The latest in our series of expats in Malaga talks to Neil Hesketh who arrived on the Costa del Sol in 2002 and finally set up home in Malaga in 2006. Something of an ambassador for the city among expats in the area – Neil saw its potential even when the city had little to offer – he sees life in Malaga as “what you make of it”.
When did you arrive in Malaga?
I arrived in Malaga province (Marbella to be precise) in summer 2002 and then after a year in Barcelona, finally settled in Malaga city in early 2006.
Why did you arrive in Malaga?
I’d spent the first ten years of my career living in London, working in marketing and media, and enjoyed it tremendously. However I was yearning for a bit of adventure, and above all to spend some time living somewhere warm before I got too past it. I’d visited Australia and the western US etc. but settling there was impractical and also a long way from family and friends in the UK.
I knew the Costa del Sol from childhood and when I revisited in early 2002 on a short break with friends, I realized that it was possible to have a good, fulfilling lifestyle here yet be only 2 or 3 hours from the UK. Did you know there is a flight to Britain or Ireland around every 15 minutes during the day on average from Malaga airport?
In the end I finally chose to live in Malaga city in 2006 for convenience. I was flying around Spain a lot with a company I owned at the time and the airport was nearby. I don’t think I planned life in Malaga to be permanent, but it has sort of become that way.
What were your first impressions of Malaga?
I had very positive vague childhood memories of Malaga from the early 80s as a bustling, real Spanish city when my family had stayed out in a village to the east called Chilches. I remember marvelling, aged 13, at huge out-of-town hypermarkets (Pryca Los Patios in particular for those that remember it (now Carrefour Los Patios)). Ironically that is where I do some of my grocery shopping today (although it’s changed hands of course). I also remember my dad easily finding a parking space by a flowerbed on Plaza de la Marina, an impossibility today.
That was when I’d had started studying Spanish (I continued right through to university) so I have always felt an empathy with authentic, less touristic Spain. My feelings about Malaga were the same when I came to live in 2002 (in Marbella). Malaga city in the early 2000s seemed, however, to be a detached part of the Coast, a bit impenetrable with its back turned on the rest of the area and irrelevant to it.
When I came to live in the city itself in 2006, I immediately started to see many similarities with Liverpool, another port city, where I was born. A really warm, friendly people but with a casualness and a spontaneity, and dare I say, sometimes a reputation for not taking life seriously enough, often associated with ports. In those early days I often wished that Malaga had the cultural clout and heavyweight status of Seville and I was a bit unsure.
What do you think has changed most about Malaga since you arrived?
Wow, where do I start? Soon after I arrived to live in the city in 2006, I realized that Malaga was a real diamond in the rough, with so much potential. In that sense it also reminded me of my home city, Liverpool.
In those days hardly anyone, expat resident or tourist, actually came into Malaga city. I heard that years ago they used to call it the city of a thousand bars and one bookshop, and I believe at one point it had just one museum. I am not sure if either is true, but it kind of sums up where Malaga was. Fortunately, the mayor of Malaga had realized the same thing and was starting on a series of major, and many less major, projects to beautify the city centre and maximize its potential.
Tell us about your involvement in Malaga’s bid for European Capital of Culture
Around 2010 I got involved in helping the city council bid to be European Capital of Culture for 2016. I just walked into their office one day and said “I really think you should be drawing all this amazing diversity of nationalities and the cosmopolitan nature of the Costa del Sol into your bid”. They hadn’t really thought about it and didn’t know where to start, so I was pleased that I could help.
Although we didn’t succeed in becoming Capital of Culture (we were about 4 years too early in terms of what the city could offer), we made a real effort to bring in different resident associations and foreign cultural groups from dozens of nationalities who lived on the Costa del Sol to see what the city was doing to improve its profile. I remember we had to send out maps to tell all these people how to get into the city and where to park, their knowledge was so low. But you could see the interest really begin to grow from that day.
So with a combination of the mayor’s and the locals’ efforts to build a stronger cultural base and a growing interest from expats like me, Malaga I think reached a tipping point around 2013. It’s now one of the fastest growing urban tourism destinations in Europe and people can’t get enough of it. Its fan base has grown, and now when I travel in the UK to visit friends I never stop meeting people who rave about their recent weekend trip to Malaga city.
What’s more, there are many long-standing expats along the rest of the Costa del Sol, who have always seemed happy in their ‘Shangri-la’ beach resorts, now telling me how much they crave moving to Malaga. Fancy that!
What do you like most about life in Malaga?
I love the cosmopolitan, diverse, unstuffy feel. I wouldn’t swap it now with Seville as a place to live, (which I now find quite monocultural and traditional, if still a great place). Now that the city is actually talking with and relating to non-Spanish people along the Costa del Sol. There is a feeling of a huge melting pot of people dipping into Spanish culture, into beach life, into the great outdoors (don’t forget the amazing mountain routes 10 minutes from the city).
I love the fact that I can go jogging along the edge of the Mediterranean in the afternoon, might meet people of five different nationalities out that evening and then next morning take the bike into the hills into gorgeous, authentic villages where time has stood still. And for 320 days of the year, the sun will be shining on me.
I even think there are many more Sevillanos jealous of Malaga these days, which is a turn up for the books! Although to be fair, you do need to want to learn and speak a bit Spanish to maximize its potential. Like so many things, life in Malaga is what you make of it.
What do you like least about life in Malaga?
Malaga has grown in stature with visitors and foreign residents here very fast. People living in the city still need to catch up a bit and walk a few centimetres taller. We need to work a little more on what the Spanish call “civismo”; keep the graffiti down and the beaches clean, for example. It has improved, but we need to keep going. However that said, that urban grittiness and realism is also a part of Malaga’s charm.
In terms of the core city centre, Malaga is actually quite small, when placed alongside Seville and Barcelona for example. I worry that with its sudden popularity it will ‘fill up’ and maybe lose the charm that is attracting people. So we need to work on drawing areas outside the city centre into the transformation, including some surprising ones. A good example is Torremolinos, long considered a concrete package holiday jungle 10km from the city centre, but just beginning its own transformation. I think it’s set to become an interesting supporting actor for Malaga over the next few years.
Where’s your favourite corner in Malaga and why?
I have a lot. One area that I think has been undervalued is the western side of the old town, from Los Mártires church, such a striking interior, over towards Calle Carreteria. As this was historically the poorer end of the walled city, it had less road widening and changes in Malaga’s late 19th century bourgeoisie boom and there are some lovely nooks and crannies.
Again, all is still a bit dilapidated but each month it gets a little smarter with some interesting independent retailers and restaurants springing up and, as yet, not too many tourists.
Which is your favourite restaurant in Malaga and why?
I have fond memories of El Pimpi, as it’s one of the first places I came to hang out in with friends and family when I moved to Spain. Even just 6 years ago it was still a discovery. Today, of course it is much larger and busier, but I’m pleased it has done so well and represents the city so proudly on so many occasions.
I am also quite partial to Vino Mio, alongside Teatro Cervantes.
And I am enjoying Taperia Astrid, an organic eatery just off Plaza las Camas by San Juan’s Church.
There’s a lot of good authentic places a few blocks away from the city centre as well for traditional Spanish eating.
Describe Malaga in 3 words
Unstuffy. Sunny. Funny.
Neil Hesketh is MD and owner of Spanish Approach, a marketing and communication consultancy advising non Spanish companies on doing business in Spanish speaking markets, and helping Spanish companies reach international customers better.
He was born in Liverpool and is a graduate of the University of Leeds. He is a Chartered Marketer with the UK Chartered Institute of Marketing.
Guide to Malaga are very grateful to Neil for sharing his thoughts about life in Malaga and for taking the time to answer our questions. ¡Muchas gracias!
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Read more interviews with expats living in Malaga in our other interviews:
Living in Malaga – vibrant, colourful and warm – Josephine Quintero