Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Sun Shines Bright On Spain’s Old Costa Home

(This is the first installment of a two-part article.)
Spain’s Costa del Sol has taken a lot of bad-mouthing recently. My first visits there—early March and late April last year—made it easy to see what all the grumbling was about. Nonetheless, that Sunny Coast still provides a cheap and interesting alternative for U.S. visitors eager to flee our snow and sleet.
I went under the auspices of Boston’s Grand Circle Travel (800-221-2610), the tour organizing group that began as the travel arm of the AARP. So the costs were astonishingly low. But from what I observed, I think individuals or couples could easily wing it as cheaply on their own, if they’re good at haggling.
First, the bad news—and there’s enough of that to justify some of the grousing. The Costa was such a convenient blessing for Brits condemned for life to miserable winters that once the happy word got out, overbuilding was almost a foregone conclusion.
Too many people in Eden leads to pollution of diverse and discouraging kinds: hooliganism and crime around night spots, long lines, dirty beaches and a certain nastiness of temper among both local help and transient visitors stemming from the foregoing.
And a grim recession prevails in the condo and time-share sectors of the Costa. Tens of thousands of expats—caught between lowered income and suddenly higher interest rates on their second mortgages back home—dumped their places in the sun onto a glutted market, with predictable consequences.
Articles in Lookout: Spain’s Magazine in English make me believe that the real estate troubles on the Costa won’t soon be resolved. (That monthly magazine, by the way, is a sprightly read for orienting yourself quickly to both discouraging conditions and evident opportunities.) Still, even such fiscal squeezes can work to the advantage of the bargain-seeker looking for good hotel and shopping buys.
Our group put up at the Costa Lago, a relatively new complex a block back from the beach. (But because it was new, it was also a brisk 15-minute walk from Torremolinos City Center, and a ten-minute muddy slog from the closest train between Malaga and Fuengirola—a discouraging experience on the few rainy days we encountered.)
Buses to Malaga stop in front of the hotel, but infrequently and only during the working day. Taxis are easy to book but relatively expensive—$15 to the nearby Malaga Airport (the terminals are also accessible by the rail line, if you have light luggage), and $25 to the RENFE train station in Malaga. Side trips to places of interest are easy to book at the hotel. Some of the most interesting sorties I just devised on my own.
Malaga is a marvel. In the city hall, I found a funky exhibition on consumer education for which the students of the region’s elementary schools had competed in creating comic books, posters and other peer-educating materials to teach each other their new rights as consumers.
That’s an exhilarating aspect of Iberia today for travelers curious enough to go beyond the traditional tourist stops to see how Spaniards live in the post-Franco era. A few weeks earlier, in Lisbon, I’d noticed the same phenomenon of a people lifting themselves up with a newfound sense of freedom.
A new tabloid newspaper, Publico, had just announced its first anniversary signal achievement. From scratch, it had become the largest-selling daily in Portugal. On the train into Lisbon from Cascais, I asked a handful of people who seemed enthralled with the tab why they preferred it. “It tells the truth,” was the invariable reply.
Since I’m a media maven, I decided to go out and schmooze with the editors. Before you could say “Vasco da Gama,” the editor in chief had tabbed a philosophy major who was fluent in English to take me from one editorial department to another. High-tech equipment was one answer to their success, but the most important one was that Publico was the first newspaper in the country’s history to put truth in reporting before partisanship.
For English-speaking visitors, the Malaga daily El Sur (“The South”) puts out a free weekly tabloid in English that’s indispensable for getting quick fixes on leisure activities (films, trips, lectures, concerts, art exhibitions) in the vicinity. It’s also illuminating on the problems confronting Spain’s tourist industry—such as the ex-pat crunch over unsold condos and the pollution crisis.
In fact, it was so well-edited that I decided to hop a bus and go out and talk with the staff. “Staff” is two thirtysomething Romance language majors from Merrie But Oh So Cold Olde England (Birmingham and Glasgow Universities) who drifted south to teach Spaniards English and ended up falling in love with Spaniards. Talk about romance languages.
On a Eurail rush through Malaga a few years back, I checked out the Moorish gardens stunningly garnishing the heights just off the downtown and places like the Picasso Museum just a short square away. (Picasso was born here, and the tourist industry being what it is, it was inevitable that the locals would capitalize on his pre-artistic childhood before his family moved to Barcelona.)
These places are not to be missed. I defy you not to be levitated by a calamari dinner in the open, one eye swiveling between the bustling seaport and the ancient fortifications.
On this visit, with more time to spare, I decided to check out the two major museums, just a short walk from the cathedral. The Fine Arts Museum is no Louvre, but it’s a sweetly recycled convent. And the Spanish holdings are respectable and solid—a Goya, a Murillo or two, a Zurbaran and some El Grecos. But more interesting to me was the temporary exhibition of local art students’ work. No masterpieces, but exciting activity showing how the muse was leavening the newest Malagueñas.
The Sacred Art Musuem is a more esoteric taste, but if you realize that it amounts to a sort of attic for the outcast furniture of the Bishop’s Palace over several centuries, it has an intellectual fascination of its own. Oddly, the final room contains homages to local hero Picasso, a few of which are actually aesthetically worthy of the object of their affections.
I had an interesting encounter at the front foyer of this museum while I was waiting for a phalanx of local students to get into gear. As an ex-seminarian, I get off on teasing priests. So when one youngish looking cleric approached me, I jibed: “Are you a Jesuit, Father, or a hard-working member of the clergy?”
He paused for a moment at this false dysjunction and replied suavely, “Neither, I’m the Bishop of Malaga.” Gulp. “Well, Your Grace, do you know where I can get a guide to your collections? I’m writing a travel story on Malaga.”
“Please wait here just a minute,” he advised.
I covered my blushes by asking the guard the bishop’s name, hoping to be less gauche on his return. “Father Ramon,” was his reply.
“Yes. The bishop is from Barcelona, and you know that Catalans are very down-to-earth people.”
Well, I guess.
(Look for the conclusion of Patrick’s Costa del Sol trip in the next Hazard-at-Large.)
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 28, 1992

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