Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Benalmádena, a privileged hillock rising above the sea. A watchtower overlooking the Mediterranean. An Arab-sounding name: Benalmádena. A town dipping its feet into the sea and warming its body on the sand. A city of winding streets and hustling ports, with Africa looming on the horizon. Benalmádena Pueblo. Benalmádena Costa. Arroyo de la Miel. A town to be discovered. A town to visit once and again.

Information: Planning Your Trip in Three Parts

Benalmádena is divided into three distinct urban areas. First of all, Benalmádena Pueblo, where everything began, keeping the old spirit of Andalusia on its white streets. Then, Benalmádena Costa: the sea (pleasure for your senses), the beach, the Mediterranean, leisure, lots of tourist attractions. Last but not least, Arroyo de la Miel, whose huge park is like a green lung to the Costa del Sol –a bucolic place to rest, where you can take the cable railway to Calamorro or visit Tívoli World, a funfair. Together, these three distinct areas make Benalmádena. I planned a tour that included the three of them in this order, so that I could enjoy Benalmádena at its best. I only had to change something along the way for reasons beyond my control, which you’ll read about below.

Getting Started: Getting to Benalmádena Pueblo

If you’re coming from Marbella or Cádiz, take the first exit on A7 highway reading Benalmádena (just like that, “Benalmádena”). It’s just after Fuengirola, when you reach El Higuerón. If you’re coming from Málaga or Granada instead, take exit 217 of A7 highway, past the cable railway, when you begin driving down to Fuengirola. Beginning your tour here makes the linear route easy to follow through the three urban areas. Exiting at 217, follow the signs indicating you’re coming to Benalmádena Pueblo. And the first thing you’ll come across is…

The Buddhist Stupa

… A huge terrace facing the Mediterranean, where you’ll feel the salt-laden breeze of the sea. Here stands the Buddhist Stupa, a huge white construction with a golden dome that looks like a spiritual lighthouse guiding ships from the coast. Three poles with Buddhist flags produce a sound like a Nepali mantra. Inside, the stupa has lots of lively wall paintings. You can feel the peace in its 100-square-metre meditation room. On the whole, it’s a curious building for the Mare Nostrum. In the lower part of the temple there’s an exhibition of Buddhism and the spiritual life it entails (admission fee: €2). I took in as much energy as I could, skirting the stupa clockwise so that my wishes came true. Then, I pursued more worldly affairs.

Towards Benalmádena Pueblo and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

Back in the car, I followed the signs, which are visible and clear (you can’t get lost). In about 2’ I reached the urban area. Where to park? Benalmádena Pueblo can be covered on foot, so the best thing to do is find the free public parking zone opposite the Town Hall (just after the double traffic lights; follow the signs). It’s perfectly located and huge, so there’ll sure be space for everyone. A flight of steps takes you to the main street, Juan Peralta Avenue. Walk to the left, to the town centre. You’ll start feeling the essence of traditional Andalusia in Benalmádena Pueblo: narrow streets peppered with colourful flowers, iron-wrought windows, whitewashed walls. And soon enough you’ll bump into the Felipe Orlando Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (admission: free). The museum is excellent, combining modern architecture with ancient pieces on display. There’re fine examples of delicate Pre-Columbian art from México, Peru, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Ecuador: vessels, small sculptures, toiletries, and musical instruments like whistles and ocarinas. All in all, a fascinating tour of the Americas before Columbus brought to Benalmádena by Felipe Orlando García-Murciano, a Mexican citizen who chose to live here and bequeathed his house and private collection for everyone to see. It’s worth coming. In addition, the underground floor shows archaeological remains found in Benalmádena, mapping out the history of the municipality. And on top of all this, you’ll be given maps of both Benalmádena Pueblo and Benalmádena Costa, which will be very useful for the rest of your trip. Back to Juan Peralta Avenue and from here to Real Street, following the directions given by the museum’s staff.

The Streets, La Niña, La Fonda: Everything at Hand’s Reach

Real is a cobblestone street flanked by low houses, whitewashed walls, and iron-wrought grilles. It invites you to take a stroll far from the madding crowd and away from routine at home. Benalmádena’s historic district is a real maze of streets where you can let yourself be swept along. If you get off Real Street – Plaza España – Santo Domingo Street – Plaza de Santo Domingo route you’ll find locals doing their everyday errands, leading their everyday lives: the smells of the early meals, the clothes hanging in patios, people looking out of windows. It’ll make you feel fine. Back on track: on 2 Real Street, you’ll find a newsstand where you can buy stamps (€0.32 Spanish postage) and postcards (€0.25), and there’s a letter box a few metres away where you can drop your letters. At the street fork, walk ahead, leaving Álamos Street to the left. You’ll come to Plaza España to see one of the symbols of town: La Niña de Benalmádena (The Girl of Benalmádena): a bronze sculpture in a fountain. On Santo Domingo Street, there stands the building of La Fonda, which was rehabilitated by César Manrique, the famous architect from the Canary Islands. This building is home to the Benalmádena Catering School, serving good menus from Monday to Friday. Behind the façade designed by Manrique, there’s a patio bubbling over with flowers and a dining room on a terrace affording stunning views of the sea.

Plaza de Santo Domingo de Guzmán

This is one of the most beautiful places on your trip: Plaza de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, commanding great panoramic views of the Costa del Sol. Embraced by the sea breeze and amidst palm trees, the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán stands on this mound. The picture seems to have been taken from colonial Cuba. The Church is surrounded by Jardines del Muro (the Wall Gardens), whose steps and balconies –full of trees and shadows, flower perfumes and birds’ trills– are the perfect setting to sit down and read or write your postcards. Peace and quiet all around. These Gardens were also designed by César Manrique. In them you can feel the imminence of the sea in the fragrance of pine trees. There’re binoculars you can use for €1 if you want broader views of the coast. Our next site is also in sight: the Colomares Castle.

The Colomares Castle
Walking down El Chorrillo Avenue from Plaza de Santo Domingo, a free elevator takes you to Castillo de Colomares (Colomares Castle). If you prefer to walk, it’ll take you some 20’ to get there. I drove, for I still had a lot of things to see. I retraced my steps back to Santo Domingo Street, stopping by the letter box in the square to mail the postcards I’d written. My car was 5’ away. Everything is a pebble’s throw in Benalmádena Pueblo. After getting to Juan Peralta Avenue, I turned left and went down El Chorrillo Avenue to Castillo de Colomares. The site features a dirt parking area. The sea is always there, always visible. The Castle itself (admission fee: €2) is a mystery, as if it had been taken out of one of Gaudí’s nightmares. Different from everything around it, it has the kitsch charm of those eyesores that are both pleasant and disgusting to look at. Twisting spires reaching for the sky and a tribute to the Discovery of America, my guidebook reads. Caravel-shaped terraces, balconies resembling figureheads, baroque doors. Surrealist, weird, and grotesque. There’s no accounting for taste.

Arroyo de la Miel, Tivoli World, and the Cable Railway

Driving back along the road you used, you have to go up to Benalmádena Pueblo and follow the signs leading to Arroyo de la Miel. The Bullring lies to the left, but you’ll need to drive ahead. The sites are clearly signposted, but you can always use the railway cables as your guide. In the centre, you’ll see the ads of both Tivoli World and the Cable Railway. Men wearing reflective orange waistcoats will tell you where to park (for free). Tivoli is synonymous with fond memories of childhood on the Costa del Sol. You just have to hum the first stanza from the 1980s ad and it’ll all come back: “Pa-pa-pararara-ra pará.... Tívoli... junto al mar en la Costa del Sol, allí te espera Tívoli....” (“By the sea on the Costa del Sol, Tivoli is waiting for you”). Built in 1973, Tivoli was the first funfair in the area. There’re shows, rides, theatres, a roller-coaster, restaurants, a zillion things to do. Admission fee without rides: €6. If you’re less than 1m tall, it’s free! There’s a metre at the entrance to check. Tivoli is the most important family attraction in Benalmádena. It’s one of the icons of Arroyo de la Miel and Benalmádena Costa. Alongside Selwo Marina and Sea Life, it’s a great leisure centre for kids. Facing the unmistakable entrance, you’ll see one of the most enjoyable things you’ll do in the morning: the Cable Railway taking you to the peak of Calamorro. I wanted to take the ride and take in the impressive landscape from the top, as well as visit the birds of prey centre, watch the falconry show at 1:00 p.m., and take a look at the astronomic observation area in the evening. I saw the cable railway in the air, slightly shaken by the morning breeze, which has turned into gusts. One of the boards reads: “Horario: Apertura, 10:00. Cierre: 19:00. Exhibición de rapaces, 13:00. Todos los horarios están sujetos a las condiciones meteorológicas.” (Hours: 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. Birds of prey show: 1:00 p.m. Hours are subject to suitable weather conditions.) I feared the worst. The guy at the ticket box said the last couple have just taken off and the cable railway would close because of the strong winds (Alas! Strong they are!). “And what about the afternoon?,” I asked. “It all depends on the wind,” he replied. A change of plan, then: lunch and back here, to see if the rides were on in the afternoon.

Lunch at Los Mellizos

Los Mellizos is a gastronomic emporium built out of a humble fishmonger’s. With time, the shop turned into a wholesaler and then a restaurant serving meals to customers waiting their turn in the fish market. From fishmonger’s to wholesale fish market and four seafood restaurants in the blink of an eye. I chose the closest one, off the beaten path, in the Industrial Estate, near the open area outside Tivoli. Back, to the left, and then ask for directions –everyone knows where it is. Why “Los Mellizos”? Word-of-mouth always works well with restaurants. This one’s big, with meals being cooked in open kitchens behind a shiny bright red counter. A legion of waiters (I could see eleven all at once) serve guests. It’s 1:30 p.m. In an hour, this place will burst with patrons. An impressive menu whose ingredients you can see right on the counter: large red prawns, assorted fritters, salads, rice, salted fish, soft shells, clams, whelk, shellfish barbecue for two… I was surrounded by temptation. Finally, I ordered a sort of mix menu with a little bit of everything: Málaga salad = €5.80; boiled prawns = €14.80; Málaga fritters (“Better order it for one,” the waiter says, and he’s right, since we get red mullet, squid, hake, anchovy, and marinade) = €13.40; three beers = €5.40; a soda = €1.70; two bottles of water = €2.80; a black coffee = €1.50. Not too cheap, but not expensive either: the servings are generous and the fish is impossibly fresh. The scene reminds of the Salvo Montalbano, the likable detective character created by Andrea Camilleri, who enjoys eating –and eating fish– as if it were the only important thing on earth. A lavish, luxurious meal. Back to the Cable Railway. Not working, the cars rocking in the wind. Closed. I’ll try later, if I have time.

Parque de la Paloma and Selwo Marina

From here, you need to go to Parque de la Paloma, which is clearly signposted and easily found, opposite Selwo Marina. If you follow the directions, you won’t get lost. From Plaza del Tivoli, drive down Tivoli Street, cross Avenida de la Estación, and then down Béjar Avenue. When you get to Boulevard Street, park your car opposite the Auditorium (there’ll be spaces available). You’ll be facing the Parque de la Paloma Auditorium, the entrance to Selwo Marina lying to the right. The perfect leisure match for a great evening. Selwo Marina boasts the first ice penguin pen in Andalusia. On the website you can check hours, admission fees, and special discounts (adults: €17; children aged 3 to 7 and senior citizens: €13). Besides penguins, in Selwo Marina, you can watch dolphin and sea lion shows, and lots of animals from South America. Facing Selwo Marina, there’s Parque de la Paloma, the so-called “lung of the Costa del Sol.” It’s huge, spanning mild rolling hills, and including lots of benches in the shadow or lie down in the shelter of the gardens. It’s the ideal place for a nap, a family rest –there are two playgrounds–, or just a short break before moving on. Attractions at the park include a cactus garden (as if brought from the Far West), the Auditorium, a modern town library, an man-made lake, and two animal zones (goats, ostriches, etc.). A curious fact about this park: hens and cocks, swans and turtles, and perhaps some other animals can be found wandering about. They’re not afraid of visitors, who should take the warning into account: “Please do not feed animals.” From the rolling hills you can make out the glimmer sea, with its alluring murmur. That is your next stop. But take your time at the park, lying on the grass –especially with kids. Admission to the park is free, since it’s a ublic place. Summer hours: 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. In winter: 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Summer nights must be glorious here.

Afternoon Plan: Benalmádena Costa and the Sea

From Parque de La Paloma, go down Rocío Jurado Avenue. Before reaching the beach, you’ll find some parking space (not in the high season, of course). Leave your car their and walk to Antonio Machado Street, the main artery adjacent to the Sea Promenade. The Mediterranean Sea looks brave, green, rocking. Foam lambs crown the waves, drawing foamy white lines in the sea. My plan –and yours: visiting the Bil-Bil Castle, strolling along Santa Ana and Malapesquera beaches, and reaching Puerto Marina on the West Dock –one of the best yachting clubs in the world and the second largest and most populous in the Mediterranean.

Bil-Bil Castle and a Stroll by the Sea

Bright red in colour, the Castillo de Bil-Bil (Bil-Bil Castle) stands in sharp contrast to the bright blue sky, its murmuring fountains playing counterpoint with the sea. It’s a modern, twentieth-century building, but it looks Nasrid in essence. Looking at it, it’s not hard to imagine an Arab village standing there some 700 years ago. The Bil-Bil Castle is a cultural centre holding exhibitions, lectures, and other events. Inside its plasterwork perfectly white. Looking from the window, I could sea a table, a microphone, some chairs. Quite an elegant setting. Bil-Bil is the place with the highest number of weddings held in Málaga. Which is only natural if you think of both the beautiful building and its stunning setting. You can spot your final destination from here: In the background, behind the last bend of Playa de Malapesquera (Malapesquera Beach), there’s Puerto Marina. In front, an enchanting Sea Promenade featuring lots of seaside bars and restaurants: fish, paella, skewered sardines, the full range of fish and seafood at… let’s say… reasonable prices. A nice stroll. People walking by, boisterous children, a bicycle or twoOn Playa de Santa Ana (Santa Ana Beach), late beach goers rush to catch the last afternoon waves. Young people enjoy themselves, and it shows. In some stretches, the Promenade has beautiful –funny or even delicate– tiles. After a 30’ walk you’ll get to one of the several watchtowers punctuating the Mediterranean coastline: Torrebermeja. It’s also the gateway to the West Dock and Puerto Marina.

Puerto Marina
Puerto Marina looks like a modern Venice. Part of the piers are in the port itself, so that users can access their boats right from the inside, from the homes. There are deep-red bridges here and there linking different areas within the marina. Down from the houses, there’s a rich array of restaurants, ice-cream parlours, and shops. People stroll by and watch the yachts while licking an ice-cream. Indeed, Puerto Marina’s leisure menu is one of the best on the Costa del Sol. To the east you’ll find fast-food restaurants, pubs, and nightclubs. In the evening, this area becomes one of Málaga’s hot hubs, catering for the wide range of needs and interests. It never stops. You can hire boat or catamaran rides during the day (60’ = €10 or 120’ = €20). Rides including native animal watching are also available. They’re a little bit more expensive but still affordable. Going around Puerto Marina is like going around half the world, since tourists from different countries meet here. There’s a paid parking area in the marina, but it’s likely to be pretty crowded in the summer. Next to the harbourmaster’s office, you’ll find a docked boat. It’s the Willow, a copy of the steamboats you can read about in Mark Twain’s stories which sailed through the Mississippi River. There’re ferryboats to Fuengirola too (round trip: €13 adults; €8 children). There’re so many things to do that I found it overwhelmingly difficult to make my choice. After sunset, I walked back to the Sea Promenade to get my car. I took a look at the Calamorro. The cable railway wasn’t moving. ‘Maybe next time,’ I thought. It can always be an excuse to come back again. Where Malapesquera and Santa Ana Beaches come together, I had an ice-cream: hazelnut and cream / nougat and cream (two balls = €4). I took my time and savoured it, watching the sun go down and burn the red walls of the Bil-Bil Castle and smelling the sea, the sand, the salt. And my ice-cream, of course.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Family holidays: Benalmádena Costa is a great place for kids, with many special attractions for them Tivoli World, Selwo Marina and Sea Life are the main amusement parks. Parque de la Paloma is a resource to be in contact with nature in the heart of the concrete jungle. Depending on your children’s ages and interests, check season activities in advance.
Where to eat: I chose Los Mellizos on somebody’s advice, but the town has a lot to offer in terms of international cuisine. You can find pizza houses, hamburger bars, Italian or Chinese restaurants, and so on near most attractions. Likewise, traditional dishes based on charcoal-grilled fish, fried fish or paella can be ordered almost everywhere.
Going to the beach: There’re fifteen beaches in Benalmádena. They’re all well-equipped city beaches –Playa de Arroyo de la Miel, Playa de Arroyo Hondo, Playa de Bil-Bil, Playa de Carvajal, Playa de Fuente de la Salud, Playa de la Perla or la Morera, Playa de la Viborilla, Playa de las Yucas, Playa de Malapesquera, Playa de Santa Ana, Playa de Tajo de la Soga, Playa de Torrebermeja, Playa de Torremuelle, Playa de Torrequebrada, Playa de Torrevigía.
What to see: Benalmádena Pueblo is a very quiet place commanding amazing views of the Costa del Sol. The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art is just delightful. A real must-see. You can walk from Parque de la Paloma to Puerto Marina –a long, straight 60’ walk.
Useful links: The website of the Benalmádena Town Hall contains a lot of useful information, including links to sites of interest and websites and a multimedia gallery. The Costa del Sol Tourist Board website is another valuable source of information on Benalmádena.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.