By Jay Stone
TORREMOLINOS, Spain – A few years ago I was in Barcelona, where, once upon all time, Pablo Picasso went to school. As a student, he had designed the menu for a local restaurant and the place was still using his drawing on the cover. I ate there a few times. It was delicious.
Later, we travelled to the nearby town of Girona where Picasso’s father had been an art teacher. There’s a very nice Picasso gallery there with a lot of unusual works, although it’s probably the most claustrophobic art gallery in all of Spain. You can sense the beginnings of cubism there: Picasso had to squeeze everything into one plane because there’s just no room for a second dimension. It’s also probably worth mentioning, in the interests of travel journalism, that aside from the Picasso gallery, Girona itself is pretty well the arsehole of Iberia.
A few years later I was in Madrid where Picasso also lived for a while. They have a terrific Picasso museum as well, where the highlight is his war painting Guernica. There’s always a crowd in the Guernica room: it’s something to see partly just to say that you’ve seen it. My father used to tell the joke about the American tourist in the Louvre who says, “Quick, where’s the Mona Lisa? I’m double-parked.”
This year found my little group of travelling senior citizens on Spain’s Costa del Sol, in the beach town of Torremolinos where, for the record, James Michener set his 1971 novel The Drifters, about a bunch of footloose young people smoking marijuana cigarettes and taking LSD, which was the love generation’s version of Lipitor, but with more hallucinations. And it turns out that for about $2.50 one way, you can take the local bus to the nearby city of Malaga, where Picasso was born. It has therefore staked its own claim to the artist with a pretty little gallery, two floors around a central courtyard, that displays works from across his various periods (Blue, Cubist, unaffordable). You can get a good survey of Picasso’s life and times, and, in the tourist information booth near the bus station, you can buy a spatula festooned with reproductions of some of his paintings to celebrate the occasion.
In short, my still-maturing retirement years seem to have been mostly taken up with stalking Pablo Picasso, although that’s not hard to do in Spain, where every town has some sort of connection to his prodigious output. I’m not saying I’m overdosing on cubism, but ... I’ve begun to notice that both my eyes are now on the same side of my head.
Malaga is a pretty city with a beautiful promenade under elegant arches, and many of those charmingly tiled alleyways lined with restaurants and tourist shops — you always arrive just in time for the one-day-only sale on shoes or leather goods — that dot the coast of Spain. The coffee is pretty good and the Picasso collection is even better, highlighted (n my mind) with the master’s later works, such as Jacqueline in a Straw Hat, a colourfully minimalist portrait, in yellow, red, green and black brushstrokes that create a woman’s face. It was done in 1962, when Picasso was in his 80s: his late-life work was bold and fearless, and you wonder what he would make of the shuffling hordes of similarly aged tourists, myself included, who drag their way around the countryside in search of souvenir T-shirts, bathrooms, and coffee shop baristas who understand English if it’s spoken nice and slowly and at maximum volume.
This is my second seniors’ tour, giving me a rich perspective on the various types of old people one meets on such holidays: the quietly perceptive wives who seem to know everything about where we are, mostly by actually reading up on the place; the quietly befuddled husbands who trail behind them, wondering vaguely where they’re going to be taken to next; the inevitable cranky old man who loudly declares that nothing is quite good enough. This last role has been adopted this year by none other than myself, and it turns out I’m a natural when it comes to complaining that, for instance, our sea-view hotel room also provides a balcony seat for the happy-hour singer who, the other day, bombarded the beachside bar with dreadful covers of 1960s rock and roll songs that were — one is apoplectic to report — enthusiastically welcomed by his audience of demented baby boomers, most of them presumably in the final stages of alcohol poisoning and who were bravely foregoing nap time in order to drink cheap beer and loudly sing along to Sweet Caroline just as your correspondent was trying to fight off the First World disaster of jet lag.
Torremolinos itself seems to be a city that surrendered its civic identity to the lure of its seaside boardwalk — another kilometres-long miracle of colourful tiles — with restaurants selling everything from fresh sardines to something called McJamon, and providing a home for hawkers of stuffed parrots, plastic whirligigs, cut-rate clothes, ice cream and the rest of the irresistible flotsam and jetsam of beach towns everywhere in the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: one doesn’t board the seniors bus (literally or metaphorically) looking for a a ticket to the unmediated bohemian lifestyle. At a certain age, one welcomes one’s paella in a tamed version, and so Torremolinos is just the ticket.
Running parallel to the boardwalk is a lovely little street with no cars and many of those European cafes where you can picture yourself drinking coffee with brandy and wasting your youth, if it hadn’t already been wasted elsewhere. You can watch the passing parade — mostly people of one’s own vintage in various stages of wrinkliness — many of them walking surprisingly ugly dogs, frequently those hairless ones with pointed faces and fat bodies of the type George Booth uses to populate his New Yorker cartoons. My observation that people like those dogs because they won’t care as much when they die was met with the kind of silence that one gets accustomed to as an ancient teller of uncomfortable truths.
If you head east, toward Gibraltar, you cross into the adjoining beach town of Benalmedinas, which has an endless tile boardwalk elevated above a long, empty beach. It is lined with promising-looking seafood restaurants and the inevitable sellers of knockoff purses and name-brand sweatshirts. To get there, you have to negotiate an elaborate marina that is lined with high-end shops — including one named, with bracing candor, 100% Shopping — tucked around a man-made island of apartment buildings built in a faux-Moorish style with enough turrets and curlicues to decorate most of the coast of Tunisia. It looks like something Disney would have built at the edge of AladdinLand..
Torremolinos is also a gay-friendly town that features a drag version of Mardi Gras, which we somehow missed, that reportedly attracts thousands of visitors to an extravagant parade. However, as if to make up for it, we happened to be in Malaga on the day that they were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the fight against the absolutist rule of King Ferdinand VIII, another event that might have passed me by entirely if it wasn’t for this chance encounter. A group of elderly men in 1820s military costumes and carrying muskets marched alongside some women in traditional dress, while a boy banged out a funereal beat on a drum. Unfortunately, we’ll be leaving before the next big celebration, the non-gay Mardi Gras that will end, I’m told, with the traditional burial of the sardine. This would be something to see, if only for the eulogy.