Ancient history combines with the beauty of everything natural at this seaside Spanish city, says Usha Subramaniam.

Last June, we landed accommodation at an upscale resort nestled up a hill in Riviera del Sol in village Mijas Costa (say MEE-haas), 40 km west of Malaga, one of eight provinces of Andalusia in Southern Spain. The AVE devoured 537 km in two-and-a-half hours at top speeds of up to 300 km/hr. The scenery was unremarkable, save one striking feature: olive trees that dot the entire countryside. Ah well, Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil!

The train softly glided into Malaga’s biggest of three stations: Maria Zambrano. The dour taxi driver agreed to take us all, luggage included, at €60 to our apart-hotel.

Top golf destination

First impressions as we sped along the autopista overlooking the placid blue Mediterranean: balmy, bustling, sprawling, modern, uber-cool. Towards Mijas, stacked up the hillside, we spied charming pueblos blancos, white villages, that this region is famous for. Past Torremolinos (a favourite with Britons), Benalmadena and Fuengirola, we climbed up the verdant hillside into the community of Riviera del Sol where classy, edgy vacation homes and apartments overlook lush golf courses and the blue Mediterranean beyond. Incredibly blissful.

Spain is one of the world’s top golf destinations. Malaga, in particular, is dotted with over 50 golf courses, 18 around Mijas alone. La Cala Resort nearby is one of the biggest in Spain. On the route to Granada, we passed by yet another golf course whose development was later stalled when Malaga began to experience water scarcity. With each golf course reportedly consuming roughly 500,000 m3 of water annually, this rethink was welcomed by many. Malaga — so-called capital of Costa del Sol — and its environs have abundant sunshine, dazzlingly beautiful beaches, blue sea and clean sand making it hugely popular with British, Germanic and Nordic tourists. Many buy vacation homes here; some settle down for good.

Barely 10 miles west of Mijas Costa lies the stunning jewel, Marbella. Studded with plush hotels, casinos, sprawling mansions, luxurious yachts, sophisticated restaurants, Marbella is the playground of rich and famous international celebrities, among them Antonio Banderas who was born in Malaga, Sean Connery, Prince Fahd, to name a few.

To lounge within the comfortable Mijas resort, managed by a UK vacation homes company, or to venture out was our dilemma. We explored some.

At the foot of Alcazaba (1000-year old Moorish palace-fortress), lie the ruins of Teatro Romano, built 2,000 years ago during Augustus Caesar’s time. The amphitheatre’s seating area has a radius of 31 meters. We could clearly discern the renovated parts from the colour and texture of stone slabs. A small glass prism rose from street-level through which we could see ancient stonework below.

Hugging the hill, once lapped by sea water, rose the sprawling palace-fortress, Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, built by Moorish rulers. I gawped at the massive complex, how daunting it must have appeared a millennium ago. Though limestone was largely used, Roman columns, stones and beams were conveniently appropriated from the disused theatre below. However, owing to India’s multitudinous Islamic forts and palaces, we felt teased by déjà vu.

We backtracked and climbed a steep outer slope to Gibralfaro. A small interpretation centre is housed within the erstwhile gunpowder room and one can climb the high perimeter walls of the fortress which afford awesome views of Malaga port, city and bay.

Incidentally, the word Gibralfaro possibly derives from Phoenician roots “Gebel faro” indicating a lighthouse dating to Phoenician era perhaps existed overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and the castle was subsequently built by Moors over ruins of this. Malaga has been continuously inhabited for three millennia, having been founded by ancient Phoenicians, then invaded by Romans, then Arabs until, finally, Catholic monarchs declared their supremacy in August 1487, an event ever since showily celebrated each year.

Think Spain and bullfights cannot be far behind. Er... actually we didn’t watch one (our itinerary was already squeezed), nevertheless, we had a perfect view of the bullring as we climbed down from Gibralfaro. Plaza de Toros La Malagueta is right in the city centre and within walking distance of La Malagueta beach. May be we should have watched a bullfight after all, what with Barcelona seeing the end of the bullfight tradition last September.

The friendly banter of Spaniards was comforting perhaps because we Indians are generally convivial, familial. One sees large families in metros and buses and a cheerful “holà” is all it takes to find your way around letting gestures and expressions do the rest.

Malaga is smartly laid out with plenty of parks. The 19th century Paseo del Parque is a particularly lovely one-km stretch to walk among palms, trees and sculptures. Picasso’s birthplace, Malaga Costa del Sol Airport is also known as Pablo Ruiz Picasso Airport. Museo Picasso displays over 200 of his works.

Dozens of places nearby beg to be explored. Ronda, Sevilla, Granada, Marbella, wine tours, Alfarnatejo’s olive groves, Nerja caves, Gibraltar (100km west of Malaga), Cordoba, phew! Not to mention the dozens of blue-flagged beaches. We managed tours of Granada and Sevilla, yes, though Gibraltar and its Rock fell off our exploration map since a multiple-entry Schengen visa is mandatory when re-entering Spain from the UK territory.

Ronda’s mountainous vistas and Nerja caves were sorely tempting but vacations are always about “so much to see but so little time.” On clear days, the African continent is clearly visible especially from the cable car that carries people from Benalmadena up to the mountains during a 15-minute ride.

We’re determined to revisit Malaga for its natural beauty, the sea, water sports, mountains, year-round perfect weather, art hubs, nightlife, golf, bullfights, football clubs, nudist beaches (we spied a board leading to a secluded nudist beach near Benalmadena), shopping at the mercados or at the delightful flea markets of villages, cobbled streets, more ruins for us history buffs, excursions into wine country or a hop across the sea into Tangiers in Africa.

HOW TO GET THERE

By Air: Services are available by several international airlines, connecting via cities like Brussels, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Zurich and Madrid. If transiting via London, do verify prevailing UK visa rules. For budget airline connection between a European city and Malaga, there’s low-cost airlines like easyJet, Ryanair, Germanwings and AirBerlin.

By Rail: While overnight rail journeys save time and hotel nights, rail journeys across Europe to/from Malaga would be time consuming due to its location in the deep south of Spain.