Malaga - Andalusia’s City of Gardens, Orchards and Moorish Charm
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
The first time in the 1960s that I roamed the modern streets of Malaga, Queen of Costa del Sol, I was somewhat disappointed. The stretches of towering structures, hectic commercial activities, heavy traffic and masses of hurrying individuals, many of them tourists gave the city a grim atmosphere. However, this was only my first impression. After traveling through Malaga’s subtropical countryside dotted with fruit-laden orchards and elegant villas, exploring its romantic and renovated old section into a traffic-free enclave, then touring its Moorish monuments, I came to see this historic city much differently.
My seduction was complete when I rode a horse-drawn carriage along the tree-shaded streets, especially Paseo del Parque with its palms, tropical plants and fountains glowing orange in the semidarkness. When I reflected on these explorations, the saying that ‘Malaga has the soul of a garden’ became self-explanatory.
Founded by the Phoenicians and enlarged by the Romans, then transformed by countless orchards and flower-filled gardens into an earthly paradise by the Moors, the city, throughout all these eras, has always been an important town on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
Today, besides being a bustling commercial center, it has become the springboard for Costa del Sol – the country’s major holiday coast. Without its transportation network, Spain’s top vacation spot would not be nearly so accessible. The city’s airport located midway between Malaga and Torremolinos plays a vital role as a hub for that 21st-century playground. The majority of visitors fly into this airport then head for their resorts.
The city’s Moorish remains are one of the main attractions that draw many of these vacationers. Malaga’s most important Moorish memento is the citadel of Gibralfaro (Arabic, Jabal al-Faru – Mountain of the Lighthouse). Situated on a 130 m (426 ft) high hill, overlooking the town and port, its setting is spectacular. The ramparts were constructed under the Nasrid king of Granada Yusuf I (1333-1354) on a Phoenician foundation. For many years the ramparts guarded the citadel – one of the Arab’s longest-held strongholds in the Iberian Peninsula.
One of the finest hotels in Spain, the Parador Nacional de Gibralfaro, is located within the grounds of the castle. Besides its elegance, fine food, history, luxury, seclusion and romance, this luxury abode offers a dramatic view of the town and harbor.
Halfway down the hill leading toward the city from the Gibralfaro are remains of fortifications which connect with the fortress of Alcazaba, (Arabic – the fort) – once with 100 towers and containing three palaces. After the city had been captured from the Moors, Alcazaba was allowed to fall into ruin and was forgotten.
In the latter part of the 20th century a Spaniard who apparently appreciated Moorish culture and was proud of Spain’s Arab legacy, rebuilt a part of the palace, returning some of its Arab atmospheres. The sound of running water, so loved by the Arabs, is again heard in its flower gardens of jasmine honey-suckle, ivy, lavender, and marigold. They fit neatly into the ambiance of this Moorish palace-fortress.
At the foot of Alcazaba stands the partially renovated Roman Theatre – a testimony to the city’s Roman past. Overshadowed by the Arab fortress, its history goes back to the first century during the days of Augustus. One of the oldest Roman theatres in the Iberian Peninsula, for centuries, it remained buried under the ground until it was discovered in 1951.
From Alcazaba and the Roman Theatre, a series of winding streets lead down to the old city enhanced by its most important historic structure – the Renaissance-Baroque Cathedral. Built on the foundation of a former mosque, from which only the Patio of the Oranges remains, the Cathedral, the heart of old Malaga, is an imposing structure which was never completed. In the 16th century, plans were laid for two towers but only one was finished, the other remains a pathetic stump. Hence, the name by which it is known, ‘Lopsided Cathedral’.
Leaving the Cathedral, visitors can walk a short distance to inspect the 16th century Mudejar, (Muslims living under Spanish rule) tower of the Church of Santiago el Mayor, then stop at the Baños Arabes (Arab Baths) – now under renovation.
To cap their historic tour, visitors should tour the Malaga market built on the site of a former Moorish arsenal. Located on Atarazana Street, (Arabic: dar al-sinaah – house of industry), the market, a place where ships were repaired throughout the Arab period has been renovated and rebuilt many times, the last being in 2010. However, it has preserved a beautiful horseshoe gateway in white marble, one of its former facade of seven arches. On each side is a plaque bearing in Arabic the motto of the kings of Granada: ‘There is no conqueror but God’.
Besides its historic monuments, the old section of the city abounds in orange trees diffusing their perfume, colorful flower markets, neat delightful parks, and charming eating places.
Its tiled and cobbled streets and plazas that are banned to traffic, outdoor cafes and bustling shopping area give it a romantic air. In spite of the thousands of tourists which pour in from all parts of the world to enjoy its attributes, this ancient section of Malaga still has preserved a Spanish-Andalusian atmosphere.
Modern Malaga, nestled between limestone hills and the Mediterranean Sea, as it was in the days of the Arabs, is still encompassed by luxuriant subtropical vegetation and fruit-laden orchards that seem to creep into the town itself. With at least 300 days of sunshine a year, a temperate and healthy climate and a pleasant seacoast, this former abode of the Moors is a mecca for tourists.
For a panoramic view of this metropolis, which is the goal of many travelers seeking the sun in all its glory, Gibralfaro is, of course, the spot. From its ramparts, one can see in the distance Guadalmedina, (Arabic Wadi al-Madinah – River of the City) which divides the town into two parts. At the foot of the hill, the eyes will linger on one of the most charming parks in the whole of Spain – filled with shrubs and trees with enticing promenades. This wooded shady part of the city stretches to Avenida del Generalisimo or Paseo de la Alameda – the main traffic artery of Malaga.
The town is lively, prosperous and is crammed with flower, fish and vegetable markets. Tiny shops located on Moorish type streets, sidewalk cafes and charming homes hidden behind exotic shrubs, all add to the seductiveness of Spain’s mistress of the tourist south.
As queen of the Costa del Sol and second largest city in Andalusia with a population of some 600,000, Malaga draws thousands of visitors to this area in Spain. Although many of these travelers come seeking sun and beaches, others come to walk in its parks and gardens and explore the orchards of the countryside. However, a great number come to see the monuments of its Moorish past.
Touring the monuments from the Moorish past is a fulfilling experience. It is a great culmination to an exploration of the countryside orchards and rambling through tree-lined avenues, parks, gardens, and the colorful old city. There is much to savor in this capital of Costa del Sol, but nothing can match its Moorish remains.
Without these relics from a glorious age, the Malaga of today would not have an aura of mystery and history. Writers have often mentioned this when describing the city. In her book, Malaga, Mary Fitton writes:
“…it is agreeable to see that Malaga still lives under the Gibralfaro and goes to market through the Atarazanas gate.”