Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Malaga part I

One of the dilemmas you encounter when you decide to visit a country as big and diverse as Spain is: where should I go? Do I go to the Basque region in the North West, where they allegedly have the best food in the world? (San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per head of the population than any other city in the world). Do I take the easy route and go to Barcelona, like everybody else? (Barcelona is the only city in Europe that takes in more tourists than their national capital) or do I go to the capital Madrid, a large and noisy city which would be right to my liking? In the end, I let the decision be taken out of my hands. 

My friend Esty is from Malaga and she convinced me to go there. She just kept going on about how great it is and how awesome the food is, that I decided to see what all the fuzz was about. Luckily, Ryanair fly to Malaga 3 times a day, so it wasn't difficult to get a reasonably priced flight. And so I set off for Andalusia on Friday morning at 7, with a weather forecast of 28* ahead of me and a book about Andalusia on the seatback table in front of me. 

The region of Andalusia is surprisingly large. At nearly 88.000 square kilometres, it's roughly the size of Portugal. It has a population of 8.5 million which is the same as Scotland and the Republic of Ireland combined. Andalusia is a big place. Despite it being the second biggest recognised autonomous region within Spain, most people don't know too much about it. There is no noisy independence movement like there is in Catalonia, who even have their own national football team. This is not some pub team that plays in a local park, but a seriously good team with players from, among others, FC Barcelona, Getafe and Real Betis. Their manager is Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest players ever.  Andalusia also doesn’t have an explosive rebel army that regularly blows up strategic targets in Madrid and other ‘Spanish’ areas, like the ETA do in the name of Basque independence.  In short, I knew next to nothing about Andalusia, apart from the fact that it is home to the city of Seville where Celtic played in the UEFA Cup final in 2003. 50.000 Celtic fans descended on the city and partied the week away, despite the team losing the final. I got myself a Lonely Planet on Andalusia, since I could not find a city guide just focusing on Malaga, so I entertained myself by reading through chapters about cities I wasn’t going to visit, or at least not on this trip. 
To be honest, I wasn’t really planning to do any serious sightseeing that would necessitate a book. I just wanted a trip that guaranteed sunshine and temperatures pushing 30 degrees, after my previous trip to Belarus that had yielded only snow. I arrived at Malaga airport at around 11 local time and jumped on the bus outside the terminal to get to the city centre. The next day, I found out 3 things: the airport has a train station, the train takes you much closer to where my hostel was, and the train is cheaper. It didn’t really matter though, as the weather was fantastic and Malaga is a nice city to walk around in. I only went down a wrong street on 2 or 3 occasions so I arrived at my hostel about half an hour later.  I had a chat with the girls at reception and found out that check in wasn’t for another hour and a half so I dropped my bag in the luggage area and went for another walk in the sunshine. I had a look at the main square, found a couple of ice cream shops, some restaurants and, surprisingly, a violin shop.  I decided that it was time for a beer so I presented myself at the bar of a restaurant that had a seating area right in the sunshine, so I ordered a local beer and planted myself on a high chair outside.

I enjoyed myself immensely, sipping my ice cold beer and thumbing through my guide book while soaking up the mediteranean sunshine. Life was good.  I checked into my hostel, found to my chagrin that I had a top bunk, but then found to my joy that the hostel had 2 bars; one on the roof and one on the ground floor at reception. This was good news. I made my way up to the rooftop bar, ordered a beer and had another half hour of sitting-in-the-sun practice. This day was getting better by the hour. I found that I was getting a bit peckish and decided to get lunch.

Meal times in Spain take some getting used to, if you’re unfamiliar with the Spanish way of life.  I went out for a drink with my aforementioned Spanish friend a couple of weeks ago, and she suggested to go in the afternoon, after lunch.  “After lunch”, in Spain, means around 5.30. Spanish people don’t even start thinking about dinner until most people here in Ireland have worked their dinner and at least 8 pints down their throat.  Nobody in Spain thinks anything of having dinner around midnight, but I always try to adjust to the local way of life wherever I go, so I decided to just have a little snack to wear off the hunger. I sat down at a small corner restaurant and ordered a special that was advertised on the wooden chef outside. “5 tapas for 7 EURO” the sign said, so I ordered that and a pint of Cruzcampo and sat down in the sun again. 


The tapas were excellent, there was a small plate of paella, a tiny omelette, a little bowl of garlic soup, a salad and some meatballs in spicy tomatoe sauce. I enjoyed my mid afternoon snack and worked some more on my ‘walking in the sunshine’skills, which is ofcourse one of my favorite things to do (it comes right after ‘drinking beer in the sunshine’).  I decided to head back to the hostel towards the end of the afternoon (or, just coming up to lunch time, as they would have it in Spain) but made one more stop. My friend had written me a long list with cool places to eat an drink and one of them had the totally awesome name of El Pimpi.
Now before you start imagining a Shaft theme-bar or something dedicated to mid 70s disco, this is a traditional Spanish wine bar. Well, it’s not exactly just a wine bar, because the place has expanded continuously over the years and now covers nearly an entire block. The original wine bar is still there, and that was were I entered the place, and soon found myself lost in a rabbit warren of hallways, backrooms and dining areas. If I had been drunk, I probably would have spent a happy half hour getting utterly lost without ever finding the outside terrace or a bar. As it was, I managed to navigate the complex in a minute or two so I sat myself down in the sunshine once again and ordered a sweet white wine.

Yes, you read that correctly, sweet white wine. I don’t normally drink that anywhere, but it was recommended so I decided to give it a try. It came with a bowl of olives (I was really starting to like the Spanish custom of serving small snacks with your drink) so I had a sip and took in the surroundings. El Pimpi now consists of a whole bunch of buildings, including the wine bar, a stretch of dining rooms and an ice cream shop. It really is quite a sight. The courtyard was beautiful, full of tables, plants and trees that were all scattered around seemingly at random. At the centre of it were a small cart and a big wooden cask, manned by a girl in traditional Andalusion dress and with a red flower in her hair. She theatrically poured glasses of sherry for tourists, using a long iron spoon. I watched her for a while, both because it was interesting to see her pour drinks in the most difficult way possible and because she was very pretty, finished my wine and my olives and decided to make my way back to the hostel. 

At the hostel, I got a 1 euro beer from the downstairs bar (Score!) and made my way to the garden where a group of Americans were having a drink. I joined them and after the usual ‘where are you from- where are you going’ introductory talk, they informed me that paella was on the menu in the hostel. This certainly interested me. I had intended to go out for dinner, but if they were making paella right here in the hostel, that would be fine for me too. As there was some time to kill before the paella cooking demo, I moved to the roof again, where it was now really quite busy. I got a bottle of beer, got some people who weren’t as cool as me to move over and spent another happy half hour in the sun. When paella time came around, I found that the chef, another pretty girl in a kilt and Doc Martens boots, would be cooking in the garden, so I walked to the local liquor store, acquired a couple of 40s and rejoined my American friends for some pre-dinner drinking. 
The chef at work

For those of you who don’t know what 40s are, they are Big bottles of beer, 40 fluid ounces to be exact, hence the name. They were made popular mainly by early 90s rap groups like NWA and still have some sort of popularity with American students for some reason. In any case, for the Europeans out there, they contain just over a litre, or nearly 2 pints of beer and so will last you a  bit longer. This is in no way an advantage if you’re sitting in 30 degree heat, but anyway, I’m drifiting off a bit here and  you probably don’t really care about the history of American gangster rapper beer, so let’s get back to the paella. The chef went to work with one of those big paella pans and put in on a big cooker with 5 burners.

She put the whole contraption in the garden so that she could chat with us while she was working, and we could take in some tips on how to make real paella. It takes quite a while to cook paella the right way, so we spent a happy hour talking and drinking until the paella was finished. The paella was great and I had a great night at the hostel. I had planned to go out in the city that night,but as happens every now and then in hostels, the atmosphere was great so we all decided that we might just as well stay there. And so that's what we did.

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