For years, my father told me about the soup.
“Best soup I ever had in my life,” he’d say, before retelling the story as if we hadn’t already heard it 400 times. He remembered every detail, from the ingredients in the soup to the song playing in the background (Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa) to the books my mother was reading when they were traveling around southern Spain as newlyweds (all of Hemingway).
The year was 1970. The place, he swore, was Malaga, the Mediterranean port city on Spain’s Costa del Sol. The name of the restaurant inconveniently escapes him now; he remembers only that they had to hike up a mountain to a fancy hotel “with a fantastic view of the Rock of Gibraltar.” He and my mother, being young and relatively broke, could afford only the cheapest dish on the menu: a simple yet elegant soup made from cream, shellfish and sherry.
Now, this is a man who misplaces his glasses several times a day and still isn’t entirely certain when my birthday is. If one 43-year-old meal could leave such an impression on that unreliable memory, I decided, I had to hunt it down for myself.
But there was one unresolvable dissonance in my father’s recollection: Malaga is 86 miles from Gibraltar, with a nub of land sticking out into the ocean between them. Was he positive that it was Malaga? Could it have been Marbella, the resort town on the other side of the nub, closer to Gibraltar and perhaps a likelier tourist destination in the ’70s?
No, it was Malaga, he was sure.
THE WRONG ROCK
It was dark when I arrived in Malaga, too late to get the lay of the land. I checked into my pensione, a huge, creaky old house overseen by a charmingly eccentric innkeeper. As she led me past porcelain cat figurines and two ominous-looking suits of armor keeping sentry in the hall, I asked: “Is there a mountain here? With a hotel at the top?”
Her face screwed into a question mark, and I tried to explain my mission in imperfect Spanish: the honeymooners, the long hike up the hill, the best soup ever.
A look of recognition registered on her face, and she started talking fast in a mostly indecipherable Andalusian accent. But one thing she said caught my ear: Gibralfaro.
Gibralfaro? That’s almost like Gibraltar. Could it be that my dad had mixed up the names and I was in the right place after all, one step closer to tasting the fabled soup?
The next morning I set out for Mount Gibralfaro, which rises above the town and is crowned with an imposing castle fortress; at its foot are the ruins of a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater and an Arabic palace called the Alcazaba.
Malaga is one of the world’s oldest cities, dating to at least the eighth century B.C. The Alcazaba was built by the Moors on the site of an ancient Phoenician settlement to protect the town as the Caliphate of Cordoba began to crumble in the 11th century. Roughly nine hundred years later, the fortifications did little to shield Malaga from Gen. Francisco Franco, whose Nationalist forces took the city during the Spanish Civil War, killing several thousand civilians. The structures survived, and today tourists marvel at the Alcazaba’s multifoil arches, intricately carved interiors and tranquil gardens.
As I ascended the steep switchbacks leading up the mountain from the Alcazaba, I wasn’t surprised to discover that there is, in fact, no view of the Rock of Gibraltar — only the Costa del Sol’s dramatic hilly coastline disappearing into the mist to the south and the busy seaport stretching out below.