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August 2003 issue

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Malaga's magnetism

Spain's southern city of Malaga offers students of all ages a language travel experience full of colourful cultural experiences and lots of fun, as Gillian Evans finds out.

Capital of the Costa del Sol, Malaga is a city whose many charms lure thousands of visitors each year. Founded by the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago, the city also displays the imprints, especially in its architecture, of the Romans, Carthaginians and the Moors. Malaga is now a bustling city with a fun-loving population of 600,000.

The city's old quarter is a tangle of narrow streets lined with tapas bars and bodegas (wine shops), which sell the local sweet wine from huge casks. 'Malaga is a city of immense charm, as the many thousands of students who have studied Spanish in our city will confirm,' asserts Pilar Marín Martínez, President of the Asociacion de Escuelas de Malaga (ACEM), which represents 13 language schools in the city.

As well as its cultural attributes, Malaga's long sandy beaches, great weather and lively nightlife make it a big hit with language travellers. 'One of the main reasons people choose Malaga to study Spanish is the perfect mix of sun, beach and culture,' confirms Sibilla Gerhard at Academia de Idiomas y Formación Personal (AIFP).

Despite the fact that the city attracts many national and international visitors, it has retained its unique Andalusian character. As Bob Burger at Malaca Instituto puts it, 'Malaga is a totally Spanish city, rather than a city dedicated to the international tourist. In Malaga, you hear Spanish spoken, you eat Spanish food, you drink Spanish wine and you listen to Spanish music.'

Martínez agrees. 'Malaga has successfully retained both its Spanish and Andalusian character,' she says. 'Not only are the language centres professionally run, but the friendliness of the people of Malaga and the variety of leisure activities at hand in the city create a marvellous opportunity for meeting people with whom you can converse and put into practice what you have learnt in class.'

Although Malaga's Mediterranean temperatures and beaches make it popular in the summer with younger students wanting to enjoy a holiday whilst learning Spanish, the city also attracts students at different times of the year as the climate is favourable year round, as Gerhard observes. 'In the summer, with [temperatures] near to 30 degrees centigrade, young people come to enjoy the beaches and nightlife of Malaga and its coast. In autumn and spring, people usually come to enjoy the [pleasant] climate and to go on sightseeing trips to discover Andalusia. In winter, many people escape to Malaga's coast from countries with cold and long winters.'

Malaga is a busy city, with the Marques de Larios, Plaza de la Constitucion and Calle de Granada being the main shopping streets. They are also popular at night, full of people even in the early hours of the morning - most locals do not go out until midnight, which can come as quite a surprise to some students. 'Lively street life until the early morning is almost unknown in central and northern European countries,' says Ursula Holthausen at Instituto Picasso. 'People cannot believe that you meet so many people on the streets late at night. They are all surprised that we start our [school] bar tour and our fiestas at 11pm. This is when things start to get going.'

Instituto Picasso is situated on Plaza de la Merced, next door to the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, who lived in the city until he was 14 years old. In honour of the famous painter, there is a permanent Picasso gallery in the city. In addition to the city's art galleries and museums, there are many historic sites in and around Malaga too. A 15th century Moorish fort, the Alcazaba, Roman theatre and the Gibralfaro (fortress) are all perched in the hills surrounding Malaga, while, in the city itself is the famous one-towered cathedral, whose second tower was never completed due to a lack of money.

Nadia Poloni, of Instituto Andalusi de Español, says that one of Malaga's unknown attractions is El Chorro, Malaga's 'Lake District'. '[El Chorro is] in fact three artificial lakes created by a dam built across the dramatic 200-metre high Guadalhorce river gorge,' she says. 'Here you can go swimming or fishing, hiking or climbing.'

With beaches stretching more than five kilometres, Malaga is also a great place for students interested in water sports - or relaxing in the sun. As the Malaguenos like to sit and watch the world go by, there are many pavement cafés and bars. 'Students love to go to have a coffee at one of the cafés at Plaza de la Merced or Plaza de la Constitucion,' says Gerhard. 'Malaga [also] offers a variety of Arabian teahouses, called teterias, which invite you to drink tea [in nice surroundings]. Sitting at comfortable tables, you can choose between different exotic teas.'

Food is also an important part of the Malaga experience. Good seafood restaurants can be found around the El Palo or Pedregalejo beach areas, where pescaito frito, a variety of fried fish such as sardines and red mullet, is one of the many delicacies on offer.

Malaga is also famous for its tapas bars and most schools organise tapas tours where students can try traditional Spanish dishes, such as habas con jamon (broad beans with ham) and gambas al pil-pil (spicy prawns). Some of the best tapas bars are said to be found around Calle Nueva.

Malaga hosts a full calendar of events each year. Its bullring not only hosts bullfights but also horse dressage displays and music concerts. During the summer there are open-air cinemas, while the city's Ferio de Agosto, which takes place in August and is said to be the second-largest fair in Europe, is a week of processions, music and dancing. During the Ferio, on the outskirts of the city, there is a fairground with bars, live music and Flamenco dancing. Another annual spectacle is the Semana Santa, held at Easter, which mixes religious and Andalusian tradition. Processions of large flotillas called tronos (thrones) snake through the city, while music and celebrations fill the streets.


Agent viewpoint

'In Spain, we send clients to Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Malaga, Madrid, Salamanca and San Sebastian. It is difficult to rate how popular Malaga is [overall], but for the Flemish, Barcelona is the most popular destination. The advantages of studying in Malaga are that it is centrally [located], close to Gibraltar and the main access to inland Andalusia; it is a medium-sized university city, where you can combine studying with city [life], the beach and sports. Combination [language courses] with dance make Malaga attractive, as well as courses [specifically] for 50-plus year olds. [Unfortunately], flights from Belgium are 50 per cent more expensive than, for example, to Barcelona or Madrid.'
Maurice Beke, Educational & Language Travel Services (ELS), Belgium

'We get requests for all activities [from our clients] - flamenco dancing, golf, sailing. However, a lot of our students just enjoy the beach and the excellent nightlife in Malaga. Our clients appreciate the very personal and friendly atmosphere of the school [that we work with]. Popular excursions at the weekends are to Sevilla, Granada, Gibraltar and Morocco. One disadvantage is the fact that there are lots of language schools and language students in Malaga. Advantages include the good value for money, the nightlife and the climate.'
Thomas Roth, LinguaDirekt Travel, Germany

'The main attraction of Malaga for students is its proximity to the sea. There is an attractive stretch of coastline and it is close to the Costa del Sol. I send students to two schools in the city, one of which has one of the best equipped and nicest school campuses that I know of. The school combines a serious approach to language learning with facilities that are second to none.'
David Stubbings, Educational Travel Service, UK

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