From our layover in Belfast we had one short final flight that brought us to Málaga, at the very south of Spain, around midnight. We took a taxi to our hostel on Calle Mariblanca 19 (the only hostel at which we had booked a private room for two nights so we could sleep off our jet lag in peace).
I love that in our sleep haze we had inescapably entered into European life: the narrow cobbled streets packed with townhome-style conjoined buildings bursting with cafe life, bars, and vibrant shops. At midnight the people were just now leaving their rooms to go out. There were murals and graffiti everywhere, almost indistinguishable from each other, with layers of paper art pasted over bricks and overlaid with spray paint.
Our hostel was right among the lively bar life and had two massive wooden doors that parted in the middle, above which were colorful skirts hung for decoration from the balcony above. Every building in sight was at least five stories high and clustered tightly together. We fetched our room key and were led up three flights of stairs to our room, which had saloon style window openings with white shutters that let out into the hallway. There, the windows were open directly across from us and gauzy curtains lifted and fell, funneling the cooling breeze into our muggy room.
Our small room's walls were white stucco and we had a white iron trundle bed in the center with a thin pink and green patchwork quilt. We took quick, cool showers in the bathrooms across the hall, made tea from the hot water pitcher right outside our doorway, and gratefully fell asleep. We had left from Atlanta at 3 p.m. on the 8th (Umar's 25th birthday), and were now crashing a day and a half later around 1 a.m. on the morning of the 10th without having slept in between.
We awoke in time for breakfast around 9 a.m. feeling rested. After dressing in shorts and a tank suited for the day's weather, I stuck my head out the window from our hallway and took in my first view of Málaga in the daylight. The rich, fragmented yellow faceted over repairs (a commonality throughout all of Spain, I found) reminded me of iodine. We walked down to breakfast, a buffet of sliced cantaloupe and melon, yogurt, and pre-packaged pastries which we self-served onto blue and red transferware plates, clearly ancient with crazing and chips, all mismatched. The dining area on the first floor had ceilings the height of all five floors above with an open sun roof letting in streams of morning light.
Because it was Sunday, many of the museums and popular sites had free or discounted entry. Málaga is the birth place of Picasso, so we treked first through the few cobblestone blocks to the Museo Picasso. The building was structured around a large, open courtyard that followed his life's work chronologically winding up through the two stories. Though familiar with his photo-realistic portraiture in his early life, I had never seen his experimental pottery and sculpture from later in his career. While many pieces were easily recognizable, his high-profile paintings like Guernica were housed elsewhere, scattered throughout many other famous museums around the world. I translated with interest from index cards that still life in Spanish is naturaleza muerta, which translates literally to dead nature.
We next walked towards the water where the clustered buildings of the city parted to an open blue sky backed with palm trees and a large ferris wheel announcing the boardwalk. Lined with shops and white sails visible from the water we advanced in search of a path to the beach. Skimming to the left and perusing shops, we still couldn't find a path. We found our place on our map provided by our hostel and instead took a right until the boardwalk ended and we found ourselves further out from the city towards a bus station. All the time we were following the water but were blocked by chained gates.
By this time we realized most restaurants had closed for siesta, so we crossed over the street nearing the city center and found a patio table of a local place still taking guests. We asked only for recommendations and the server brought out beers in stemmed glasses and plates to share. The first was mystery curlicues of fried fish and onions with a tangy cream-based sauce. Next, patatas bravas with harissa aioli, a dish that we came to love and crave throughout the trip. Last, whole, bone-in sardines atop across crushed tomatoes. Tomatoes, we learned, were perhaps the biggest staple of Spanish food.
Refreshed, we walked back to the city center and found that the Alcazaba (one of my favorite words "Al-ca-thabba," which simply means a walled fortification in a city) had free entry. Beside it was the cathedral. The Alcazaba, made entirely of stone, were a series of tiered ramps and steps leading up to what promised to be an incredible view. There were challenging parapets along the way of steep, rail-less steps leading to various overviews.
At the pinnacle of the Alcazaba were open chambers overlooking the city that had been converted to small exhibits housing a diorama, histories of the architecture, and shards of pottery. At the time of the trip, I was to present a photography show about texture entitled Esthesia, scheduled two weeks after we were to land back in the states. The aged beauty of these chambers entranced me and I gathered lots of material here.
At this point we were in the peak of the heat, and with relief we found a shaded bar at the top overlooking the city and the Mediterranean Sea. We stopped for chilled white wine. This was our second affirmation that drinks were very, very inexpensive here. I think each glass was €1.50. From this viewpoint, we noted in the distance that there was yet another steep pathway leading to a fortress, which, we were informed was Castillo Gibralfaro.
This was our first real vacation day, and it was nearing dinnertime, but the sun was still going strong. Umar had bought a new pair of chacos last minute for the trip and they had begun to rub blisters. I think had it not been for the most fantastic view Málaga could afford, we would have gone back to the hostel to rest until mealtime. Re-invigorated by the wine, we set off towards the Gibralfaro. Most incredible to me was not how steep the stone pathway up was, but how slippery. The stone had been worn into slick, flat pavement, and in our sandals we could barely make it up. Because this was a fortress, my mind kept going back to armored soldiers, heavy and metallic. How could they possibly have made it up? I suppose the way was rougher, more grooved, that long ago.
Once we had made it up and passed through the check-in point (free once again!), we were greeted by the most ancient guardian cat we had ever seen. In a fit of concern, Umar insisted the cat needed water. He searched along the walkway and found a discarded plastic water bottle cap near a fountain. Carefully he filled up the miniature vessel and re-traced back to the cat to present it before him. The cat looked at the water, looked at Umar, and walked away.
The Gibralfaro was not as beautiful as the Alcazaba. It was rough and utilitarian without the curated gardens and painted chambers, but it did have gorgeous views of the city below and of the Cordillera Penibética mountain ranges. The main use was as a fortress, and there were stolid ramparts encasing the perimeter.
As the heat subsided, we came back down into the city center and passed by murals to a craft beer bar, which, admittedly, was fairly touristy, considering craft beer is not in high demand in Spain, but we needed something cold. We were humored to recognize Dale's Pale Ale among the dozens in the selection. We both got Spanish beers on tap, though I can't remember a thing about them.
We went back to the hostel to rest. The front desk sold bottles of wine (no judgement, this is the vacation way). We picked up a red and climbed the steps, exhausted. I awoke to find our room empty. I went in search of Umar to the patio, where he and our bottle of wine had made friends. He poured me a glass and introduced me to two American students here on a study abroad program (one of their name's was also Audrey), a young American solo traveler (he programmed for Amazon for a few years and then quit in disgust of consumerism and left to travel the world with his massive programmer salary savings), and an older English and Dutch couple (the English wife, Vicky, abhorred Picasso and I went on a defensive rant about his pioneering sense of humor, depression, and bravery, to which she had no comment and the room became momentarily silent).
We arranged to have dinner with the two students, but they took so long to get ready that we left without them, and found that the restaurant we were to meet them at had stopped serving food for the night. We thus became aware of the unfortunate fact that this American rumor that Spaniards often don't even leave to go out until midnight did not extend to the kitchen hours. Sadly many food places were closed, so we settled on Picasso Tapas Bar, which was disingenuous. Málaga does not have a true tapas scene, like we would later discover in Granada. Here I learned the very important phrase "vino secco" meaning "dry wine" after accidentally ordering the headache-inducing Málaga port.
After this we decided to try out a discoteque somewhat accidentally. As we walked along exploring, a woman who we guiltily at first thought might be a prostitute began to draw people into an old wooden building, which guards revealed to have flashing red and green lights inside every time they led a group through. After watching a few people pass through and a bachelorette party leave from the side in gaiety, we drew closer. The woman sold us tickets and led us through as if it were a prohibition party, explaining that if we went with her, she would get us a drink.
The minute we got through we found an empty bar with slatted wood walls hung everywhere with mirrors, a smoke machine, and bad techno music. A handful of single men mulled around in boredom, apparently saddened at the loss of the bachelorette party, the dance floor now entirely empty. "Show the bartenders your ticket, for your drink," the women said. We were rewarded with a shot of butterscotch schnapps and then left immediately in horror. We went back out onto the street in search of a more bustling crowd, but finding none tried to use our tickets to get back inside so we could order something other than butterscotch schnapps."No," the guards said, to our surprise. "You only come in once."
Feeling foolish we realized this was a tourist trap and that you could simply brush past other guards into clubs without paying for a "ticket," which was really only to get you a drink, not entry (the first set of guards didn't want to give up the charade, apparently, to people who were dumb enough to buy a ticket--perhaps so you would not disclose how small and lame the crowd was). We bounced in and out of a few more places, no longer drinking but people-watching, and lastly ended at a dive bar with tinted red lights and a live band where an older, more local-looking crowd was dancing on an audibly sticky floor.
We turned in around two, which was ironically the latest we were to stay out on the whole of our trip, and slept solidly until morning. We ate another breakfast of fresh fruit once again on beautiful patterned plates and then packed our bags to head to the bus station. This turned out to be about a thirty-minute walk--no small feat when you are traversing cobblestone streets with roller carry ons in tow under the hot sun after a whole day of over-enthusiastic vacation drinking.
We arrived, sweaty, exactly on time and Umar promptly stretched out across my lap and fell asleep while I tried with difficulty to eat an apple with my remaining unpinned arm. The two hour bus ride was heart-breakingly beautiful. There were stretches of land with lonely estates and mountain ranges along the way. In a sense I was glad to experience this alone because with mounting emotion I realized that I was about to finally enter Granada, a place I've dreamed of for a decade.