Monday, 26 July 2010

Brushing shoulders with Brits on the Costa del Sol

People can be very sniffy about the idea of the Costa del Sol, instantly associating it with 2 for 1 drinks offers, red-raw sunburnt shoulders and overdeveloped towns filled with holiday apartment complexes. Goodness knows there's some truth in these images, my own blog being based on the idea of my 'alternative' Brit Abroad experience, so far removed from jugs of sangría in Torremolinos. But the thing is, the Costa del Sol is where my love affair with Spain began: as a teenager, we spent a couple of family holidays at a villa in the hills above San Pedro de Alcántara, exploring nearby towns, the coastline and further afield to the most famous pueblo blanco, Ronda. So it was with these memories in my (relatively open) mind that I returned to my adolescent holiday destination, joining my family for a long weekend of relaxation and culture. Yes, culture on the Costa del Sol, you read that correctly.

After arriving at Málaga airport, my break began in untypical fashion with a visit to the city itself. Overlooked by many visitors to its nearby resorts, Málaga is a typically Andalusian city with a smart centre made up of pedestrianised streets, inviting squares and a number of attractive monuments. Although it can't compete with the sights of Granada or Seville, as Picasso's home town Málaga boasts an enviable cultural heritage, with the Museo de Picasso and Picasso's birthplace tempting fans of the city's most famous son to visit. For those more into architecture than art, Málaga's Alcazaba (Moorish fortress) is an oasis of archways and fountain-filled gardens perched on the hillside with a view of the sea, well worth the couple of euros entry fee.

Alcazaba, Málaga

After acquiring a flavour for the seaside city, we moved on to the famous 'auction-style' restaurant, El Tintero. Located on Playa El Palo a couple of kilometres east of the city centre, El Tintero specialises in Málaga's signature pescaíto frito (fried fish) and seafood. The food on offer is tasty enough, but the novel dining experience is the real attraction: a team of waiters patrol the shaded terrace carrying armfuls of steaming plates, shouting out the name of the dish they're carrying in their best market-trader voices. 'Llevo paella, ¡ay qué rico la paella!' and 'Gambas, ¿quién quiere gambas?' are common calls as the waiters weave their way through the tables; customers signalling to them as they pass by. With most portions just €7.50, lunch at this atmospheric joint certainly won't break the bank: we paid €55 between four, including drinks.

La Virgen del Carmen
After eating our fill, it was time to head to our home for the weekend, Estepona. West of trendy Marbella, this little beachside town still maintains a fishing industry in addition to its role as a holiday hotspot. Much more low-key than resorts such as Benalmadena and Fuengirola, development in Estepona has mostly taken the form of small apartment buildings rather than high-rise horrors, and the old town is a typically andaluz area of white-painted houses. It boasts a number of beaches and a wildlife park, and is an easy drive to other resorts as well as the interior of western Andalucia. My family had rented a comfortable apartment in a small gated complex in a quiet area close to Playa El Cristo, just ten minutes to the main beach and half an hour to the old town. Our first night coincided with the Fiesta del Carmen, a festival in honour of the patron saint of fishermen. Walking down the seafront promenade, a few British and German voices mingled with the cheery chatter of heavily-accented locals, but unlike flashy Puerto Banus, foreign strollers were merely a sizeable minority rather than the dominant group. We took a seat at one of the many chiringuitos (beach bars) overlooking Estepona's Playa de la Rada, waiting for the procession carrying a figurine of the saint to come by. As is typical of these processions, a marching band headed the parade, with the heavy image of the virgin following behind, wielded by a number of muscular men calling out ¡guapa, guapa, guapa! (pretty) in honour of the saint. Behind the elaborately decorated float came local dignitaries and a number of penitents, some walking barefoot as a symbol of their atonement.

The next day was spent as so many days on the Costa del Sol are: soaking up the sun on the beach. As it was Saturday, plenty of Spaniards mingled with the foreign holidaymakers, their children playing together (or more accurately in one case, terrorising each other) despite the language barrier. I was amused to overhear a young Spanish boy proclaiming to his English playmate that 'We don't speak English here, we speak Spanish!' With only some minor sunburn to show off, we dined at traditional restaurant Casa Pablo in the aptly-named central square, the Plaza de las Flores. Prices were reasonable and my huge swordfish steak attracted plenty of admiring glances from passers-by. Afterwards, we made our way to the holidaymakers' end of town, the waterside puerto deportivo, a strip of restaurants and relaxed bars far removed from the quayside area of Puerto Banus, which turns into a parade of designer clothing and top-of-the-range cars as soon as the sun sets. Installing ourselves on the terrace of a busy bar, we sampled some rather ropey cocktails (caiprinha with lemon and no sugar, anyone?). Disappointing drinks aside, the lively area was ideal for a bit of people watching, with some more serious nightlife options available for those who want them.

My remaining days passed in much the same fashion: sunbathing, swimming, sampling a Greek restaurant at the puerto deportivo. I departed Estepona with a tan and an improved opinion of the Costa del Sol: yes, it's overdeveloped, but there are still relaxed resorts and pockets of charm. With sandy beaches, an interesting city in the form of Málaga and good transport connections from all over Europe, plus easy access to the rest of the region (we also drove to Granada in just 2 hours 20 minutes and spent the night there), holidaymakers could certainly choose far worse destinations.


  1. What a great original take on a holiday area that we think we all know. There are some wonderful insights here from someone who really seems to know Spain.

  2. Thanks for this great post defending the much criticised Costa del Sol. We live and run a business here and love the area. You can find whatever you want here - if you want to live/holiday in an expat area you can, but there's so much more out there, including great towns and Spanish customs and culture a plenty. I hope posts like yours change people's attitudes towards the Costa del Sol and get more holiday makers to come here and make their own minds up.

  3. Thanks for your kind comments. I agree that it's a much criticised area, and far too often people jump on the criticism bandwagon without even having visited recently. As you say, there are expat areas of course but plenty of Spanish ones too - and even in the more holiday-orientated towns, you can still find more traditionally Spanish culture if you choose to. I also hope people give the Costa del Sol a chance, I think it's a great area for family holidays and tourism must continue to help Spain's economy.

  4. Great post! Makes me really want to go on holiday. I don't think I know as much about Oxford as you do about Spain!

  5. An interesting post that will dispel peoples concerns about the Costa del Sol. I do enjoy reading your posts as they give a really good insight into the real Spain with a lovely smattering of humour to keep your attention. Keep them coming

  6. I have lived in Spain for 10 years and have a 600 page English-language portal.

    I am constantly amazed by the people who have never actually been to, say, Fuengirola who write it off with disdain. There are another enormous number of people who would "die to live in Spain" despite the fact that they have only been here for a vodka-drenched stag or hen weekend. A further group would group Benidorm with Torrevieja and have no idea that Benidorm has more bed nights tonight than (the larger) Torrevieja has in a whole year.

    España tiene de todo (Spain has everything) .... and often I think mostly misconceptions! I KNOW why I love Spain and I hope you all will come to know and love Spain so please come to take the time like Kate to get to know this (once-!)great country .......and make your own decision!!



  7. Was just in Spain, but wasn't able to make it to the South. Really want to still check out Malaga and Marbella at some point.

    1. Malaga is definitely worth it! Marbella old town is very pretty too, although not sure it's worth a special trip (beyond a day, I mean). The port area of Puerto Banús is pretty flashy/tacky and is better avoided!


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