad idea, considering that trains from el Chorro to Malaga are a rare event and go only a couple of times per day.
Walking on the promenade on my last day, I think with some regret of all the places I have not managed to visit: the Malaga Museum with its works of famous Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya, the contemporary art museum, shaped as a colorful cube, the unusual Museum of Glass and Crystal, located in an 18th-century merchant’s house, featuring about a thousand pieces of glass from Phoenician times to the present day.
I stop myself there, because in total there are more than 30 museums in the city, and visiting all of them is definitely too ambitious a plan for a weekend trip! Like locals, I am learning to be happy living in the moment.
With the sound of the wind and the high waves falling on the sand, along with meeting Álvaro, who is never tired of sharing stories about his city, and sitting under the palm near the famous writer, and feeling like I spent several days in a fairy tale.
If You Go
Book tickets for the Caminito del Rey in advance, you can do it online at https://www.caminitodelrey.info/. Take comfortable shoes: access to the trail in flip-flops is not allowed. You do not need special hiking shoes however, regular trainers would do.
Check train’s schedule from Malaga to el Chorro at https://www.renfe.com/es/es.
To book a free guided tour in Malaga, check https://www.guruwalk.com/
You may book your plane tickets with WizzAir https://wizzair.com/#/
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Author bio: Anna Rzhevkina is a journalist and a former Reuters reporter based in Poland. Anna was a volunteer in South Africa and spent several months in Mexico City. She loves spicy food and nachos with guacamole. In her spare time, Anna likes learning foreign languages, surfing, and hiking. She has done full Camino de Santiago.