Spain Art and Soul. IAIN MAYHEW Enjoys Laid-Back Malaga, Birthplace of Picasso

Article excerpt

Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

ON the face of it - and usually the face had one eye in the top lefthand corner, another at the bottom and two large breasts for a nose - Pablo Picasso was a lucky man.

For a start, he was born in Malaga and from his room at the top of a five-storey, green-shuttered townhouse overlooking the Plaza de la Merced he could watch the comings and goings of one of Spain's most attractive and underrated cities.

The precocious young artist - apparently as a baby his first word was "lapiz", or "pencil" - spent his prepubescent years skipping through the warren of cobbled streets and peering into dark, cavernous tapas bars where old men would sit sipping canas of beer under a panoply of huge Serrano hams.

Little Pablo would play in the leafy squares, scramble across the battlements of an ancient Arab fortress, swim in the warm Med off the city's beaches and then be hauled into the huge Gothic cathedral for Mass wearing his sunday best.

This idyllic childhood ended when he was 10 years old and his father got a teaching job in Northern Spain. Picasso swapped his pencils for a painter's palette, grew body hair, discovered women - lots of women - and never really looked back.

He died in 1973, but he's not forgotten here. Every October the city hosts a Picasso Festival of exhibitions and music which centres on the Picasso Museum (www.museopicassomalaga.org), a delightful former palace in the middle of the old town.

Up to 200 pieces of the painter's finest work are displayed here throughout the year. There are other festivals, too. For 11 days every August the whole city seems to stop working for the annual Feria. Women and schoolgirls put on colourful flamenco dresses and marquees (casetas) are set up in the squares and the broad avenidas.

Much eating, drinking and preening takes place during the day as thousands of Malaguenos take part in a giant tapas bar-crawl. They go home for a siesta then return to the streets in the evening for the paseo - a stroll around the old city - followed by a late dinner. During the Feria this pattern is interspersed with various activities, including the corrida (bull fights), horse riding and flamenco competitions.

Most holidaymakers rarely explore this bustling handsome city. Instead they arrive at Malaga Airport (about 2hr 30min from the UK) and turn right down to Fuengirola, Torremolinos, Marbella and the other Costa del Sol resorts.

It's a huge mistake. With its laid-back Spanish atmosphere, great tapas bars and plenty of history, Malaga is worth more than a passing visit and is ideal for a weekend winter break. Here's my brief guide...

SPEND THE MORNING...

ON the beach. Malaga's climate is warm year-round, baking hot in the height of summer and never too chilly in winter.

There are several sandy beaches near the city centre. A short stroll along the tree-lined Paseo del Parque will bring you to La Malagueta, an upmarket area of fancy beachside restaurants.

But it's well worth catching a Number 11 bus (EUR1.10) and heading off to the old fishing quarter of Pedregalejo.

At weekends it's packed with local families enjoying a dip - and meals of fresh fish, cockles and clams in one of the traditional restaurants, or chiringuitos, lining the promenade. And like most Spanish cities, Malaga has its El Corte Ingles, the ubiquitous department store which stocks everything from high-fashion pants to plates.

HAVE LUNCH AT...

ANY of more than 100 tapas bars dotted around the city. One of the best and most atmospheric is El Pimpi, a bodega tucked into an alleyway behind the cathedral.

Expect to pay around E15 a head for a selection of hams and cheeses washed down with a Rioja wine. For lunch with a view, a short taxi ride will take you to the Parador Gibralfaro (www. …