I climbed and climbed last Sunday in Malaga. Through the quiet streets in the early morning I tramped and turned off at the Roman theatre to begin the ascent. The blue of the Mediterranean just east of the Pillars of Hercules began to sparkle as the sun climbed, although it was still cold. I had eaten no breakfast and coffee was hours away. I walked past the lush garden with the pool and water-jets like a tiny imitation of the great gardens of the Alhambra. On its slopes were palm trees with leaves that hung down lazily over large cactus plants that seemed as happy in that fertile soil as in the desert. Up I went until I had gone above the high-rise blocks at Paseo Picasso and the beach or the ones overlooking the bay where the yachts of Russian grillionaires bobbed innocently. Then, gradually, it came into view, looking calm and reassuring in the early morning. There, below me was the place of death. I walked ever higher until the walls of the Alcazaba appeared beside me. It is the large fortified area begun by the Moors in the 8th century. Like me it would climb the hill until we reached the 14th century Castillo de Gibralfaro at the top. As I looked up I could still barely see the mirador from which I would look across the beautiful ancient city to the peaks of the Montes de Malaga which lead on to the Serrania Rondana. Gradually the chill of the morning was giving way to sunshine that grew stronger and warmer as the effort of the climb drove any cold from my muscles.
At the first mirador I stopped and looked across the city. Below me was the maestranza, the bullring. Of course I knew it was a place of death. That was its whole purpose, oddly incongruous in that land I have always found friendly, gentle, non-violent. It was the place of death but even then as I looked down to it I didn`t realise that I would be implicated. I went on, unsuspecting, until I reached the peak and wondered in the now strong and warm sunshine at the marvellous panorama that took in the gardens below, the Mediterranean that was now wide, blue and majestic, the chain of mountains behind the city and the stylish, impressive city below with its marriage of European and Islamic architecture. By that time, the pain and suffering brigade of panting joggers were now appearing as I began downhill.
We move now to the following evening. I had already had some good meals in the city centre and by the harbour. I wanted something special and Spanish. The narrow streets of Malaga in the evening are colourful, busy and full of appealing cafes and restaurants.
Eventually I chose one, Meson la Alegria in Calle Marin Garcia. The name means `house of happiness`, so that was promising. The tables outside were well-lit and the interior, easily visible through the open doors and windows had the warm tiles, the dark mahogany tables and the rows of dark wine bottles that can be so appealing. More obvious than all this however was the head of a giant bull, a toro bravo protruding from the wall above the tables as if he had just crashed in minutes before. The waiter chatted to me, quite patient with my imperfect Spanish. We were joined by another, more rotund gentleman and they began their normal routine of trying to suggest what might delight me. I stopped them. I knew. It sounded dull but I wanted grilled vegetables followed by oxtail. Neither of these would be likely to make the blood run hot in a British restaurant, but they are specialties in Andalusia and I hoped I had chosen the right place to taste them. The vegetables came, a large plate of asparagus, aubergine, courgette, tomato, onion, peppers and fennel. Each tasted delicious, just boiled and grilled to perfection with whatever combination of garlic, salt and local herbs made it taste so different from anything I could cook. Then came the rabo de toro. It was so good I was tempted to stop passers-by and invite them to taste. All the while the service was excellent good-humoured, friendly without being intrusive.
When I had finished this very special and quite inexpensive meal a thought occurred to me. I asked the waiter if the bull who had kindly provided his tail had been killed in the local bullring. He said:
`We`ll ask the torero.`
He summoned the more rotund gentleman,Jorge, and I asked him the same question. He said `Yes, that`s Pepe`.
`You actually named him? `I asked.
`Of course, these bulls are special. They are heroes. `
Then it occurred to me what the waiter had said. I looked at the unlikely figure of the small, overweight gentleman and asked:
`Were you a bullfighter? `
He smiled proudly.
`Of course. I killed 300 bulls. `
I tried to imagine this ample gentleman as the slim, balletic young man a torero has to be. However, the thought was pushed out by another. I suddenly felt like a conspirator in the death of Pepe.
`But you talk about Pepe with affection. How could you kill him? `
He smiled. He had heard this before.
`Bulls like that will be slaughtered and eaten whatever happens. Pepe died gloriously and bravely. We do him honour by eating him. `
I couldn`t really agree. I have never been to a bullfight and don`t think I ever will. However, I had thoroughly enjoyed the proceeds. I could not deny that Jorge was right. Bulls don`t grow old gracefully and die in a comfortable retirement home. Old animals in the wild usually die horribly and slowly or terrifyingly at the hands or claws of a predator. It was a contradiction. I couldn`t resolve it, but the meal had been splendid, the service first-rate and the old city had so much of that colour and charm that is specifically Spanish. My two Spanish books “Coffee,Castanets and Don Quixote” and “The Women from Crete” have been attempts to capture some of that magic. It`s a theme to which I`ll return. I`m glad to say both books sell well by my modest standards. They give me the excuse for `research` trips such as this one to Malaga.