On a clear day in Marbella, on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain, it is possible to look across the Mediterranean and see a shimmering ribbon hovering just above the horizon—the range of mountains known as the Rif, which marches across Morocco and appears close enough to swim to.
Yes, it used to be known as the Costa del Crime because of the many British gangsters who went on the run here. Yes, the whiff of bribery lingers around public office. (In September 2010, it was the site of the largest corruption trial in Spanish history.) Yes, high culture and haute cuisine are not high priorities. And yes, the Mediterranean here lacks the pellucid clarity of the Greek islands or the better parts of Sardinia. But having seen a fair bit of the world, I can think of no resort area that has seduced me so utterly.
I used to spend my summers in the South of France, doing my best to live out a dream that was part Cocteau, part To Catch a Thief, and I still love the Côte d’Azur. But too many rainy summers helped me decide to take a friend up on his invitation to stay in Marbella.
It is hardly an unspoiled littoral, but within a few minutes’ drive from the luxury boutiques and impeccable golf courses, one is in the middle of wild countryside. I have even seen a goatherd driving his flock across one of the bridges that span the six-lane highway that hugs the coastline. The Pueblos Blancos of the mountains bristle with the authenticity that modern tourists who call themselves travelers look for. Then there is the exoticism of the Andalusian hinterland, with sites such as the Alhambra and the Córdoba Cathedral serving as potent reminders that this was the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe, who hung on until the end of the 16th century.
Modern Marbella is a more recent creation, in large part the work of Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, who did with Marbella what the Aga Khan did on the Costa Smeralda (see “Reworking Costa Smeralda”). He founded the Marbella Club (rooms, from $310; Bulevar Príncipe Alfonso von Hohenlohe; 34-952/822-211; marbellaclub.com) as an aristocratic guesthouse in the early 1950s, creating a sort of barefoot luxury that was actually fairly short on luxury but long on charm and sunshine. Von Hohenlohe talked up the place when he went skiing in St. Moritz or shooting in England and painted a picture of a lotus eater’s idyll, in which the donkeys far outnumbered the cars on the dirt road that linked Marbella to the next town, San Pedro de Alcántara.
He did such a good job that by the ’60s, Bismarcks, Rothschilds, the occasional Niarchos and Kennedy and many of the people that Slim Aarons made a living photographing had either built houses here or come for the summer, and the Saudi royal family designed a palace that looks like the White House. By the Harold Robbins ’70s, guests were staying up in the hills at Adnan Khashoggi’s La Zagaleta, an estate so large, it’s now the area’s most exclusive gated community, with houses changing hands for seven or eight figures.
Indeed, there is much in the way of shiny glamour to attract, say, free-spending billionaires who have swapped the yoke of Communism for consumerism. The old donkey track has long disappeared under the tarmac of a four-lane artery that joins Marbella to the luxury boutiques and bars of Puerto Banús, and if it is gaudy spectacle you seek, then the port serves that up aplenty.
I could happily spend a year without going near the port and instead prefer to wander around Old Town. This whitewashed warren has buildings from the 15th century, and at Easter it is packed tight for the week of nocturnal processions by hooded religious orders. Here I stop for churros and hot chocolate at the Churreria Ramon (Calle Valdés 1; churreriaramon.com), buy a lottery ticket from one of the vendors that seem to stake out every street and pick something up from Déjà Vu (Calle Pedraza 8; dejavumarbella.com), a vintage boutique that sells everything from 19th-century furniture to 1970s Gucci luggage.
If you need a change from the relaxed yet highly social scene of the Marbella Club chiringuito (beach restaurant), where the lunchtime rush peaks at about 2:30 p.m. and where you will find such legends of the luxury industry as former Brioni boss Umberto Angeloni and Chopard’s Caroline Scheufele, there are simpler gastronomic pleasures. My new favorite among these inexpensive local haunts is El Bigote (Urbanización Colorado 103), for which I have Angeloni to thank.
Beyond Marbella the luxury on offer has been augmented with a few recent openings. Michelle Obama’s visit a few years ago put Hotel Villa Padierna (rooms, from $360; Ctra. de Cádiz km. 166; 34-952/889-150; hotelvillapadierna.com) on the international map. A half hour away is Finca Cortesin (rooms, from $530; Ctra. de Casares s/n E-29690; 34-952/937-800; fincacortesincom), whose rustic architecture brings a welcome dash of sophistication to the coast between Marbella and Gibraltar. While close to Gib, the country club Sotogrande (Autoviá del Mediterráneo km. 130; sotogrande.com) delivers a self-contained experience in which polo, tennis, golf and restaurants keep its residents and visitors so busy, they have little need to go past its borders. Beyond Gibraltar lie the beaches of the Costa de Luz. Up in the hills, the town of Ronda features an ancient bullring and the well-regarded Tragabuches restaurant ($ Calle de José Aparicio 1; 34-952/190-291; tragabuches.com).
Farther afield, the sites of Córdoba, Granada, Jerez de la Frontera and Seville are no less impressive for being well known. Just do not go in summer, when inland temperatures can hit 104 degrees. I prefer a drive across the rocky fields to historic locations like Carmona, where the parador is in the former fortress of King Pedro of Castile (rooms, from $205; Alcázar s/n; 34-954/141-010; paradores-spain.com).
While parts of Spain take centuries to change, the coast is once again reinventing itself. Marbella is doing its best to shed its reputation for corruption. The city has also raised its culinary game and now has the Michelin two-star Calima (Calle José Melia s/n; 34-952/764-252; restaurantecalima.es). As for Málaga, the major coastal city and local airport hub: If the Museo Picasso Málaga (Palacio de Buenavista; Calle San Agustín 8; museopicassomalaga.org) is not your thing, then you might enjoy its soccer team, which was recently bought by a member of Qatar’s ruling family.
The same Qatari investor is behind plans for a huge pleasure port at the eastern end of Marbella, capable of handling cruise liners. Having eaten grilled fish on the sands of the little harbor that this behemoth will replace, I cannot help feeling nervous that another bit of the unvarnished charm of the area will disappear. But Marbella has absorbed change before. And besides, it is the other end of town from my beloved Marbella Club, where to sit on the terrace of its restaurant on a summer evening, the boughs of the soaring umbrella pines creating a cathedral-like vaulted ceiling, is to be vouchsafed a vision of paradise.
The Costa del Sol scenery was one of the stars of 2000’s Sexy Beast, in which a gangster (Ben Kingsley) tries to recruit a retired ex-con (Ray Winstone) for one last London heist.
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