Learn About: Málaga, Spain

Last school year, I had the wonderful opportunity to study abroad in Spain. My program was located in the Mediterranean city of Málaga, which I of course fell in love with over the course of my year living there.

Málaga is the principal hub of the Costa del Sol—the “Sunny Coast” of Spain that lies along the Mediterranean Sea. It is part of the autonomous community of Andalucía. (Autonomous communities are Spain’s primary administrative divisions. They can be likened to our states.) Every year, millions of tourists come to the region to enjoy its great beaches and vibrant culture.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso International Airport, located in Málaga, is the main arrival point for tourists heading to the Costa del Sol. The airport may be all some visitors see of Málaga before heading off to better-known vacation destinations in neighboring towns. However, Málaga is an interesting city with a lot to offer, too, and should not be overlooked.

This is, of course, not a tourism pitch; I simply want to share with you some of the historical and cultural elements that make Málaga unique and engaging – and one of my favorite cities. I hope that after reading this blog, you will have learned some new and interesting things about a place you may not have known much about before.

Málaga’s history goes back many years, and its rich past can be seen all around in many of the city’s landmarks and points of interest. Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians during the 8th century BC. Called Malaka, the name is thought to have derived from the Phoenician word for salt, since fish and meat were salted there. Ruins from this time can still be seen in certain places. For example, Phoenician remains were among those discovered during the excavation of the site of Málaga’s Picasso Museum, and are now on display in the basement of that building.

In the 6th century BC, Málaga came under the rule of Carthage, and later passed to Roman rule in the 3rd century BC. During this time it was known as Malaca. Today, Málaga’s Roman Theater is a prominent landmark that recalls this era of its history. Forgotten for many centuries, it was uncovered during a construction project in 1951 and in the 1990s the site was excavated and restored. There are Roman ruins on display in the basement of the Picasso Museum, as well.

In 711 AD, Málaga came under Arab rule as part of the Emirate of Córdoba. On the hill just above the Roman Theater is the Alcazaba Fortress and Gibralfaro castle, built to defend the city during this period. Given its high location, many people enjoy walking the path (or taking the bus) up to the castle, which is the ideal location from which to look out over the entire city of Málaga.

In 1487, the city was reconquered by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, whose united kingdoms formed the basis for what became modern Spain. As part of the Catholic kingdom, naturally Málaga’s cathedral was an important construction. Work on the cathedral began in 1528 but was not finished until 1782. As such, although much of it was planned and built in a Renaissance style, one façade was completed in the Baroque style. However, the cathedral was never entirely finished, given that one tower was left uncompleted. It is said that the tower was never completed because the funds were diverted to aid the American Revolutionaries against the British (probably less out of sympathy for the Americans than for Spain’s then-enmity with England). As a result, since the cathedral only has one tower, it is known as la manquita: “the one-armed woman.”

Today, Málaga has a population of almost 570,000. As such, it is the second most populous city in Andalucía (after Sevilla) and the sixth largest city in Spain. The town centers on the main street Calle Larios, which opens into Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Plaza). The plaza celebrates the constitution that was adopted in 1978, marking Spain’s official transition to democracy after 36 years of dictatorship under Francisco Franco. The web of streets that expand out around this plaza house many of Málaga’s best stores, restaurants and sites.

Málaga is culturally vibrant as well. Two particularly notable people were born there. The first is Pablo Picasso, who was born in Málaga in 1881, and there began his artistic training at age 7 under the instruction of his father. His family moved away in 1891 and Picasso never returned to his birthplace. Today, however, his birth house is a museum. Málaga also has a separate Picasso Museum, housed in a restored 16th century palace, which showcases art from throughout his career including many early works.

The second notable Málaga native is Antonio Banderas, the actor who was born there in 1960. Banderas returns to Málaga every year to participate in the Holy Week events, in which he is very active as an officer in one of the Catholic brotherhoods that conduct the week’s many processions.

Holy Week, the week from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday is one of the most important festivals in Málaga. Unlike in other places, Holy Week in Málaga is not quiet and meditative but rather festive and celebratory. Throughout the week, processioners (often dressed in long robes and tall pointy hats) carry tronos through the city (large figures of Mary and Jesus that depict scenes from the Passion).

Another important festival is the feria (fair) in August. This holiday can be traced back to the Catholic Monarchs’ reconquest in 1487, and involves a week of celebrations including fireworks, flamenco dancing, bullfights, music, food and drink.

These are only a few of the main historical monuments and cultural claims-to-fame of Málaga. Of course there is much more of this city to learn about and explore. However, I hope that this has given you an overview of Málaga’s essential features and that you have learned something new and interesting about an interesting city!

If you want to learn more, here are a few interesting links:

By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern