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Secrets of Andalusia

It was in Libertad 8, a smoky neighborhood bar in Madrid, that the urge to visit Andalusia—the seductive southernmost region of Spain—stole upon me like an insistent tropical wind. My friend and I fell into conversation with two men and a girl, actors from Cádiz having a night out on the town. The encounter was typically Spanish: perfect strangers coming together over copas (drinks) and confessions. We asked them about Andalusia.

The men paused for a moment, groping for words, and suddenly then broke into song—a moody, haunting chant, punctuated by perfectly placed finger snaps and clapping.

The girl stamped her heels, the men shouted "Olé!" and it was all over. But their melancholy singing nearly brought us to tears. Our reaction had a name: duende, the emotional audience response that accompanies every true flamenco performance.

This outburst gave way to Andalusian alegría: more copas, kisses, explosions of laughter. The men began to spin tall tales about the magical light of Cádiz, the witches of Vejer de la Frontera, the orange-blossom scents of Seville, and bottomless barrels of sherry. And they rhapsodized about the food: a mix of Arab indulgence, Catholic devoutness, Jewish resourcefulness, and a pinch of Gypsy magic.

My new friends' telephone numbers dissolved in a drop of the evening's red wine. But I remembered their stories. I wanted to sip ice-cold Manzanilla—the queen of dry sherries—while watching the sun set over Sanlúcar de Barrameda . . . to feast on a Málaga fish-fry, so crisp and delicate that it tastes like edible lace. I longed to receive a convent cake from a thin black-cuffed hand and walk away overcome by sweet piety. I pictured blue-tiled patios, coral gazpachos, and processions of tapas strung out on marble counters.

This was the Andalusia of my imagination. Would a nine-day adventure—starting in Málaga and looping back through the Spanish southlands to Cádiz—bring my fantasies to life?

Day 1.
Málaga, Costa del Sol

"Sorry, luv, all so bloody similar, aren't they!" barks a ruddy-faced British gent at the Málaga airport as I disengage his chubby fingers from my suitcase. So this is Andalusia's greeting: "luv"?But then, 14 flights from Gatwick are arriving today at this gateway to the Costa del Sol, Europe's Cancún and Acapulco rolled into one.

Pepe, my wiry taxi driver, never stops prattling in the frantic but matter-of-fact Andalusian way: "My niece, the hairdresser, just got to curl the Virgin's wig for the procession. You're off to Torremolinos?The fish-and-chips place there is so good, you'll feel you're back in Londres."

"Mire, Pepe," I manage to interject, "I'm from New York, I have little interest in fish-and-chips, and I plan to linger in Málaga for a bit."

Pepe takes both hands off the wheel and thrusts them into the air in jubilation. "Fenomenal! Six million tourists descend on the Costa del Sol each summer, but only six percent actually visit Málaga."

I am a statistical blip, and this calls for a copita and a tapa. How can I refuse him? After all, I'm in the most fanatically friendly region of the world's most compulsively sociable country.

We begin at a nameless bar—so packed with men, it's like a museum of mustaches—drinking raisiny-sweet vino de Málaga dispensed from black wooden barrels. A couple of mustaches, Pepe's new pals, tag along to the next bar, Orellana. The air is thick with shouts and orders. After a few excellent tapas—bártolos (breaded hake fingers), boquerones (marinated anchovies), and a miniature paella—we move on to Lo Güeno, festooned with hanging hams and garlands of garlic and sausages. Over plates of lovely sautéed wild mushrooms, fava-bean casserole, and tiny roasted game birds, Pepe explains the malagueño coffee-and-milk protocol. Solo is all coffee. No me lo pongas ("Don't put any in mine") is all milk. In between, there are 20 different shades of color and flavor with poetic names like sombra (shadow) and nube (cloud).

Finally alone, at the spiffily refurbished Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro, I stretch out on my balcony to take in the dazzling view of the Málaga harbor. My companion, John, arrives—from Gatwick, of all places.

It's 10 p.m. A Málaga architect named Salvador whisks us to a local seafood place in the village of La Carihuela, near Torremolinos. With its cheery striped awning, no-nonsense interior, and wall-to-wall crowd of regulars, El Roqueo is an upmarket incarnation of a chiringuito, an Andalusian beach shack specializing in seafood.

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