Arriving in port on a cruise can be a bit of a lottery. Sometimes you wake up, open the curtains, full of optimism, only to be faced with a sprawl of grey docks and industrial sites. You're several kilometres from town and must take a shuttle bus to the centre. Thankfully, there are also days when you arrive with verandah views to warm the heart. That's the case today in Malaga.
Our ship, Viking Jupiter, is berthed by the spruced-up waterfront of this buzzing Andalucian city on Spain's south coast. Breakfasting in Jupiter's World Cafe, we gaze down at the joggers bouncing past the palm trees and gaze up at the city's skyline, with the imposing Renaissance-Baroque cathedral and the hilltop medieval Gibralfaro castle catching the eye.
Some of our fellow cruisers have gone to Granada to see the famous Alhambra palace – a two-hour coach ride away – but Malaga has its own appeal, with a vibrant historic core and arty drawcards such as the Picasso Museum, which has a collection by the legendary artist who was born here in 1881. Set underground, by the waterfront, and capped by a multi-coloured cube is the younger sibling of Paris' Centre Pompidou.
After an alfresco seafood lunch back on the ship, we take a shore excursion to Mijas. Pronounced "mee-hass", it is arguably the prettiest of Andalucia's whitewashed towns and villages, known as the pueblos blancos. Tucked in the rolling mountains west of Malaga, Mijas looms over the Costa del Sol, one of Europe's most developed (some say, overdeveloped) coastlines and package-holiday hotspots.
The Mijas municipality stretches from the Mediterranean Sea, its mountain slopes crawling with evergreens and olive trees alongside condos, gated villas and private swimming pools. Its ancient heart, Mijas Pueblo, sits 400 metres above sea level.
Despite its popularity with overseas expats and day-trippers from the high-rise Costa resorts, it has retained its traditional laid-back Andalucian charm. Some visitors take donkey rides around town; the native burros wait in the shade near the main plaza, their heads draped in colourful livery. But we prefer to stroll the web of hilly, cobblestone streets with our guide, Maria. The aromas wafting from the donkeys are soon replaced by the scent of sugar-coated roasted almonds being sold by vendors.
Climbing up the mountainsides, tightly bunched together, and mostly topped with red-tiled roofs and adorned with potted plants and cascading bougainvillea, Mijas' whitewashed buildings are a dazzling spectacle. The white paint helps reflect the sunlight, keeping interiors cool, useful in a region that averages about 300 sunny days annually.
"The town hall gives free paint to the people and the painting is done before each summer, usually by the women," explains Maria. "The men are inside watching soccer. We're taught how to be the best painters in the world by our mothers and grandmothers."
Most buildings are residential but dozens are B&Bs, pavement cafes, tapas bars, restaurants and stores selling crafts, leather, pottery, prints and paintings by local artisans. The odd building isn't whitewashed, notably a tiny bullring, built in 1900, and the 16th century Chapel of the Virgin of the Rock, a decorative shrine carved into a rock. Then there's the Museum of Miniatures. Set in a yellow wooden wagon, it showcases quirky curiosities, some of which require a magnifying glass to appreciate. There's a ballet dancer carved out of a toothpick and The Last Supper on a grain of rice.
In centuries past, Mijas' lofty location was handy for keeping lookout for pirates and would-be invaders. The Romans had watchtowers here and we pass relics of fortifications constructed by the Moors, who occupied the town for more than 600 years before the conquering Christians took over in AD1485. One of the town's churches, the Immaculate Conception, was built over the ruins of a mosque.
Mijas' viewing terraces cling to cliff edges and, surrounded by lush landscaped gardens and bubbling fountains, they're soothing places to linger.
Mijas is nicknamed "the Mirador of the Costa del Sol", yet on a clear day you'll see beyond this built-up patch of coastline. About 100 kilometres away, as the eagle flies, is the Rock of Gibraltar and there, silhouetted across the shimmering Mediterranean, are the Atlas Mountains of North Africa.
Malaga is a port of call on 15-day sailings between Barcelona and Bergen on Viking Jupiter from April to October 2020. A cruise is priced from $6995 a person, based on double occupancy. Some shore excursions are complimentary, but the Mijas tour costs $US59 a person. See vikingcruises.com.au
Steve McKenna was a guest of Viking Cruises.