You step outside into a warm early summer morning. The sunlight is glinting off the water that surrounds and defines this area, and you see all the subtropical tropes we're used to in Tampa Bay: green-topped palms; jacaranda trees, some of them still purple with blossoms; and the papery flowers of bougainvillea. • Yet something is different, missing, as you walk toward the smell and, more important, the source of your daily cafe con leche. • It's the humidity. Or the lack thereof. The air's not sticky, but a transformative 10 to 15 percent drier than usual, and that good news comes to you via a cooling salt-sea breeze. • Most tourists who go to southern Spain go to Granada, to Córdoba perhaps, and to the Costa del Sol, that short gaudy Mediterranean stretch of beaches and casinos. Overlooked Málaga, adjacent gateway to the Costa, is an ancient Andalusian city that isn't defined by tourists but welcomes and rewards them. Unspoiled and beautiful, it too offers beaches and blue-water views, along with superior food (made for locals who know the difference) and an authentic Spanish ambience. • Málaga's not truly spectacular in any way, yet to visit there is spectacularly pleasing.
Good enough for Picasso
The Mediterranean is Málaga's Gulf of Mexico and its Tampa Bay. Like ours, its deep-water port hosts cruise ships, and the Guadalmedina River divides the city as the Hillsborough does Tampa. Six hundred thousand people live there, the census equivalent of Tampa and St. Petersburg combined.
Málaga's economy relies heavily on tourism; they even have their own term for snowbirds. Guiri refers to foreigners or outsiders, and Andres Cabrera, the guide we hired through the local tourism board, swears that it's not disrespectful. The city, and the entire province of Andalucía it sits in, recently realized an over-dependence on real estate and construction, what locals call la economia de ladrillo, or the economy of bricks. Familiar?
Their great museum honors Picasso, a Málaga native. Only one in 20 visitors to the white-walled Museo de Picasso is American, though, another sign that this city, an hour by plane from Madrid, is not yet on our national radar.
At the museum, as in the city, the appeal is subtle yet strong. "We do not have 'masterpieces,' " says the museum's artistic director, Jose Lebrero Stals. Instead, he explains, the museum offers more than 200 works from the artist's own collection and his family's, including an astonishing painting of a horse done when Picasso was just 8.
The museum's thematic approach works; absent any spiky heights, the visitor's understanding of Picasso's work and life gradually deepens. And the museum cafe, serving on a secluded patio with a burbling fountain, has the best espresso in town.
The great seafood debate
The sea made Málaga and gave it life. When this was still a Phoenician city called Malaka, a main industry was garum, a mess of marinated fish guts much prized by the Romans. Something like 3,000 years later, consuming, judging and debating seafood remains a primal rite.
As part of our city walks, we enter the bustling Atarazanas market, just off Alameda Principal, through an intricate black wrought-iron gate. There, under a high-arching glass ceiling, some 250 food vendors supply the city's cooks. The meat stalls sit to the left, the fruit sellers are at right, and the middle aisles offer fish and shellfish, all testament to the importance of the sea here.
Malagueño cuisine is simple, working-class stuff. The equivalent of the Cuban sandwich here is the pescaito frito, a plate of various little fishes — just pulled glistening from the Mediterranean — given an extremely light breading, then flash-fried in olive oil. Small and tender, they're eaten whole.
"Who makes the absolute best pescaito?'' I ask some market customers. "What restaurant should we go to?'' The answers are rapid, varied — and forceful.
"Casa Juan,'' declares a tall blond woman standing behind her trays of gleaming fish on ice.
"Cabra,'' another man insists.
"Tintero,'' some say, explaining that you don't order there; the waiters carry different seafoods on huge trays, and you just yell loudly when you see what you want.
An older woman with heavy shopping bags and a scarf covering her hair is adamant: "The restaurant is Maricuchi. In the beach area called Pedregalejo.''
The next morning in the Museo de Picasso, the debate intensifies. Pepa Babot, the head of communication, has the audacity to say that the best pescaito cooking method uses chickpea flour in the breading. Andres, the guide, recoils.
"No. I'm sorry,'' he says firmly. "I've lived in Málaga all my life and that is not correct. I am a pescaito purist, and I know that normal flour is used. Garbanzo,'' he adds, politely but dismissively, "that's for calamari.''
Our own investigation concludes at Maricuchi, which sits right next to two other renowned fish joints, El Lirio and Cabra, forming a seaside line just off Calle Boqueron, or Anchovy Street. Each of these open-air beach restaurants has its own small fishing boat sitting across a broad paved promenade. The brightly painted boats are filled with sand and on top of that sit the grills.
At lunch on a Saturday, Maricuchi is lively and full of Spanish families and friends eating and talking with their hands, drinking, smoking, clinking silverware and glasses, while white-uniformed waiters move purposefully among us like sharks. The pink-fleshed salmonetes (a kind of mullet) we crunch after spritzing on lemon are the biggest fish, about 6 inches long, with the lightest taste. They and the boquerones — Spanish white anchovies, not yet salted — are still hot and juicy. Then come silver-scaled sardines on skewers; these are just grilled over olive wood, which adds a light musky flavor. All bear a light dusting of coarse salt. A special that day are coquinas: tiny sweet clams, something we know a lot about in Tampa Bay. Everything tastes simply but intensely of fresh ocean.
Age as asset
Málaga's old, and willingly shows its age. Walking here makes 6,000 years of history visible, layers of churn and change from the Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, Christian and modern eras. Underneath the Picasso Museum, we see Roman and Phoenician artifacts, and the quarried stones that formed Málaga's Roman amphitheater were used 1,200 years later in the Alcazaba, a castle for the Moorish ruler Badis.
The city's striped by the wide boulevards favored in 19th century Europe. In the evenings Málagueños stroll, shop and stop for ice cream on Calle Larios, which runs north-south through the town center.
Near its end, Larios leads into the Paseo del Parque, a noncommercial promenade running east-west along a waterfront park. This park is a green botanical marvel, with palms, banana trees and other tropical growth we recognize, plus rare imports from Africa and Cuba, amid many fountains and ponds. Families and couples walk here at all hours, and this safe, simple walk may actually be the most memorable experience one can have in Málaga.
Like the food, the climate, the art museum, and the city itself, it's not extreme or wildly exotic, yet so intensely pleasant that it becomes something like a thrill.
John Capouya is a professor of journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa.