Christmas on the Costa Del Sol

Christmas Like a Local in Malaga

An indulgent festive getaway bound to the traditions and gastronomy of southern Spain 
 
Writer: Phoebe Harper

 
The Costa del Sol is not the first destination that springs to mind when thinking of Christmas, with its golden beaches and streets lined with palm trees. But the Spanish city of Malaga is an overlooked gem for those seeking a festive season steeped in tradition, opulence and gastronomy. 
 
The first real taste of Christmas hits upon stepping into the Hotel Molina Lario, where a towering Christmas tree festooned with lights presides over the lobby. As part of the hotel’s seasonal metamorphosis - Dive into Xmas - the festive feeling is only amplified in the privacy of our rooms, where every detail has been painstakingly tended to – from chocolates on the pillow to the glowing star lights above the bed that lend a warmth and ambiance. Slightly at odds with the 22-degree heat outside, on entering the room, the TV comes to life with a roaring log fire accompanied by the dulcet tones of Michael Bublé. On the side table lies a beautifully wrapped festive delicacy of roscos de vino, alongside a bottle of the famous local sweet wine Quitapenas – literally translating as ‘wipe away your tears’.  
 
The Molina Lario itself is just a stone’s throw from Malaga’s magnificent Renaissance cathedral, right in the nexus of the historic centre. So close in fact, that the festive spectacle of a light show projected against the cathedral’s walls is visible from the balcony of the hotel’s specially decorated Christmas rooms. High above the crowds below, there is no better view. An entire Christmas story plays out in blaring lights on the tower to which the Cathedral owes its name – La Manquita – or, the amputee, so-named since the money allocated to its construction was re-directed to fund the American War for Independence. The tower has remained unfinished ever since.
 
A short walk from the hotel delivers us to the Calle Larios, the main road where the ultimate Christmas spectacular awaits with the daily evening light show. Heavenly angels are the theme of this year’s decoration, and music blares out from speakers along the street as the lights chime in time – Feliz Navidad gets the crowd moving followed by more traditional Spanish Christmas songs like Campana Sobre Campana. We stand amongst the hordes in the street, packed tightly together under the 730,000 LED lights like the shoals of boquerones – a kind of anchovy that we gorge on coated in light dustings of batter outside the central market the following day. The fish have become a proud motif of Malaga, a nickname for the city’s natives and the players of the local football team. 
 
As the final fairy light fades, we stroll through the Plaza de la Constitución, where hundreds gather at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to partake in the local tradition – a single grape consumed for each chime of the bell. With the night chill drawing in from the coast, we warm ourselves with glasses of sweet wine in the historic Bodega El Pimpi – a local favourite now owned by Malaga resident, Antonio Banderas. His name graces one of the many wine barrels where various celebrities have left their signatures – Paloma Picasso, renowned art collector Carmen Thyssen, whose museum can be found in the city, and TV’s favourite trio Gino, Gordon and Fred. One of the city’s most historic bodegas, it owes its name to the figure of ‘Pimpi’ - a popular local character who was traditionally on hand to assist the crew and passengers newly arrived on vast wooden ships in the port nearby.  Now, the bodega gathers locals, visitors and celebrities alike. Just outside, the remains of the Roman Theatre and towering Alcazaba stand floodlit and formidable, a resplendent reminder of the various cultures that have laid claim to this city in its 3,000-year history. 
Dinner that night is served at the hotel’s restaurant Matiz. An indulgent feast ensues with tapas of wafers filled with bluefin tuna tartare, Iberian pork croquettes, sumptuous Russian salad, and goat cannelloni that has been oven baked for 36 hours – a Malaga special. Each plate is a masterpiece. The signature dish of Ronda goat’s cheese fritters appears like a display of Christmas baubles, each perfect sphere dusted with sprinklings of white powder made from olive oil and oozing with indulgent truffle and parmesan after each bite.
The following morning, the historic centre is a sea of buildings in sienna and yellow, rising up from the slick polished flagstones warmed by unexpected December sunshine. It is, what our guide refers to, as a ‘salad of architecture’ - 19th century bourgeois palaces born in the industrial revolution rubbing shoulders with Baroque churches and elements of the Mudejar style that are a testament to Malaga’s early Arabic influence. 
 
We pause for sustenance at Casa Mira, the city’s favourite traditional bakery, where they have been serving the local Christmas speciality of turrones - a kind of nougat - since 1890. A signature drink, we try the blanco y negro – a mixture of iced coffee slush topped with a generous dollop of turrones ice cream. 
 
Under the glass-stained window of the bustling central market, Mercado de Atarazanas, the shouts of fishermen selling the local catch pierce the air. A cornucopia of fresh produce is laid out before us – concha fina, gamba frescas, and the boquerones traditionally cooked over an open fire on the beach. In Malaga’s oldest tavern, Antigua Casa de Guardia, we savour a customary lunchtime aperitif of the legendary local wine, Pajarete, made from vines grown in the Montes de Málaga, before gorging on seafood fresh from the stalls.
 
That evening, an opulent gala dinner awaits back at Matiz – the design of local chef Pablo Molina, an expert in traditional KMO gastronomy. In the background, a live Christmas jazz band plays into the night and we raise cocktails in a toast to the festive season. 
 
Breakfast the next morning is found in an unlikely place, a café-cum-antique shop down a quiet alleyway called La Recova. Here we order the local tradition – a single slice of toast delivered alongside an egg tray repurposed as a plate to deliver a smorgasbord of toppings. Rather like an artist’s palette, each segment is filled with the vivid colours of quince marmalade and savoury spreads of sobrasada and zurrapas with which to paint the bread. Fittingly, afterwards we pay homage to the enduring artistic legacy of one of Malaga’s most famous residents with a trip to the Picasso Museum. 
 
Our trip draws to a close overseeing the city on the rooftops of Molina Lario, to the sound of traditional zambomba flamenco music and local Christmas songs, played by a live band. We leave Malaga with bellies full, immersed in the uniquely Spanish spirit of Christmas.