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Spain: Carnivals, culture and cuisine in atmospheric Malaga...


Flamenco dancer

Flamenco dancer

Plaza del Obispo in Malaga.

Plaza del Obispo in Malaga.

El Pimpi

El Pimpi

Sardines roasting on sticks

Sardines roasting on sticks


Flamenco dancer

Two old women are drinking tumblers of beer and eating salad and fried bacalao (salt cod), not bothering to talk to each other. It's a late, unceremonious supper in a restaurant off the streets of Malaga which are, frankly, deranged due to the Feria.

I've seen these women before – in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, and in Pedro Almodovar films. They have the copper-blonde hair, the baked skin, the thick gold earrings and that fixed look of disapproval that is the birthright of old Spanish women who have lived through fascism and now just want a drink.

Spain is a divided country, but these are the definitive old Spanish women: gruff and stylish, living it down. They make the whole Malaga Feria jazz look a bit much.

The Feria, though it's meant to commemorate August 19, 1487, when Isabella and Ferdinand brought Catholicism to the city, is really just a carnival of women. Of kitsch, exaggeratedly Andalucian women. The women seize the streets, wearing polyester polka-dot dresses, with plastic jasmine flowers in their hair, bearing their fans, twirling their skirts, breaking into flamenco.

"Pretty women, with black eyes full of fire," Hans Christian Anderson wrote of the senoritas when he visited Malaga in 1900. They do seem a touch bewitched.

In essence, the Malaga Feria is a brash and annoying time when shops close and streets convulse, but it's a fun time, it cries out 'Volver' ('Come back!').

Unlike the bizarre Semana Santa processions for Holy Week, the Feria shows off the partying know-how of these southern Spanish, which seems to have only been toughened by 39 years of Franco, and now by economic misery.

Malaga has seaside and mountains, twisting medieval streets, wondrous art, ruins and palaces, and excellent food. Ryanair flies direct from Dublin and it never gets cold here, which is probably the reason for its biggest draw: its friendly, carefree people. They have attitude and grit, and are a bit mad.

"In none of the Spanish towns have I been so happy, so entirely at home, as here in Malaga," our man Hans wrote in his travelogue between lines of rapturous poetry. Yes, he got a statue for that.

Back to the Feria, which ignites itself in the historic centre by way of paper lanterns, bunting, flowers, horse-drawn chariots, street vendors selling roasted almonds and buenelos (sugary doughnuts), marquees sending forth supersized cups of cerveza, cocktails and awful beeping music. It's not a tourist attraction, it's a local tradition. And the Andalusians are experts.

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The party goes on, and on, and on, for ten days. While you might see a perfectly respectable young man collapsed drunk in a doorway, and the pavements do get completely trashed, it's all cleaned up by night-time. That is more than you can say for other cities in festal mood.

There's something else going on. Andalucia, at least this, its ancient port city, has managed to preserve its culture. Despite how tackily it jumps at you today (those polyester frocks), the Malaguenos genuinely don't think their 'traditional' culture is stupid. They love the patriotic frills, the mournful dances, the endless fried fish and croquettas, the blood sports (enough to fill the bull fighting ring anyway). I thought the tour guides were just doing a fine job convincing me of this but no, after three days in Malaga, I realised they do love it all.

And they should. Take flamenco, or the local dance, verdiales. In the Real de Feria – the infernal fairground whose sickly rides and candyfloss and teddy bear contests you have to navigate to get to the casetas, jolly wooden pop-up restaurants – you can watch a heart-stopping piece of flamenco for nothing. We watched one with a pitcher of beer and too much tapas on our native tablecloth-clad table. It was copla, another type of local song and dance. Everyone watching it was Spanish, and everyone was rapt. I can't picture that level of interest at a ceile.

Then copla, unlike ceile, is a passionate affair, a feast of heartache and unrequited love and deep suffering. Copla is so much better than opera or other melodrama, its gypsy spirit reaches the visceral. Guitars are hauntingly picked, and a woman with the calves of a racehorse pounds the floor with astounding skill then weeps and flails for a bit. Another woman sings to her that she is strong and will get over him (a familiar topic for most women, though we keep it a bit quieter over here). The men are like suited dragonflies, with the wet wavy hair of Latino pop-stars.

We could have sat there for hours, but there were other casetas and copas to try. Sleep is a remote idea in Malaga. During the day (somehow they all get up for work), flamenco can be rediscovered in the art galleries. One of flamenco's star promoters was Picasso, and if any figure endorsed the garish Andalucian woman that overruns the Feria in herds, it was twinkle-eyed old Pablo. He loved the women he did.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born here on 25 October 1881 in a house you can visit (I wouldn't bother – the renovations are soulless), but he didn't last in Malaga. The family moved city when he was young, and he last visited it aged 19. He took his mother's name, Picasso, to distance himself from his artist father. He may have tried, but he never forgot Andalucia, as you see in the Museo Picasso in the old town.

Museums are such a bore but the 260 works in this majestic Renaissance palace are not. They should be imbibed over a good two hours. Picasso refused to explain what he painted and rarely named his works. He painted "to show what I have found and not what I am looking for". That brash confidence mixed with tender discovery has been passed onto the faces in every painting, from the melancholy mistresses to the bolshy nudes, all chopped up and re-assembled by the cubist knife. If you want to delve further back into Spanish art, the Carmen Thyssen Museum houses lots of masterpieces too. Mostly, of course, of women.

So, what to do if you stop off here for a weekend before hitting the Costa del Sol, as you just might? (Marbella is 40 minutes by car).

Malaga's relaxed modus vivendi lends itself to a morning of monuments, with plenty of stops for café mitad (half-milk, half-coffee), beer and tapas. The cathedral took three centuries to build and is still missing a tower, giving it the name 'La Manquita' ('one-armed lady').

There are two Moorish fortresses, the Gibralfaro, and the swankily restored Alcazaba in the centre. The Muslim Sultans built the Alcazaba over the Roman amphitheatre that was dug up in 1951, exciting evidence for the layers of civilisation that exist here. Underneath the old Moorish town you have a Phoenician city, they say.

Once you've done all that, you can have another beer and tapa and a shop along the impressive Calle Marques de Larios. A more luxurious Moorish experience, if again a rather fake one, is the Hammam Al Andalus. Big money has gone into this gilded new facility, which is modelled on the public baths of the days of Muslim rule here.

You could just go to the beach, so this is for the spa-tourist and designer swimwear fits the mood. A bath and massage (€43) includes hot and cold plunges, a steam-room, fancy cups of mint tea and a rose or jasmine massage. Everything is gold and whispery. Be careful though. After walking the sweltering streets all morning we were very hot, and a northern European tourist in our group plain passed out and ended up with his feet elevated while we fed him water. I'm just glad it wasn't me.

The best part of all, the thing that really makes you want to hang around Malaga, is eating and drinking. The Phoenicians who founded the city in 800BC named it Malaca, believed to mean "the salting of fish", and that specialty lives in its espetos, sardines roasted on sticks that you eat heads and all.

As well as endless tapas bars and the popular chiringuito beach bars, modish new places have opened. Los Patios de Beatas is a rose-painted town-house turned vinoteca where you drink devilishly good wines and sherries with matching local dishes. The old Spanish women were eating here; they knew best.

Our tour group, sitting under a stained-glass ceiling beside wine barrels and nerdy wine maps, were treated to foie gras pates, cured Iberico (acorn-fed) hams and that salty fried bacalao.

We didn't make it to trendy La Cocotte for cocktail-inspired salads, but we did try El Pimpi at a few less euro around the corner. El Pimpi means bon viveur. It is a charmingly shabby townhouse bedecked with wine boxes and hanging hams, where waiters carry trays high above their heads and the Spanish music, again emphatically typical, is thudding.

Try their sweet melon gaspacho, fried aubergine with treacle, addictive spetos and calamari. Courses come in sequence, so much nicer than the smorgasbord you get in an Irish 'Spanish tapas bar'.

This type of rolling banquet is found everywhere. The food is largely fried or spit-roasted with the odd respite in the shape of fish a la plancha, roasted red peppers or a tomato salad.

A pricier place to lunch is the Malaga Hotel Parador (€33 for a set menu). Paradors are hotels built by the government in scenic places; this one overlooks the built-up-by-the-English coast and the rusty dog bowl of the Malaga bull ring, La Malagueta. The Parador serves the best ajo blanco, a cold soup made from almonds and garlic garnished with grapes and fig jam, one spoon of which will make you want to die here.

So that was Malaga. How enjoyable it was not to get off the plane and go to a Dublin 'Spanish tapas bar', for frozen calamari and brown vegetable stew, at €25 a head. Sometimes it's good not to be home.

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