MÁLAGA: It’s been a challenging time for Spain and its tourism sector, battered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Well, which country in the world hasn’t been impacted by strict travel restrictions? But there’s something about seeing the liveliness of Spain, with its distinctively festive and open character, dampened because of the state of the world that is particularly unusual.
And yet, the other night, as I was ending the day in the mountainous village of Benahavís, people were quietly chatting while having dinner and all of a sudden, guitarists started singing joyously in the distance: a scene that brought back a sense of ‘normal.’
The southern region of Andalusia has, throughout its history, attracted foreign writers, artists, and travelers with its magnificent views and deeply cultural cities – renowned for their Moorish architecture. Previously ruled by Arab caliphs for 800 years, the province of Málaga is home to quaint white villages and numerous small towns that are well worth visiting.
For an authentic Andalusian experience, the port city of Marbella’s Old Town is a good place to start. It’s a lovely location with old white, terracotta-roofed houses, charming balconies, wall mounted flowerpots — as seen on Calle (street) Carmen — and bursts of bougainvillea and white jasmines.
Plaza de los Naranjos, lined with abundant orange trees, restaurants, and a simple church is a good central meeting point. Most of the churches in Andalusia were originally mosques, converted after catholic monarchs regained control over Spain in the 15th century.
The majestic white-and-mustard-yellow Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation is in the nearby palm-fringed Plaza de la Iglesia, where architecture and history enthusiasts will also appreciate the remains of a former Arab fortress facing the church.
The cozy Plaza Puente Ronda has a number of great tapas joints, including Cafe Cortes and Cafe Mia. Right next to the plaza is the picturesque Calle Ancha with its melange of restaurants, small hotels, and a quirky shop called Zoco Zoco, filled with trinkets from Morocco.
For a sweet local snack, it has to be churros, so make your way to Churreria Marbella Plaza de la Victoria. If you’re feeling indulgent, go for the hot chocolate for dipping and drinking. Alternatively, Pasteleria Cantero offers many sugar-dusted pastries, as does La Canasta on Avenida Ricardo Soriano. You could take your snacks to-go and enjoy them in the adjacent Alameda Park and you can find sculptures from Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali in the nearby Avenida del Mar.
I’d also advise a trip to Mijas Pueblo, a beautiful mountain village with a population of around 8,000, known for its donkey taxis and stunning views of the Mediterranean. The perfect vantage point is the Mirador Jesús Jaime Mota.
There are dozens of local shops offering delightful (and tasty) mementos to take home with you, including the family-run Spanish Ceramic Paradise, which has multitudes of handmade, vibrant ceramics produced by local craftsmen in different cities, including Toledo and Seville.
The well-stocked Sabor a España specializes in caramelized nuts, brittles, marzipan, nougats and orange blossom-flavored honey. Speaking of food, in Plaza de la Constitución, treat yourself to an exquisite meal of Basque cuisine at El Mirlo Blanco Restaurant.
I mentioned Benahavís, a tranquil town founded by Arabs many centuries ago. It’s a great choice for a short getaway, where you will be especially well taken care of at the rustic, intimate Amanhavis Hotel and Restaurant.
This earthy-toned boutique hotel provides nine themed rooms designed with Andalusian history in mind. There is a distinct Arabian touch in Amanhavis’ spaces: one chamber is named after Granada’s last sultan, Boabdil; a mural in the swimming pool area depicts a desert scene; and an ancient Moorish tower can be spotted from the terrace.
Last but not least, take a road trip to the town of Benalmádena — surprisingly home to Europe’s largest Buddhist temple. Erected in 2003, the interior of the Benalmádena Stupa portrays scenes of the life and enlightenment of Buddha. Its exterior view is striking, overlooking the breathtaking vastness of the Costa del Sol, where land meets sea.