Bob Maddox stops off in the capital of the Costa del Sol and strolls arounds the city’s peculiar – yet spectacular – cathedral
IT was after dropping a friend off at Malaga airport that the whim took us to turn right into the heart of the city, rather than flee back to Granada. I had it in mind to check out the cathedral, which I had read was “sensational.”
The first time visitor to the cathedral of Our Lady Santa Maria de la Encarnacion could be forgiven for thinking that it looks a little rough around the edges, unfinished even. That is because it is. It was started in 1518 and finally unfinished in 1782, after Bernardo de Galvez spent the money allocated for its second tower on fighting the British in the American Revolution.
Spain formally entered the war in 1779 and Galvez’s army played a decisive role in the final American victory. For his trouble, Galvez was appointed governor of Louisiana and had a city named after him – Galveston, Texas. But that was the extent of the new nation’s gratitude, which then set about largely eradicating him from its history books lest future generations should get the idea that it was not all down to the likes of Paul Revere and George Washington.
Few Americans today are aware of Galvez’s contribution to the birth of the first democracy of the modern world. It is perfectly possible that the War of Independence may have been lost without him. Certainly, he was responsible for driving the British out of the Gulf of Mexico and the Lower Mississippi Valley and securing a vital lifeline for the re-supply of Washington’s army. The swine.
So, let us raise a glass to the forgotten Bernardo de Galvez, the man who helped make it all possible – Coca Cola, Hollywood, Ronald McDonald, Elvis, Disneyworld and a nation of people so oblivious to external reality that they re-elect presidents of the calibre of George W Bush.
Still, the Americans are not entirely ungrateful. On the outer west wall of the cathedral, a brass plaque commemorates the visit, on May 10, 1977, of 32 delegates of The Sons of the American Revolution, who handed $500 over to the mayor of Malaga as a belated thank you. Five-hundred dollars for sacrificing your cathedral to help create the richest, most powerful nation the world has ever seen. What a bargain! Incidentally, George W is a member of these ‘Sons,’ as is his daddy.
What there isn’t is a plaque commemorating the fact that the cathedral is also something of a political statement. On August 18, 1487, the armies of Ferdinand II of Aragon finally removed the Moors from Málaga after 800 years of Muslim occupation. Queen Isabella’s son, who glorified under the titles Charles I of Castile and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, started work on the cathedral in 1518. But first he demolished the principal mosque, since it occupied the same site. This seemed a pretty direct way of putting two fingers up to the Moors; perhaps that is what the ‘V’ in ‘Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor’ actually signifies.
Guide book Malaga Cuidad describes the mosque as being “…a building of five naves and a hundred and thirteen columns, richly decorated and with a beautiful patio and orange grove, surrounded on three sides by galleries.” So naturally, it had to go. Comforting to see that the spirit of sensitive development was alive and well in Andalucia close to 500 years before housing developments, invernaderos (plastic greenhouses) and golf courses.
One of the features of the cathedral that inexplicably escapes the guide books is its fine collection of beggars. These arrange themselves tastefully across its steps and lawns or huddle beneath its frowning renaissance façade to affect maximum pathos. Before I reached the entrance to pay my 3.50-euro entrance fee, I had already been relieved of a similar amount by a magnificent one-eyed specimen, who had feigned collapse as I approached. You have to admire an artist.
Before entering, we perused the signs that strictly forbade us to take photographs, carve our names on the columns or encourage the pigeons (pigeons, in a cathedral?). But the security was low-key, friendly stuff. No one X-rayed the wife and I was allowed to keep my camera – a slice of naiveté which I celebrated by taking copious photographs, along with everyone else.
The interior is undeniably sensational – an overdose of Catholic majesty designed to impress upon worshippers their place in the scheme of things as insignificant little turds, which it certainly did to me. It is a vast space, home to 13 chapels, each a little treasure in its own right.
But the real marvel is tucked away in the central nave.
There in the shadow of Julian de la Orden’s gigantic golden organs, are the intricately carved choir stalls – described as the eighth wonder of the world by the 18th century artist, Antonio Aciselo Palomino de Castro Y Velasco (don’t you just love these florid Spanish names? How differently things might have turned out had mother only christened me Don Roberto Georgio Maddoxo de Low Hill Y Wolverhampton del West Midlands).
The choir stalls really are a miracle in wood. They are Spanish Baroque personified and well worth the visit on their own accord. We wandered around until the splendour began to dim and wisely left before familiarity stripped the place of its wonder. Outside, a party of Japanese tourists with miraculous cameras were photographing everything, including mysteriously, the logo of a camera with a red line through it which forbade them to take photographs of anything.
As I emerged blinking into the brightness, three beggars at the far end of the lawn sensed the restless euros in my pocket. I paid them off without quibble and reflected on the benefits to the city of a central payment scheme, where tourists could buy a pass to flash at beggars to demonstrate pre-payment. The worthies could then collect their dues from the local council, thus freeing them of the irksome necessity of hanging about looking doleful. It would also tidy the streets up. What a splendid idea – must have a word in the mayor’s ear.
It was with some reluctance that we left Malaga. This is clearly a fabulous city and one afternoon is simply not enough. But we were leaving hungry for more, which is supposed to be better, although I have never understood why.
As we left via the Avenida de Andalucia, a sign for Torremolinos snatched at the eye. I fancied a swim and I had heard the intriguing notion that everyone should go to Torremolinos once in their lives. Apparently, it adds perspective.
And so it does, for Torremolinos surely belongs in Hell, down in Dante’s fourth circle with ‘The Wasters’ along with things like footballers wives (I will have to disagree with you there, Bob – Ed). We never found our way to the beach, despite following dozens of signs, every one of which lied to us and directed us into a maze of concrete cul-de-sacs of such contrived cuteness that it was an struggle not to throw-up all over the bougainvillea.
This was a new world; hollow without the benefit of history or culture to shape and sustain it and populated largely by overweight middle-agers, who were wandering around with tans the colour of ginger cats, lugging towels and giant parasols on the hour-long trudge down through the concrete to the lost beaches beyond.
As we trundled ever inwards, apartments began to give way to bars with gaudy fronts sporting St Georges flags and names like the Beckham’s Golden Balls Football, Sports Karaoke & Fighting Bar or the Rooney’s Foot and advertising gigantic television screens, free cirrhosis of the liver and a good kicking every Saturday night.
We never did find the beach at Torremolinos. After the 15th ghost-haunted cul-de-sac, we gave up, turned around once more and prayed we were heading somewhere in the general direction of Out. Trouble is in Torremolinos, I found it difficult to know for sure. There is a great Tom Paxton song from the 70s called Georgie on the Freeways, in which some poor sap and his family take a wrong turn on their way out of a city and get eternally lost – forever taking that same wrong turn.
There were moments like that in Torremolinos; times when doubts crept in…have we been here before? Would end up as an interesting little snippet in the “And finally…” section of Edition 2,000 of the Olive Press, reporting more sightings of the phantom Seat Alhambra with its ghostly, despairing occupants?
Naw. We made it, but only just. Maybe next time, we will try the Picasso Museum.