Archive for July, 2010


Malaga, Spain

[Not many are aware that Spain was once ruled by the Arabs. During the medieval ages, much of the Iberian peninsula – consisting of Spain and Portugal, were under Islamic rule. The Moors – Arabs from North Africa, had crossed the Mediterranean and invaded the region, which they fondly called Al-Andalus. It wasn’t until 700 years later, that they were driven out by the Catholics from the north. Today, the legacy of Spain’s Moorish past can still be felt in the southen region of Andalucia and especially in its principle city – Malaga ]

Its not always that a journey grabs a cherished place in one’s volatile memory…..and when it does, it has generally got more to do with the people one has met, than the places he/she has visited. In the case of my recent trip to Malaga, it was a bit of both 🙂

Located in the Spanish region of Andalucia along the warm mediterranean coast, Malaga is a popular tourist destination, characterised by its fascinating history and blessed with sun-kissed beaches. The region, otherwise known as the ‘Costa del Sol’ [‘Coast of the sun’] is Spain’s answer to France’s ‘Cote d’Azur’ [‘The blue coast’ or the French Riviera]. Though the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, the glitz and the glamour that make the French counterpart a playground of the rich and the famous are conspicuously missing here, the gap is more than made up by Malaga’s rich cultural heritage, which is only accentuated by the down-to-earth and friendly nature of its people.

A plane approaching Malaga airport

From Malaga, Spain

It was my second visit to Spain and the moment I landed at Malaga’s massive airport, it was evident that the Spaniards like to build their transport hubs a lot larger than what might be required by the volumes of traffic invovled. The terminal was massive and was lavished with vast empty spaces. Madrid’s Barajas Airport had been similar too, and so were the underground stations of the capital’s metro network.


The Moors from North Africa, had invaded much of Spain and Portugal in the early 700s. So powerful and glorious were their reign that for over 700 years, they remained undefeated and the region flourished in trade, wealth, art and culture. It was only in the late 1400s that the Catholics from the north of Spain led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella succeeded in reconquering Al-Andalus and re-establishing Christian rule. [Incidentally, Ferdinand and Isabella were the maternal grand-parents of England’s Queen Mary I, better known to us by her namesake cocktail – Bloody Mary]

Today we see Spain as a staunchly Catholic country, with hardly any traces of its Islamic past. Much of this was the result of the Spanish Inquisition, carefully laid out after the Moors were defeated. Mosques were converted into churches and most muslims and jews were expelled from the country, whilst many others were forcefully converted into Christianity.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the Arabs has still managed to percolate into the art, culture, language [the Spanish language has over 4000 words of Arabic origin] and architecture of modern Spain,and nowhere is this legacy more evident than in the region of Andalucia. Andalucia, located just across the Mediterranean from North Africa, was understandably, among the first places to be invaded by the Arabs and Malaga, thanks to its strategic location and ancient harbour, was one of its main cities.

As I took the bus (Line 19) from the airport to Malaga city-centre, I couldn’t help notice the similarities that the place seemed to share with Arabia…… and as someone who was born and brought-up in the middle-east, the resemblances were too striking. Not only was the terrain and vegetation too dry for European standards, but the weather was scorchingly hot and the people seemed to look a lot like Arabs too, albeit in skimpier clothes 🙂

Streets of Malaga

From Malaga, Spain

The vast stretches of apartment blocks lining the streets could easily be mistaken for older parts of Dubai and the architecture of the ancient Arab fortresses and the cathedrals (that were converted from old Moorish mosques), could very well have blended into the skyline of Islamic Cairo ! The imposing twin fortresses of Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, that were once strongholds of the Arab rulers of the region, stand perched on a hill overlooking Malaga and thus ensures that this significant element of Spain’s past cannot be missed from any nook or corner of the city. Add to that the plethora of Shawarma stalls and restaurants specialising in Moorish food, and you may be forgiven for thinking you are in the middle-east !

The Malaga by Bike tour:

Cycling through the narrow alleys

From Malaga, Spain

Over the past few years, I have realised that the best way to explore a city is by doing a bike-tour. Not only is it faster and more fun than other means, but it also allows access into narrow alleys and streets, that may be hidden otherwise. Which is why the first thing I did on arriving in Malaga was to take the ‘Malaga by bike’ tour. The tour cost me 23 Euros and on that day, consisted of just 5 of us – an American couple […who I later came to learn, were serving in the US Army based in Germany !], a pair of Canadian-French girls and me.

Our guide explaining about the Malaga Cathedral

From Malaga, Spain

Our guide – a loquacious New Zealander filled us in on all the history, trivia and anecdotes about Malaga and led us as we pedalled through narrow cobblestoned lanes and old historic squares, dodging through pedestrians and occassionally stopping for photographs. We passed by the house where Malaga’s most famous son – Pablo Picasso was born, rode along ancient cathedrals, the botanical gardens and the harbour, skirted around the massive Plaze de Torros (Bull ring) – where bull fights still take place, and finally stopped at a beach shack on the Malaguetta beach for some chilled beers. The tour lasted around 4 hours and was brilliant fun !

Riding through the Malaguetta beach

From Malaga, Spain

Malaga Cathedral:

The Malaga Cathedral

From Malaga, Spain

Like most other churches in the city, the Malaga Cathedral was built over a former Moorish mosque and thus,  incorporated some of its distinctive styles. The Cathedral is one of the largest structures in Malaga and its imposing spires can be seen from most parts of the city centre. The vicinity of the cathedral was quite crowded – teeming with tourists and locals. But when I took a 4 Euro ticket and stepped inside, it was a completely different picture. The interiors were grand and elaborately decorated ….yet, maintained a remarkably serene ambience.

Entrance to the cathedral

From Malaga, Spain

Close by, was the Picasso museum. But not being a fan of modern art, I gave it a miss.

Picasso's statue outside the house where he was born

From Malaga, Spain

The Melting Pot hostel:

A log on Malaga wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the Melting Pot hostel. What was special about the hostel was its friendly ambience and its amazing location, being right at the beach. The open terrace offered a fantastic location to relax and socialise….not to mention the barbecue and bar in the evening 🙂

I was suprised to see my name on the board as I arrived at the hostel

From Malaga, Spain

I got to meet and hang-out with some interesting people at the hostel, and all of them seemed to be doing quite exciting things in life. Most were backpackers who had travelled around the world, and many had even visited India. One of the persons I met was here to practise kite-boarding, another to work in a horse-farm….some were here on weekend breaks, and another had just completed a 10-month course in art. They all came from various parts of the world – Britain, USA, Canada, Spain, Germany etc. and the advantage for them was that with their passports, they could travel to most parts of the world without visas and stay as long as they want …and do any job that they like….Even the New Zealander guide from the from bike tour was telling me that he had completed a univerisity degree in Computer Engineering, but decided to travel around the world, ending up in Spain and is now working as a tour guide for a living ! Ah, how I wish I could do something as exciting as that !

In the evening, after having a barbecue dinner and enjoying a few chilled beers at the open-terrace, some of us headed out to into the city to check out the party scene. Must admit, the city centre had completely transformed from what it was during the day, and the whole place seemed to be revelling in one huge party. Clearly, the hours of siesta does seem to help the Spanish, as the streets are absolutely alive even at 2 in the morning !

Alcazaba and Gibralfaro:

Overlooking the city from a pair of twin hills, are the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro – the two most prominent reminders of Malaga’s Moorish past.

The Alcazaba

From Malaga, Spain

The best times to visit these two monuments are Sunday afternoons, as after 2pm, entrance is free 🙂 I visited them late on Sunday evening as I figured that the arduous climb up would be a lot easier without the scorching Mediterranean sun frying over my head. Also, the castle offers stunning panoramic views of the city and the sea, which could only be embellished by the image of the sun going down over the horizon.

Inside the Alcazaba

From Malaga, Spain

The 11th Century Alcazaba is the lower one among the two monuments and hence, is easier to access. It also happens to be more ornate and decorated than the Gibralfaro, which is mainly because it was a fortified palace, where as the latter was purely a castle. Like most castles and fortresses I have seen in Europe, the Alcazaba too had been built on the site of former Roman fort…and right next to the entrance were the ruins of a 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre.

The Roman amphitheatre outside the Alcazaba

From Malaga, Spain

Incidentally, the Arabs had conveniently used stones and materials from the amphitheatre to construct the Alcazaba.

Inside the Alcazaba

From Malaga, Spain

The Alcazaba was an epitome of Moorish architecture and I spent about half an hour exploring its winding courtyards and arched corridors. On the south side, the Alcazaba presented wonderful views of the Malaga Port and the blue waters of the mediterranean beyond it….but I moved on knowing that the much higher Gibralfaro would offer something even more spectacular.

View from the Alcazaba

From Malaga, Spain

Though an internal passageway connects the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro, the common public is forced to take the much longer set of stairs going up along the hill. The path can be very steep at times and the climb is without doubt – quite demanding. But if you are perseverant and get yourself up there, the unbeatable views will ensure that the effort is not regretted.

The viewing platform

From Malaga, Spain

Shortly before arriving at the summit, is a viewing platform, facing towards the Mediterranean.

The viewing platform

From Malaga, Spain

It is said that on a clear day, the coast of Africa can be seen from up here….which doesn’t seem implausible, considering that Morocco is not too far across.

The Plaza de Torros (Bull-ring)

From Malaga, Spain

Further up, the castle itself offers splendid 360 degree views of the city. Incidentally, during the siege of Malaga in 1487 by Ferdinand and Isabella, the Moors had holed themselves up in this castle, but were ultimately forced to surrender when they ran out of food and supplies.

Gibralfaro castle

From Malaga, Spain


Aldgate, London

[For over three centuries, one company defined the fortunes, the miseries and the destinies of millions of people around the world ! Through a combination of raw ambition, exploration, ruthless diplomacy and technology……coupled with greed, deceit and military conquests, this company established itself as one of the largest, the most profitable and the most influential enterprises that the world has ever seen, or will ever see. This company was the East India Company and its headquarters once stood at Leadenhall Street in Aldgate, London]

Aldgate today is located within the central financial district of London, referred to as simply ‘the City’. However, centuries ago this area had marked the eastern-most entry-point into London and a gateway, from which Aldgate gets its name, stood here along the ancient Roman city walls. Since the past couple of centuries, ‘the City’ has been one of the leading centres of commerce and finance in the world, with millions of pounds worth of transactions passing through its square mile area every day. Aldgate has been at the forefront of this action and some of the leading Insurance Corporations of the world are located here. But what distinguishes Aldgate is perhaps its undeniable role in shaping the history and destiny of not just London or Britain, but of lands far and wide. For it was here that the East India Company was headquartered and from where, for over two centuries, much of its global ventures were governed.

The East India Company:

Contrary to popular belief, the East India Company was not owned or governed by the English/British government, but was a private enterprise subscribed by a few thousand shareholders in London and governed by 24 elected Directors. It was established in the year 1600, when a group of London merchants was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I, providing them with complete monopoly over trade with the far east. Over the next centuries, the Company went on to grow beyond every shareholder’s wildest dreams. It maintained its own armed forces, merchant fleet and factories, and enjoyed adminstrative and legislative powers in the colonies that it controlled. It was not until after the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, that the British government took control of the Company, and Queen Victoria, then Queen of Great Britain, assumed the title of ‘Empress of India’.

Needless to say, in its aggressive quest for profits and power, the company had employed many grossly unethical means. Ultimately, the impact it had on the world was unprecedented. The company dominated world trade for a few centuries and was instrumental in introducing new products and lifestyles into the society and establishing new mega-cities – from Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai to Singapore and Hong Kong. The legacies left behind by the company – its legal and administrative codes, language, educational systems, transport infrastructure etc. continue to be used to this day in the erstwhile colonies.

Interestingly, earlier this year, there were reports in the media that the East India Company has been acquired by an Indian businessman. According to the reports, Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta bought the company from the 30 or 40 people who had still owned it…… and has now opened his flagship ‘East India Company’ store – trading in fine foods and luxury goods, in London’s upmarket Mayfair area.  No doubt the Company’s journey has come full-circle, but the way I see it, what Mr.Mehta claims to be an act of redemption is perhaps, more of a calculated business gimmick.

For one, the company had been dissolved following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, and had completely ceased to exist since 1874, when the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act was passed in the British Parliament. So what Mr.Mehta bought was perhaps the rights to the name and the Coat of Arms of the erstwhile East India Company. It makes perfect business sense, as the name automatically comes with a 400 year-old history and a brand that can be recognised across the globe, thanks to the fact that much of the world was once controlled by the former company.

Until the original East India Company was dissolved, its impressive headquarters – the East India House had stood  at Leadenhall Street in Aldgate. Early illustrations of the building show how imposing and magnificent a structure it used to be.

East India House in the early 1800's (courtesy: Wikimedia)

But unlike the headquarters of the Company’s early rival – the Dutch East India Company, which still stand in Amsterdam […and I had the fortune of visiting two years ago as part of the New Amsterdam Walking Tour], the East India House survived for just over  a decade after the Company was dissovled, and was demolished in 1869 – the same year Gandhi was born. Today, the exact site is occupied by the Lloyd’s Building – home to Lloyd’s of London, one of the leading Insurance societies in the world.  Interestingly, some of the paintings, artefacts and furniture from the East India House now sit in the India House – the seat of the Indian High Commission in London.

Lloyd’s building:

The main factor that attracted me to Aldgate and the Lloyd’s building was that it where the East India Company’s headquarters used to stand. Nevertheless, the Lloyd’s building is an attraction in its own right, thanks to its bizarre ‘Inside-Out’ architecture, which makes it unlike any other in Britain. I had heard a lot about this peculiar design and wanted to check it out myself……and it didn’t disappoint. Turns out that the Lloyd’s building is perhaps the ‘Superman’ of all buildings ! Not that it was built using stones from Krypton, but like Superman, who wears his underpants over his tights, this building has all its internal essentials – namely water pipes, electrical power conduits, cables, elevators, air-conditioning ducts….all exposed on the outside 🙂 Frankly, I must admit that it does not make the prettiest of sights !

The 'Inside-Out' architecture

Lloyd’s of London itself has an interesting history behind it. The society had its origins in 1688, in a coffe-shop run by Edward Lloyd’s in London. This coffee-shop was frequented by sailors and ship-owners, who used the location to discuss insurance deals among themselves, in order to spread their risks. The society grew exponentially in the next century, insuring ships involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today it is one of the leading insurance societies in the world.

Aldgate also houses the offices of the Lloyd’s Register – the  reputed maritime classification society, which like Lloyd’s of London, had its origins in Edward Lloyd’s coffee-shop. Edward used to help the sailors exchange information by passing around a sheet of paper containing all the shipping-related news he had heard. Today, the Lloyd’s Register is the most respected source for shipping information and maritime classification in the world !

30 St.Mary’s Axe (the Gherkin) –

Situated just a stone’s throw away [depending on how strong your arms are ;)] from the Lloyd’s building is 30, St.Mary’s Axe, otherwise known as ‘the Gherkin’, due to its peculiar shape. [St Mary’s Axe is the name of the street and 30 is the building number] Completed just 7 years ago in 2003, this building is already among the most recognisable landmarks in London’s skyline. It is one of the most prestigious office addresses in London’s financial district and has even featured in many Hollywood and Bollywood movies.

30 St.Mary's Axe - The Gherkin

As I walked along the narrow streets and arrived at the base of the building, my initial thought was that up-close, it was not as larger-than-life as it had seemed otherwise [But then, I had felt the same about the Great Pyramid at Giza as well]. Standing at the circular base of the Gherkin and looking up, one cannot fully appreciate the shape of the structure as its apex is hidden from view. As with any masterpiece, one has to step-back a few feet [or in the case of the Gherkin, a few 100 metres] to fully admire the beauty of its design.

Close-up of the Gherkin

The Gherkin stands on the site where the former Baltic Exchange building used to be located. In 1992, an IRA bomb ripped the building apart, and the area was left undeveloped until the Gherkin took its place.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 5,255 hits
July 2010
« Jun