THE Spanish artist Pablo Picasso may have left his native Malaga when he was just 14 but his association with the Andalucian city is giving it a cultural kudos on a par with that brought to Bilbao by the Guggenheim museum.

While Malaga’s Picasso Museum may not have the architectural wow-factor of the Guggenheim, any building that contains more than 140 paintings, sketches and sculptures by one of the 20th century’s most famous artists is guaranteed to be a huge draw.

The Picasso Museum has also had a ripple effect and in the six years since it opened Malaga has grabbed the cultural baton and run with it in a bid to secure the title of European City of Culture in 2016.

It now also boasts a museum of modern art, an interactive museum of music - which is aimed at both adults and kids - and even a museum of wine-making.

Thrown in to the mix are a baroque cathedral, Arab fortress, crumbling castle, theatres and concert venues as well as a unique regional cuisine.

In addition Malaga has the advantage of being just a three-hour hop away from Belfast International Airport.

A good starting point is Malaga Cathedral which was built on the site of a Mosque after the Arab Moors were driven from Spain by the Catholic monarchs in the 16th century.

The Moors had occupied much of Spain for 700 years and their influence can still be seen in terms of architecture, cuisine, place names and even on the Spanish language.

Some churches in Malaga simply took over former mosques and you can still see the outline of minarets and Moorish arches. However, the Cathedral was build from scratch, beginning in 1528.

From outside if you stand back from the main entrance you will see that there is only one tower, the other one is just a stub that was never completed.

A huge choir, with two organs, dominates the cavernous inside and set into the walls on either side are little side churches, dedicated to different saints, with some beautiful icons and paintings.

Most of the main cultural sights in Malaga are within walking distance from one another and about 10 minutes stroll from the cathedral is La Alcazaba, an Arab fortress, parts of which date back to the 700s.

A pathway twists up through the remarkably well-preserved fortifications to where the sultan would have held court. Plants and shrubs and running water help cool the air down during the hottest days, although for those who might find the walk too strenuous there is a lift which takes you to the summit.

You can see why La Alcazaba was built where it was for it provides superb views over Malaga and out to the Mediterranean which used to break at the foot of the fortress but which is now reclaimed land and home to the city’s gardens and sea port.

Set even higher than La Alcazaba is Castillo de Gibralfaro, which dates from the 14th century, and while only a few ramparts remain it is worth visiting, once again, for some fantastic views along the coast and the mountains which lie inland.

More and more history is being uncovered in Malaga every day and just a few years ago an excavation at the foot of the La Alcazaba came across some Roman remains.

Since then archaeologists have uncovered an entire amphitheatre, its outline now almost fully exposed again after centuries of being hidden beneath the earth.

Just around the corner is Plaza de la Merced where Picasso was bornĀ in 1881. His former home is open to visitors and contains a number of sketches and sculptures but for a fuller exposition to his work a visit to the Picasso Museum is a must.

The museum has works by Picasso covering every period of his life, from his early, fairly conventional, work through his famous ‘rose’ and ‘blue’ periods, examples of ‘neo-classicism’, ‘cubism’, flirtations with ’surrealism’ and the sexually charged pieces of his later years.

He is one of the best-known artists of the 20th century and his style and themes will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in art.

Slightly more challenging is the work on display at Malaga’s newly opened Centre of Contemporary Art.
Andy Warhol is probably the best-known artist on display here this autumn alongside Jean Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Gunter Forg and Gary Hume.

Huge galleries are home to sometimes spartan, occasionally interactive and always challenging works - and it’s free in.

Another new addition to Malaga’s cultural landscape is MIMMA - an interactive music museum which has a collection of 300 instruments from throughout the world, some hundreds of years old.

A number of the instruments can be picked up and played which is great fun if you are the one doing the playing.

Malaga’s main shopping Street is the pedestrianised Marques de Larios, with a maze of little side streets and alleys running off it as well. Being a Spanish city there are of course hundreds of cafes, bars and restaurants everywhere you go.

Tapas are a great way to sample a variety of different dishes in a single sitting. Malagan salad is made with potato, cod, onion, orange, olives and oil, and while a combination of asparagus, prawns and scrambled eggs may not sound that appealing it does work. The city also has its own version of Anadalucian favourite gazpacho and a regional variation of paella.

My favourite find was a long, narrow ‘bodega’ on the main thoroughfare, Alameda Principal. Along its back wall are dozens of barrels piled high on top of one another with a variety of wines ranging from strong, almost sherry-like, to light reds and whites.

The barmen notches up the price of each drink with a piece of chalk on the wooden bar before tallying up your total when you are ready to leave. A food vendor sells a variety of tapas, including prawns and smoked hams. A perfect way to round off a busy day of culture.

(This article first appeared in The Irish News Travel pages on Saturday November 21 2009.