In between refereeing grudge matches between two under-ten-year-olds, and wiping off whatever new sticky substance they have on their faces today (…?), I’ve also found time to go on a couple of day trips to Marbella. Before I came to this part of the world I’d only ever heard of the city in that evocative phrase ‘no carbs before marbs’, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Memories of a holiday in another party town, Kavos – which principally involved wearing an ad hoc sound-muffling device made of earplugs, two towels and a bra (in order to block out the pumping music played all night every night), and escaping to the other side of the island as much as possible – didn’t exactly help to whet my appetite. Nevertheless, I thought I’d give it a go.
The city may have a rowdy reputation, but the reality is quite different; the endless signs for golf courses and strip clubs on the road into Marbella may be off-putting, but they belie the cultural heart of the place. Just a few steps from the beach and seafront bars is the glorious Casco Antiguo, a little island of atmospheric historical loveliness amidst all the industrialisation and tower-block hotels. Unlike bigger and more famous places, however, Marbella’s centre doesn’t have the stale air of a museum masquerading as a city – it is more a living patchwork of different eras and cultures, weaved in with the modern life of the Marballeros.
The old town is centred around the Plaza de los Naranjos – a picturesque little square of trees, restaurants, and fountains – from which narrow streets meander their way out to the medieval walls at its edge, filled with a mixture of bars, churches, and shops selling everything from ice cream to antique typewriters. Wall niches with statuettes of religious figures and crosses strung with rosaries can be found in all sorts of tucked away places, complete with miniature chandeliers and fresh flowers wound through their grating. Every time I’ve visited there’s been music in the streets – one crossroads hosted its own mini rock concert, while a group of friends at a bar in the Plaza burst into impromptu song when I was milling about nearby, accompanied by a guitar, and what I’m sure was a drinks tray as percussion. In the run up to Semana Santa I even saw some scruffy-looking workmen in dusty overalls polishing the most incredibly ornate chest-height pieces of silver in front of a church – an example of the sort of happy contradiction you see here, and the way life is lived in the streets rather than indoors.
Cross the main road and you come to the Alameda, a leafy park where you can sit and people-watch on one of the many unusually-tiled benches. The street from here down to the beach is lined with replicas of Dalí sculptures (which I find endlessly amusing), and opens onto the Paseo Marítimo. There are some great restaurants around here; The Beach Club Restaurant and Grill sits right on the beach and serves gorgeous calamari and cheap beer. For authentic Spanish service there’s The Madrileña, where the waiters have that efficient little head movement that makes them seem like birds, and they do great ‘boquerones fritos’.
But what about that infamous nightlife? Well, it’s pretty great. Forget huge personality-drained clubs, the Puerto Deportivo (a few minutes’ walk from the centre) is full of unique bars packed with character. On Saturday nights they might be so packed with people as well that you can’t see the walls… but the local clientele more than make up for it. One particular place, Locos (which is just as crazy as the name suggests), is just wonderful. When I mentioned I’d been there to the mother of my host family, it sparked a half-hour of wistful reminiscence on the part of her and her sister about their youth (mis)spent there. With live music at the weekends and a distinctly colourful array of punters (I myself got some beer-fuelled Salsa lessons from a Brazilian tourist), this place is a lot of fun, and great for practising your Spanish with the locals.
To sum this city up as a holiday destination, I’ve got to mention another great Marbellan bar – La Librería, i.e. The Bookshop – where I’ve spent several nights drinking Tinto de Verano (red wine with lemonade, which is nicer than it sounds) within walls covered floor-to-ceiling in books. Essentially, you can have a lot of fun surrounded by a lot of culture – making Marbella the perfect spot for those who love having the best of both worlds.