In search of... Picasso in Malaga

This city is back on the map, thanks to a new museum dedicated to its most famous son. So what's it like inside? Simone Kane takes a look
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The Independent Travel

The less well-trodden Spanish cities, those you normally pass through en route to somewhere else, often reveal hidden depths, and Malaga is a fine example. Cheap flights have long been available to the nearby airport, providing inexpensive access to the the Costa del Sol. But the opening of the Picasso Museum late last year, which celebrates the work of Malaga's most famous son, provides a newly compelling reason to visit the city itself.

The less well-trodden Spanish cities, those you normally pass through en route to somewhere else, often reveal hidden depths, and Malaga is a fine example. Cheap flights have long been available to the nearby airport, providing inexpensive access to the the Costa del Sol. But the opening of the Picasso Museum late last year, which celebrates the work of Malaga's most famous son, provides a newly compelling reason to visit the city itself.

Please don't try telling me that Malaga is attractive ...

OK, so from the outskirts it looks all apartment blocks and shopping centres. But behind the veil of modern development lies the city's true heart; the old town. Bordered to the west by the dried-up rio Guadalmedina, to the north by the calles Carreteria and Mariblanca and to the east by the Moorish Alcazaba and Castillo de Gibralfaro, the historic centre opens up to face the glittering Med. This network of narrow, shaded streets and sunny squares contains all the main sights as well as the hub of the city's bustling nightlife. Everything is within walking distance. In fact, the only way to explore is on foot. Make your way past the ancient, crumbling buildings, which are slowly being restored, to the Picasso Museum on calle San Agustin. It's housed in a national monument, no less - a typically Andalusian, early 16th-century mansion, built around an internal square patio.

So, what's inside?

The building has been sympathetically renovated and expanded and the clean, modern lines of the galleries coexist happily with the building's historic detail. The house has become part of the exhibition, because the renovations uncovered ruins from the Phoenician period to the Renaissance, which are on show in the lower level. On the other two floors, four galleries are given over to temporary exhibitions and 12 rooms house the permanent collection of more than 200 of Picasso's works, making this the third largest Picasso museum in the world. Donated or permanently loaned from the private collections of the artist's daughter-in-law and grandson, the impressive collection spans his career and all the media in which he worked, including sculptures, ceramics and prints, as well as paintings and drawings.

Is it an interesting collection?

It's an intensely personal, biographical collection. The pieces are those that Picasso kept or gave to his family. The women and children in his life feature heavily, from the grave, traditional-style portraits of his sister, such as Little Girl and her Doll (1896-1897), and of his first wife, Olga, with their son, Paulo, in Mother and Child (1921-1922), through the Cubist and Cubist-Surrealist renderings of the later loves in his life in Portrait of a Woman with a Green-Collar Dress (1938) and Woman with Arms Crossed Behind her Head (1939). It is possible to see how the shifts in his artistic style seem to mirror the significant changes in his life.

Just one criticism; the officiousness of the place. We only found out once we had paid and entered the interior patio of the Palacio de Buenavista, the main museum building, that we couldn't take the buggy into the galleries. Considering the likelihood of visits by family holidaymakers, searching for a cultural break from the beach, it's something that needs to be addressed. In the end, we had to split forces and view the collection in shifts. Not very satisfactory.

Where else can I track him down?

Five minutes from the museum is the popular Plaza de la Merced, site of the Casa Natal de Picasso (the artist's birthplace), now home to the Picasso Foundation, a centre mainly for research that also has small exhibitions and a limited display of the artist's work. The square - lined with cafés and bars that come alive in the evening - is still inhabited by the doves that are a leitmotif in Picasso's art.

We had tea just around the corner at a teteria, one of the city's Arab teashops, then headed towards the bullring, the Plaza de Toros de La Malagueta - an early source of inspiration. In just 20 minutes you can stroll by the Parroquia de Santiago church on calle Granada, the scene of Picasso's christening, to the towering walls of the bullring and contemplate Picasso's love of the bloody corrido.

That's enough Picasso. Is there anything else to see?

Plenty. The Alcazaba is an impressive testament to seven centuries of prosperous Moorish rule; most of the palace-fortress complex dates from the 11th century and the Roman columns dotted around its walls are a reminder that it stands on a much older site. At the entrance on calle Alcazabilla, at the base of the Alcazaba, the remains of the city's Roman theatre, atmospherically lit at night, are being excavated. The Alcazaba's grounds alone are worth a wander. Cobbled ramps, ancient arches, terraces and viewpoints are interspersed with gardens laid out to a traditional Moorish design, bisected by tinkling irrigation channels.

The city's other great monument to its Moorish past is the Castillo de Gibralfaro, which seems to stand guard above the city. Make the slow climb up the hill, through gardens, towers and ramparts to the 11th-century fort. Make the journey as the sun begins to dip and watch the walls turn pink. Malaga and the coast lies ahead of you, the heady scent of the pines fill the air. Stop for a drink on the terrace of the Parador Malaga-Gibralfaro, and look down on the old town, where the evening paseo is likely to be getting under way.

I'm convinced. So how do I get there?

I stayed as a guest of the Malaga Centro. Double rooms cost from €68 (£48) per night booked through Keytel International (020-7616 0300; www.keytel.co.uk). EasyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) flies to Malaga from £45 return. Car hire with Alamo (0870 400 4562; www.alamo.co.uk) costs from £96 per week.

Museo Picasso (00 34 902 44 33 77; www.museopicassomalaga.org) is open 10am-8pm Tues-Thurs and Sundays and 10am-9pm Fridays and Saturdays. Admission: €6 collection, €4.50 exhibitions, €8 combined; children under 10 free.

The Alcazaba is open 9.30am-7pm Tues-Sun, and Castillo de Gibralfaro 9.30am-6pm daily. Call 00 34 952 22 51 06 for information on both. Admission: €1.80.

Casa Natal de Picasso, Plaza de la Merced, 15 (00 34 952 21 50 05; www.fundacionpicasso.es) is open 10am-2pm and 5pm-7pm daily. Admission: free.

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