Napoleon Bonaparte once said that an army marches on its stomach. The same is true for tourists. Food is often a main focus for travelers, and culinary tours have become one of the most popular things to do.
Spain is no exception. With great food and regional specialties throughout the country, Spain is a culinary treasure trove just waiting to be explored. That is exactly what we did during a week in sunny Malaga, on the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun) on the southern coast of Spain.
Going from one great meal to the next, we crammed sightseeing and museum visits between tasting and sipping.
Yes, Malaga is a beach town and yes, the sand and sun were tempting, but there was too much to see and do to spend time relaxing on the beach. My beach time consisted of early morning or late evening strolls, squeezed into open spots in the packed itinerary. The beautiful Mediterranean was always there, however, right outside my window.
Led by a Sherpa
A culinary tour with Spain Food Sherpas (www.spainfoodsherpas.com) is the perfect introduction to the wonders of Spanish cuisine in general, and to the culinary highlights of Malaga in particular.
Mayte Fernandez, our energetic guide who spoke excellent English, led us on a fast-paced and fun-packed afternoon on the Taste of Malaga Tapas Tour. Tapas are a national institution in Spain.
The “small bites” or “small plates” may be hot or cold, simple or elaborate, and are served in bars and cafes throughout Spain. Tapas are so much a part of Spanish life and culture that Spaniards coined the verb, tapear, which means to go and eat tapas.
Although sampling food and drink was the main focus of the sherpa tour, Mayte did more than just feed us. As we walked through the Old Town, she pointed out interesting shops and cafes that we probably would never have discovered on our own.
On the way to our first stop, she led us past Ultramarinos Juan de Dios Barba, an old and tiny grocery store that is famous for its salted cod, or bacalao. It was frustrating to only have time for photos through the window and a quick peek inside the door, but we were in a rush to get to our destination, the market.
The Atarazanas Food Market rivals any European indoor market, with its historic facade, huge stained-glass window, cast-iron structure, and food vendors of all types. This is the kind of place you can wander for hours, taking photos and buying a morsel here and there to sample the local and regional specialties.
Mayte had our tasting session all set up — fried anchovies marinated in lemon, garlic and parsley, tossed in flour, and then cooked in olive oil, and fried pimientos del Padron (Padron peppers, which I had learned to love while walking the Camino de Santiago a few years earlier), washed down with local beer.
Fortified with this little snack, we prowled through the market on our own before heading to our next destination, La Martina Gastrotienda, a gastropub and food shop that specializes in jamon serrano, the Iberian ham for which Spain is famous. We tasted three types of Iberian ham, learning to distinguish the differences between the three levels of quality, while sipping Manzanilla Solear, a type of local sherry that goes well with the ham.
On to the next stop —Taberna Uvedoble. This tiny and unassuming eatery is a favorite with locals, and we had to scramble for seats. The restaurant is known for its innovative twists on classic foods. Our samples included a prawn wrap seasoned with spicy Pil Pil sauce, and suckling lamb with couscous, accompanied by a local white wine.
Although we were starting to get a little full, we were walking a lot, so by the time we got to Los Patios de Beatas, we were able to belly up to the bar, as it were, for the next round of tastings. This beautiful wine shop cum restaurant is the perfect place to sample both red and white Spanish wines, plus the famous sweet wine of Malaga.
Our tasting here included mushroom croquettes, stew croquettes and Iberian pork fillet with mushroom and truffle sauce. It was also the ideal place to buy wines to take home with us.
You may be asking yourself, why take the tour when I now have the names of the places and could just go there on my own? Because the guided tour offers much more than just these four stops.
Along with running commentary about the history, culture and traditions of Malaga, our guide pointed out sites of interest as we zigzagged through the narrow streets of the Old Town and answered our questions about all sorts of things. The tour is a delightful way to spend an afternoon, and a great introduction to the city and its culinary charms.
More Than Just Food
As delicious as Malaga may be, there’s more to the city than just food. Malaga is situated on the Mediterranean, with Gibraltar so close you can see it on a clear day, and the coast of Africa just a ferry ride away.
Travelers to Spain’s Andalusia region often fly into Malaga. For many years, Malaga was thought of as just a transit hub, a gateway to Sevilla, Granada and other Andalusian cities. But in the past decade or so, that has changed, and Malaga has become a destination, not just a stopping point.
The city has transformed itself, with a spruced-up port area, multiple new museums, dozens of new restaurants and hotels, and a lively energy that is contagious.
The city’s Moorish past is strikingly visible by just a glance up the hill toward the massive walled complex. The Castillo de Gibralfaro, the ancient military fortress and lighthouse, is poised high above the city. A fortified path, called the Coracha, links the Castillo with the Alcazaba, a Moorish palace and fort, below. For some stunning views of the city, sea and coastline, take time to wander along the ramparts of the Castillo.
Just below the Alcazaba, in the middle of a busy shopping district, you’ll find the impressive Roman Theater. The ruins were discovered by accident in 1951, during renovation of the library. Check to see if there is a concert or performance scheduled during your visit. If so, be sure to go; the location and atmosphere can’t be beat.
Allow time to wander through the magnificent 16th-century La Encarnacion Cathedral and its gardens. The cathedral is nicknamed La Manquita, which means “the one-armed woman,” because it only has one tower; the second one was never built. The cathedral is especially impressive when it is floodlit at night.
If you are curious about bullfights, there’s a bullring, or Plaza de Toros, in La Malagueta district. The bullfight season is March through October. In addition to bullfights, the venue is used for special events such as during Holy Week and on national holidays.
An extension of the building houses a bullfighting museum named after Antonio Ordonez, a legendary bullfighter from the nearby town of Ronda.
One of Malaga’s claims to fame is that Pablo Picasso was born here in 1881 and lived here for 10 years. His house is on the corner of the Plaza de la Merced, and is open for tours. You can take a selfie seated on a bench in the square next to a bronze sculpture of Picasso.
The Museo Picasso Malaga is housed in the lovely 16th-century Palacio de Buenavista, in the heart of the Old Town. The permanent collection includes more than 200 paintings, sculptures, graphic works and ceramics created by Picasso between 1892 and 1972.
Malaga is home to more than 30 museums, large and small, to attract all ages and interests. The subject matter includes art, wine, flamenco, musical instruments, glass and crystal, cars, fashion, and Holy Week, to name a few.
Art lovers should plan a stop at the Centre Pompidou Malaga, the first branch of Paris’ Pompidou Center outside of France. Just look for the colorful glass cube at the port of Malaga.
We also enjoyed the Carmen Thyssen Museum, with its focus on 19th-century Spanish, and particularly Andalusian, painting. You can recognize the landscapes and atmosphere of the area around Malaga.
Lodging options in all price categories abound, but for this trip, we took the luxury route. We pampered ourselves the first night at the wonderful Parador de Malaga Gibralfaro (www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-malaga-gibralfaro).
Paradores are historic properties such as castles or monasteries that have been converted into luxury hotels. You’ll find them throughout Spain, and you can rest assured they will be some place special. This one was no exception.
After a long flight to Madrid, then a connecting flight to Malaga, we were tired, hungry and in need of a shower. It was utterly relaxing to sit on the veranda of my room, with a stunning view of the port and city of Malaga below.
The parador was up high on the hill, just below the Castillo de Gibralfaro. From the pool deck on the top floor of the hotel, you could get a close-up look at the ramparts of the Castillo.
A light lunch on the garden terrace of the hotel was just right to tide us over until our multicourse welcome dinner that night in the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant.
For the rest of our stay, we luxuriated in the five-star comfort of Gran Hotel Miramar, right on La Malagueta beach (www.granhotelmiramarmalaga.com/en). Built in 1926 as a hotel, it later became a field hospital during the Spanish Civil War, then a hotel again, then it sat empty for about 20 years before reopening as the Palace of Justice.
After extensive renovation by the Hoteles Santos group, it reopened in 2017 as a hotel once again.
The lobby and meeting rooms have a definite Moorish style, as do some of the guest rooms. The Wellness Center and Spa offers a thermal circuit complete with sauna, steam room, ice fountain, icy cold plunge pool, whirlpool and a relaxation area. The columned white building is surrounded by historic gardens.
Breakfast is in the cheerful, bright Mediterraneo Restaurant, which opens onto the garden area with La Malagueta beach just beyond. For our farewell dinner, we dined sumptuously in the Brasserie Principe de Asturias, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant.
Whenever possible, I like to fly the flag carrier airline of the country I’m visiting. I like the amenities that usually are offered on these airlines, and I enjoy getting a head start on listening to the language and practicing it.
When going to Spain, I try to fly Iberia, which celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2017. Their new Premium Economy seating offers a substantial upgrade from Economy at a lower price than Business. Having more leg and elbow room makes for a more pleasant and less tiring journey.
To help in planning your trip, visit these websites for more information:
For Spain, www.spain.info
For Malaga, www.malagaturismo.com/en
For Andalusia, www.andalucia.org/en