I first visited Spain in the 1960s with my sister when we were young, naive and enormously enthusiastic for all things Spanish. Muy guapas they called, as we thumbed rides on the road which winds along the coast of Andalusia.
We had hitch-hiked all the way down the Mediterranean coast -- Barcelona, Valencia, Almeria, Malaga -- the names roll off the tongue like olives, and the farther south we went, the more beautiful the scenery became.
South of Malaga we reached a white-washed fishing village called Marbella. Looking up at the emerald green hills and back again at the sparkling blue sea, we decided to stay. It was enchanting. The orange trees on the plaza were in blossom and every little house was festooned with flowering bougainvillea. Warm and hospitable, the villagers could not believe we had come all the way from Australia and one of them found us accommodation at a small pension costing only 60 pesetas a night.
At that time, the only two streets of any significance in Marbella were the coastal route, Carreterra 340, which continued onwards to Cadiz, and the Calle German Porras, the road used by farmers from the Sierra Nevada to take their produce to market. We would frequently waken to the sound of mules slipping on the cobbles beneath our window, or by the local fishermen bringing their catch.
By eight o'clock, we were breakfasting on churros and coffee debating how we would spend the day. On the beach? Exploring the Roman town of Ronda? Or remembering that it was Sunday, at the afternoon bullfight, or corrida? It was mandatory to speak some Spanish, diplomatic to follow the bullfight, and neither love, nor money, could induce anyone to produce a dinner before 10 at night.
Prodigious investment in the leisure industry has diluted the Spanish side of the Costa del Sol, turning it into what one travel writer aptly described as `The Costa with the Mosta'. Marbella's transformation began with the opening of Prince Alfonso yon Hohenloe's luxurous Marbella Club, much beloved of the European jetset. Famous fashion designers opened boutiques there and the disco queen Regine launched a nightclub in the five-star Puente Romano Hotel. Staying there recently, I was suitably impressed by the gold bath taps and manicured gardens, but nostalgia soon developed for our old pension in the Pueblo Antigua.
Slipping away from our group, I was pleased to find relatively few changes considering the passage of time. The street lamps had gone electric and the market had sensibly moved indoors but in smoke-filled bodegas men still played dominoes, slapping the pieces down as passionately as the fall of a flamenco dancer's foot.
The senora who ran the pension we stayed in years before had long since passed away but now managed by her daughter, it had obviously done well. The courtyard had been transformed into a patio restaurant serving local specialities such as Malaguena soup and casseroled duck but rooms that cost us 60 pesatas a night now cost more than 8,000.
My visit convinced me that Marbella, for all its reputation as a jet set resort, still offers a glimpse of traditional Spain. An added bonus for modern-day visitors are the excellent sports facilities, especially those for lovers of tennis and golf.
Sailing also enjoys a huge summer following from marinas built all along the coast. One of the first, Puerto Banus, remains the most spectacular, with the creme-de-la-creme of Mediterranean craft fluttering flags of different nations, predominantly those of Arab states.
Marbella enjoys the considerable patronage of the Arab world, rather like chickens coming home to roost in Moorish Spain. Much of the property is Arab-owned and the crenallated walled mosque, built by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, is a local landmark. Generating further interest is Marbella's impressive Museum of Islamic Art.
Andalusia of course is a rich repository of Moorish culture. Malaga, the gateway to the Costa del Sol, has Moorish fortifications which include a former citadel whose paths are lined with hedges of jasmine. In Grenada, the perfume changes to roses in the Alhambra Gardens, not just one palace, but several, linked by courtyards. One of Europe's most romantic cities, it is overwhelmingly Moorish like the other much vaunted tourist town of Cordoba, further inland.
On the banks of the River Guadalquivir, Cordoba is still dominated by the awesome mezquita created by Moorish masons more than 1,200 years ago. But everywhere are images of North Africa, narrow streets, tiled portals and concealed patios. Seville, too, exudes a lingering Moorish ambience of the Maghreb. Its most famous Islamic monument -- the giralda -- or minaret, was designed by the architect of the great Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh in the 12th century. In an adjacent square is an ablutions tank from this time. There can be no more serene place to study than the Place de los Naranjos, as it is known. Hearing me say how I would love an orange, a boy closed the English text he was reading and, scaling a nearby tree, threw one down to me. Sevilla, Cordoba and Grenada are jewels in the crown of Spain's rich repository of Moorish architecture and all within easy reach of my old stamping ground, Marbella.
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|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2001|
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