Sheltered by the hills of the Sierra Blanca, MARBELLA stands in considerable contrast to most of its neighbours. Since attracting the attentions of the smart set in the 1960s, it has zealously polished its reputation as the Costa del Sol's most stylish resort. Chic restaurants, bars and cafés cash in on the hype, and everything costs considerably more. Marbella has the highest per capita income in Europe and more Rolls-Royces than any European city apart from London.
Recently, the Spanish government and authorities have been exercised by the arrival in Marbella of Russian and Italian mafia bosses who have been using the town as a base. In 2005, police discovered Europe's biggest-ever money-laundering operation, channelling billions of dollars from worldwide crime syndicates into Marbella-registered companies. In an ironic twist of history, there's also been a massive return of Arabs, especially since the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia built a White House lookalike, complete with adjacent mosque, on the outskirts, where the Saudi royal family plus courtiers and servants spend the summer.
To be fair, Marbella has been spared the worst excesses of concrete architecture and also retains the greater part of its old town – set back a little from the sea and the new development. Centred on the attractive Plaza de los Naranjos and still partially walled, the old town is hidden from the main road. Slowly, this original quarter is being turned into clothes and jewellery boutiques and restaurants, but the process isn't that far advanced. You can still sit in an ordinary bar in a small old square and look up beyond the whitewashed alleyways to the mountains of Ronda. South of the centre, three excellent beaches stretch east from Playa de la Badajilla and Playa de Venus to Playa de la Fontanilla.
The seriously rich don't stay in Marbella itself. They secrete themselves away in villas in the surrounding hills or laze around on phenomenally large and luxurious yachts at the marina and casino complex of Puerto Banús, 6km west.
Time has transformed this small maritime village of humble homes into a splendid tourist city that every year opens its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors attracted by the wonderful climate (the average temperature is 19º Celsius), the warmth of the people, and the renowned parties and nightlife.
Historical District and Downtown
Marbella was called Salduba in the time of the Romans and re-named Marbil-la under the Muslim rule, and walking through the Historical District is like taking a small trip through the past, where the Arab roots and traces of Christianity come together. For example, the iglesia de la Encarnación (Church of the Incarnation) was raised just a few metres from the murallas (walls) of the Caliph's castle.
The streets wind through cobblestones, immaculate façades, and balconies decorated with flower-boxes full of geraniums and carnations. There are priceless tiny, typically-Andalusian squares and nooks and crannies, such as the Balcón de la Virgen (Balcony of the Virgin Mary), set in the window of an old white-washed house that today houses a restaurant.
The hub-bub of daily life—work, business, shopping, and the coming and goings of people—begins in the Avenida Ricardo Soriano and extends throughout the entire downtown area. But calm reigns again once you reach the Paseo Marítimo (promenade), where tranquility, the ocean breeze, hammocks, and tanned bodies are the star of the show.
Jose Banús was the promoter of all of New Andalusia and of course of the Marina that carries his name, which is one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean coast. There are 915 tying-in points on the two piers, Ribera and Benabolá. In the clear blue waters the most luxurious yachts in the world have anchored and slept: the Nabila of the magnate Adnan Kashoggi, the Príncipe Abdulazis, the Tritona, and the Shaf. The port has been declared a Center of International Tourist Interest and among its many honors has the Gold Medal for Merit in Tourism.
Shopping, having a coffee on one of the terraces, walking along the piers, and, of course, enjoying the nighttime atmosphere by dancing until dawn or drinking a cocktail while gazing at the star-covered bay are just some of the activities you have to choose from. And every year more visitors come, making it a must-see in the summer months for celebrities and people from the tabloid world, including photographers who snap their celebrity shots.
San Pedro de Alcántara
Originally it was named Cilniana or Silniana, and above the ruins of the ancient Roman settlement you'll find one of the most beautiful areas of the Costa del Sol that, at the turn of the century, had a population of 95 and today is home to more than 35,000. From its past, the area has conserved the most important archeological monuments in Marbella: the Bóvedas , the Basílica Vega del Mar and the Villa Romana de Río Verde .
According to legend the remains of San Pedro Alcántara were brought by sea to the shore of the beach here; hence the name. But the current city is a product — and a work of art — of the dream of the Marquis del Duero, who during the mid-19th century pledged his fortune — and his life — to building the most modern private agricultural colony in the country. The colony officially disappeared in 1944, but the original plan and configuration of its streets remains unchanged today, granting the urban landscape a touch of traditional flavor.
This area has wonderful beaches, like the Gualdamina , and an important hostelry infrastructure that has seen the biggest growth in its history in just the last three decades. However, the people here still haven't lost one bit of their warmth and genuine friendliness.
There isn't a village around that is more proud of its roots that Estepona, where despite the tourist boom of the last few years, inhabitants still maintain their simple grace and warm welcome for visitors perfectly intact.
The activities and life of the villagers are centered in the Historic District, where the official organizations, the Town Hall, the City Market, banks, etc, are located. There is a beautiful and well-cared-for waterfront promenade, as well as wonderful beaches with fine white sand. In the marinas and the fishing ports, full of terrace-restaurants and snack bars, you'll find the best fried fish in the bay.
The warmth of the climate, the beautiful vegetation, and the strategic location make this area the perfect place for the most prestigious golf courses, the Selwo Natural Park , and the Escuela de Arte Ecuestre de la Costa del Sol .
Marbella is not only a great place to relax and have some fun but it's also a gourmet's paradise, boasting a cosmopolitan array of restaurants.
Tour of the Tapas Bars
Once a year, the residents of Marbella celebrate the town's culinary status with a party they call La Ruta Tasquera. Tapas are the savory snacks served with an alcoholic drink in bars throughout Spain. So that you do not miss out on the fun, the following is a list of some of the best tapas bars that you can try any day of the year. You might start with a cold beer in La Bodeguita Marbellí and it will probably be accompanied by homemade ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad). Wash down a variety of cured hams and sausage with your second beer at La Sacristía or the Tasca Don Matute . Share a tortilla de ajos tiernos (spring onion omelette) over the next beer at El Burlaero . In La Cervecería they will offer you a little kebab with your drink. And at La Querencia the tapas are a meal in themselves. En Ca Curro is famous for smooth, sweet Moscatel wine, served with prawns or fresh fried fish.
By now you'll need a break so take a seat in one of Marbella's squares or parks before hitting what is arguably the best tapas bar of them all, La Venecia de los Olivos , which has three branches around town and serves delicious savory ribs. Head upmarket for a while and order a glass of vino fino (fine wine, or dry sherry) with a sophisticated canape at Gorky . Next is a regional treat: cider and snacks from Asturias in the north of Spain at Sidrería Urogallo . Thought you were finished? Not likely. That was just a warm-up before lunch. And the choice of restaurants for lunch and dinner is as exciting as the tapas bars.
The Amanecer Country Tex Mex serves hot enchiladas with cold Mexican beer. If you can't survive without hamburgers, then make sure you eat the best at Old Texas . Delicate dishes from Thailand are available at Sukhothai , while hearty portions of beef are the order of the day at El Gaucho Argentino. How about sushi at Sakura ? Or you can choose from two excellent Chinese restaurants. The Mandarin is considered to be the best on the Costa del Sol. And the Hong Kong is said to prepare the most succulent Peking duck in Marbella.
Italian cooking is well represented here. Two especially fine examples are the Villa Tiberio and the La Fonte delle Streghe . In the Toni Dalli , you can expect to be entertained by a distinguished tenor. The Da Bruno specializes in fresh pasta and the Palacio de la Toscana prepares the best ravioli with spinach that you will ever taste. There are also lots of small pizzerias in Marbella, selling thin and crispy pizzas to take away.
Carnivores are well catered for in Marbella, with three restaurants serving the finest quality meat in typical Castilian style. So you can try a lamb stew or a roast sucking-pig in El Rancho , or El Portalón or Asador Puerta del Príncipe . Those who prefer fish should head for Puerto Banús to try the day's catch with a sea view at La Dorada or La Marina. Vegetarians can also expect the highest quality and service at Azafrán y Menta.
People who take their food seriously have probably already heard about the imaginative dishes at La Hacienda and if you dine at La Meridiana and Taberna del Alabardero , you'll fall in love with the chefs. The Santiago prepares fresh shellfish with reverence and the Víctor has special respect for lobster. All these five-star restaurants can be found in Puerto Banús and San Pedro de Alcántera.
A walk through the Old Town
Marbella has been transformed from a little fishing village into an internationally renowned tourist resort, but if you walk round the old part of town you can still detect traces of its turbulent past. The narrow winding streets are a legacy of Muslim rule, while the conquering Christians built the tree-lined squares. There is an overall grid pattern to the street plan, so no need to worry about getting lost.
Start off at the ruined walls of what was once a Moorish fortress—a defensive structure that was eventually breached by the Christians during their reconquest of Spain—and head into Plaza de San Bernabe (named after the patron saint of Marbella). Take Calle Viento and walk down it as far as Calle Alonso de Bazán where you will find the old hospital that has been converted into the Contemporary Spanish Print Gallery .
Retrace your steps or turn up Calle Trinidad until you reach the impressive church called Iglesia de la Encarnación , in the Plaza de la Iglesia, a square lined with pretty fruit trees that offer welcome shade on a hot day. From here, follow Calle Molinillos, the street with all the souvenir shops, up to > Plaza de los Naranjos where the Town Hall stands. This is an ideal location to take a break. Sit down at an outdoor cafe and enjoy a cool, refreshing drink. If it happens to be time for lunch, you might want to try Fonte delle Streghe for first class Italian cooking.
After lunch, find Calle Nueva, one of the streets that heads out of the square, and there on the corner is K-2, if you fancy doing some shopping. Keep going down Calle Nueva until you hit Plaza de Juan Paloma, and from there you can reach Avenida Ramón y Cajal which is just a continuation of Avenida Ricardo Soriano . Cross the Avenida Ramón y Cajal into Parque de la Alameda, a haven of green that reverberates with countless love stories. Keep going south towards the sea along Avenida del Mar—which is lined by half a dozen sculptures by the incomparable genius, Dalí—and you come to the Paseo Marítimo (promenade). Time for an ice-cream? From the Milla de Oro you can gaze out upon the tranquil Mediterranean Sea.
This famous marina has been around since 1970. It was officially opened, to great fanfare, by Prince Ranier of Monaco and Grace Kelly at a glittering party. Ever since then, Puerto Banús has played host to an array of international celebrities and their attendant paparazzi and gossip columnists during high summer. The best way to approach the harbour area is to set off on foot from the gigantic bronze sculpture on Avenida de las Naciones Unidas, crossing over to Avenida de la Rivera and following it along to the main entrance.
Once through the main gate you can take advantage of the excellent shopping facilities that include a range of the most famous names in fashion design, such as Gianfranco Ferre , Emporio Armani and Pomellato , along with dozens of other individual outlets selling things like swim-wear (at prices to suit the average holiday-maker as well as the rich and famous), works of art and hand-crafted goods.
Or you could just simply take a seat at an outdoor cafe, such as the Sinatra , order a drink and watch the sumptuous display of yachts and motor cruisers that gather here from all over the world.
The marina is divided into quays and mooring bays to accommodate all these luxurious pleasure craft. The main quay is called the Muelle de la Ribera, and on the street running parallel to it, you'll find all the shops. As you are on holiday, why not treat yourself to a stylish new watch from the Swatch Boutique, or a leather jacket from Facciaro ?
Don't forget to find the other quay, Muelle Benabolá, and visit the little chapel—that houses an altar dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen—and the monument to commemorate Don Juan de Borbón, from which, on a clear day, you can see as far as Gibraltar.
Whilst making your way along the Muelle de la Ribera, stopping in at all the most interesting shops, you can't fail to notice an assortment of the sleekest sports cars that money can buy—Ferraris, Maserattis, Mitsubishis. By now, all that shopping will have made you hungry. There are more than 30 different restaurants to chose from in Puerto Banús. Tonight, why not try an exotic Indian delicacy at the Mumtaz ?