Breaking out of a personality bypass

Malaga is sprucing up its image. Charlotte Edwards reports

Spend a week in Malaga? Great. Next year, perhaps we'll check out the sights in Luton or book a fortnight in Newark. And I've heard that everybody's going to Orly these days.

Spend a week in Malaga? Great. Next year, perhaps we'll check out the sights in Luton or book a fortnight in Newark. And I've heard that everybody's going to Orly these days.

Malaga is famous for being en route to somewhere else, rather than somewhere to go. It's the self-proclaimed capital of the Costa del Sol, but, with most low-cost airlines flying there twice daily, it sees millions of sun-seekers just passing through every year on their way to Torremolinos and Marbella. A gateway, too, for tourists to Gibraltar, Granada and even far-flung Cordoba, Malaga itself - capital of the Sunshine Coast or not - surely deserves to remain in the shadows?

Even the Spanish tourist board seems inclined to agree. Brochures wax lyrical about the region's many attractions - so near and yet so far-removed from this "important commercial and seafaring city, with over 550,000 inhabitants". They make it sound like Felixstowe.

To be fair, they have got a lot to brag about - there's enough sightseeing to be done within a short drive of Malaga airport to keep tourists busy for two weeks. And in the August heat, the pueblos blancos of the Sierra, the caves at Nerja, the staggering ravine and ancient bullring of Ronda, and those 24 Blue Flag beaches would all win hands-down over a few days in any bustling city.

But Malaga's luck could be set to change - thanks, largely, to its most famous son, Pablo Picasso. Until very recently, the only "monument" Malaga possessed to honour the artist was his birthplace and home in the Plaza de la Merced.

Like Mozart's disappointing Figarohaus in Vienna, there isn't much to see here - just four walls, really, long since scrubbed of any childhood daubs. But a bequest by Christine Ruiz-Picasso, the artist's daughter-in-law, and Bernard, her son, will bring Picasso's work to his native city for the first time. A total of 187 works spanning his career - including major paintings such as Girl and Doll (1896/7), Olga Koklova with Mantilla (1917), Mother and Child (1921/2), and Bather (1971) - will be housed in the newly renovated Palacio de Buenavista, in the heart of the city. No Gehry commissions here - the Palace, built between 1530 and 1540, at the height of the development of Renaissance-Mudejar architecture in Andalusia, was chosen as a historical monument, identifying the collection with the land that produced it. Formerly the Museum of Fine Arts, the Palace is being expanded to include a reading room, garden, temporary exhibition galleries and an auditorium. The authorities are well aware that museums have moved on.

The grand unveiling of the new collection was scheduled for summer this year, but an opening date has yet to be announced. It's easy to overlook the Palace at the moment - the crumbling fortress is silent, the doors chained. A sign confirms the building's future and the value of the Ruiz-Picasso donation (Pta25bn; £1bn) - but as far as the development is concerned, it looks to be a typical case of " mañana, mañana".

Sheets draped from the balconies of derelict houses nearby, due to be bulldozered to make way for the museum, are painted with the slogan "Save the Calle de San Agustin". It's clear that the Junta de Andalusia hasn't won everyone round to the idea of buying international fame and fortune with a sparkling cafeteria and research centre.

But if the gallery gets off the ground, Malaga must brace itself for an influx of art-hungry visitors - that swelling club of cosmopolitan culture-vultures who were first in the queue when Bilbao's Guggenheim and London's Tate Modern opened their doors. And it won't be a moment too soon.

Anticipating the success of the Picasso collection, the city's major monuments are being dusted down and spruced up. On the busy Calle Alcazabilla, the bougainvillea are dusty from the efforts of labourers at the roadside amphitheatre as they improve access for visitors, and wipe out the last traces of a cultural centre installed there - don't laugh - by Franco.

The theatre is a ruin of Roman Malaga, when, as Malaka, it was a prized port, ferrying the celebrated muscatel grapes and wines, silk, fish and almonds to the rest of the empire. Climbing the battlements above it, however, is a step forward in time to the capital of the Moorish Hammudi kingdom, when King Badis built on existing Phoenician strongholds to bolster his new conquest's defences.

The Alcazaba, linked by ancient fortifications to the Castillo de Gibralfaro higher up the hill, is a gradated labyrinth of rose gardens and courtyards, with a bird's-eye view of the city from the summit. It housed, until recently, the archaeological museum - an excellent collection of local Roman and Moorish artefacts. At present, to honour the city's widespread overhaul, the collection is sealed off while improvements are made to the site, and visitors can wander around the ruins for free. Decapitated Roman statues and broken marble columns litter the gardens - deep, dry, stone fountains are mounted on columns of brick. Reorganisation should transform it into a compelling open-air museum of Malaga's hybrid architecture - although it's hard to see how this will better the current charms of this ramshackle, surprising attic-room.

The Roman theatre's no Colosseum; the Alcazaba's no Alhambra. Malaga seems to make it its business to do things by halves, and it's all the more charming for it. Even the Cathedral is nicknamed La Manquita - "the cripple" - because its second bell-tower was never completed.

The city's centre of worship is flawed, too, by its own secret history - it was built, by order of the Mudejar monarchs, over an ancient mosque. So despite being championed as one of the best examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture, the cathedral isn't a model of harmony and concord. Its exterior is surprising, with numerous Gothic additions. Inside, ornate chapels, paintings by Cano, Morales and Coello, and the 17th-century choir stalls are less challenging. A winding stairway leads to the claret-coloured rooms of the old episcopal palace, containing treasures of sacred art.

The cathedral is the centrepiece of the old quarter of Malaga - around it are woven the Pasaje Chinitas, a network of gardens and patio courtyards.

Here, there are signs that the city is willing to acknowledge its two-headed ancestry, giving rise to a pleasing clutter and confusion. Tapas bars spill out onto the pavement and jostle for space with Arab tea-houses; the conventional elegance of baroque churches on the city skyline is interrupted by the Mudejar Santiago tower.

The city isn't the stuff of package tours, whatever the flotilla of cabbies touting scenic horse-and-carriage rides may promise you. There are ugly high-rise blocks to match the elegant shopping arcades off the Plaza de la Marina - the port is no picturesque Mediterranean fishing cove.

The long, cool gardens of the Paseo del Parque are landscaped pleasure-grounds, but the city's beach - the Playas de la Malagueta - is grey and gravelly, a little too close to that port for comfort.

So it's not quaint, it's not quiet. Its one great selling-point isn't even finished, yet. But Malaga will seduce anyone who takes time to explore it. Multifaceted, never too pretty, sometimes ugly, always surprising. No wonder Picasso painted the way he did.

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