Thursday, 30 September 2010

Marbella leads a double life. They beat together, complementing one another, overlapping, outliving one another. Marbella leads a double life, but it’s just one life. There’s the traditional, historical Marbella, inhabited by the men and women of the fields and the ocean. This is the hard-working, self-sacrificing Marbella, the Marbella of sweat and long traditions, the Marbella of quiet in winter and merrymaking in the summer, the Marbella that witnessed another city growing out of it and wrapping it in. And in this overlapping a new Marbella emerged. It is the Marbella of glitz, luxury, and celebrities, the Marbella of dirty politics. Marbella leads a double life. Perhaps it’s done so since its genesis. Perhaps it’s wired into its urban DNA, since the time it was called Salduba by the Iberians or Cilniana by the Romans. Marbella leads a double life, but the two lives make just one city.

Old Town

The heart that pumps bloods into both lives, the organ that keeps them alive, it the Old Town. Spotless white and colourful at once –a powerful combination of whitewashed walls and flowerpots and people– it’s spic and span and yet impossibly boisterous. My tour begins here today. In the Old Town of Marbella, where you can feel the sweet smell of spring: jasmine, night jasmine, orange blossom. The Old Town beats, and its beating can be heard from Plaza de los Naranjos to Las Chapas, Nueva Andalucía, San Pedro, Puerto Banús, La Concha, Sierra Blanca, and the Mediterranean, the sea that reflects the city in colourful kaleidoscopic style, fragmenting reality like a prism. I have prepared a conspiratorial wink for a city that keeps so many secrets. The first is its huge cultural and historical heritage: the city hosts at least three museums, a church, several chapels, an Arab fortress, a bunch of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stately homes, plus one of the best-kept Old Town patterns on the Costa del Sol. Before setting out on your tour, come to one of the Tourist Offices, where the specialised staff can guide you on what to do and what to see. There are four Tourist Office in Marbella. They are the Marbella Town Tourist Office (Glorieta de la Fontanilla, s/n; tel.: (+34) 952 771 442 / 952 774 693; fax: (+34) 952 779 457; email:, San Pedro de Alcántara Town Tourist Office (Avda. Marqués del Duero, 69; tel.: (+34) 952 785 252; fax: (+34) 952 789 090; email:, Puerto Banús Town Tourist Office (main west entrance; tel.: (+34) 952 818 570; fax: (+34) 952 818 570; email:, and the Plaza de los Naranjos Tourist Office, next to the Town Hall–the one I visited. Also, there’re various public parking zones, with varying fees. If you’re not familiar with the town, you should park in one of these zones and reach Plaza de los Naranjos on foot. It’s a short and charming walk. So my tour begins in the heart of Marbella: Plaza de los Naranjos. It’s a spacious rectangular square with a lot of bars. Its peculiar, delicate smell attracts visitors and locals alike. After getting a street map and a few brochures, I set out on my way.

Plaza de los Naranjos

Los Naranjos is the epicentre of life in Marbella, of the coming and going of visitors and traders, of local politics. Three of the main buildings face it. The local Town Hall dates from the sixteenth century, with several renovations done for practical purposes, but still reflects the class and might of its noble origins. If you visit it, you’ll see the Committee Room, the former Chapterhouse Its double row of wrought-iron balconies greet the square. Matching the adjoining buildings, it’s painted white. To the left stands the beautiful Mayor House (Casa del Corregidor), which goes unnoticed by many as it hosts a bar on its ground floor. It was built in 1552. Its front viewpoint and four arches are the perfect combination of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Mudejar styles. Below the arches, there’s a brick portal flanked by two coats of arms carved in stone. The oldest religious building in town, the Chapel of Santiago, can also be accessed from the square. It was built in the fifteenth century to mark the victory of the Christian troops of the Catholic King and Queen.

Virgen de los Dolores and Calle Ancha

The Old Town streets cut in on one another in an intoxicating maze of colours, smells, and textures. It’s amazingly pleasant to wander about them. There’s always a shop or another surprise round the corner. A blind alley that gives way to an intersecting street, side alleyways that seem to be running away… Sheltered in their own shadows, the whitewashed homes look silent, impervious to the visitors’ coming and going. Flowerpots, flowerbeds, flowers of all colours. Against the white background. I left Plaza de los Naranjos to walk up Ortiz de Molinillos Street, which then changes its name to Virgen de los Dolores. Purple bougainvillea bushes seem to explode on the cobblestones. Traces of their flowers can be seen on the floor, as if they were telling you which way to go, making a soft and smooth carpet. The restaurants haven’t taken their tables out yet, so the street shows in all its might, dominated by the blue niche of Our Lady of Sorrows. At night, Her face is brightened up by two lit candles. I take Calle de los Remedios, up to the left, and then Calle Ancha to the right –one of the main thoroughfares in the Old Town. It’s a wide street indeed, and not one of those streets whose name emphasises that which they’re not. Being one of the main streets of Old Marbella, Calle Ancha is right behind the Arab wall. It’s full of ancestral homes with huge portals, damascene-tiled hallways, and lush gardens where lots of plants and flowers live with lemon trees. The streets to both sides of Calle Ancha are a sort of botanical garden where colourful flowerpots are arranged in rows parallel to the line of home façades. Calle Príncipe, for instance, or the opposite street, Princesa, are incredibly green. At the far end of Calle Ancha you can make out the silhouette of Santo Cristo de la Vera Cruz, a sixteenth-century chapel which was renovated in the eighteenth century. It has a white-and-blue-tiled belfry tower. The square preceding the chapel also houses an old fonda (closed), which used to draw the artistic and political elites, as well as national and international celebrities. Children used to sit here to watch the star-studded cars pass by. And there’s also a tablao flamenco, “Ana María,” which is open all year round (except on Sundays), starting at 11:00 p.m. I walk into a narrow alleyway to the right of the chapel.

City Walls and Museum of Contemporary Spanish Engraving

The Callejón del Santo Cristo leads to Calle Lobatas, one of the oldest and busiest streets in town. Legend has it that, in the dawn of time, wolf cubs used to come here (hence the name). The ruins of the Arab Castle seem to be part of the modern city. Until not long ago, one of its walls used to belong to the local police jail. In Marbella, the Arab Fortress used to lie at a strategic distance from the sea, ensuring a safe road close to the shoreline. Part of its walls and one of its towers are still in place. The fortress must’ve been built in the ninth or tenth century using Roman materials like ashlar and Ionic capitals. Skirting the earthy wall and using it as a guide, I go back into the Old Town. I come to Plaza del Santo Sepulcro, where the Chapel of Santo Sepulcro is. The chapel’s images are worshipped by the Infantry Regiment, who put up a show that goes beyond religion in Easter. The chapel is a small, secluded temple housing two images of great artistic value. The street to the right leads to the Museum of Contemporary Spanish Engraving. The museum is housed in a building that used to be the Bazán Hospital, erected on the ruins of three Arab homes. Opened in 1992, it has become one of the leading spaces of its kind in Spain. Its collection includes many valuable items: engravings by Picasso, Miró, Tàpies, Antonio López, Palazuelo, and Chillida. Seminars and workshops on engraving are organised throughout the year, drawing high numbers of aficionados. The admission fee is €3 (free for senior citizens and children or teenagers under 18). Inside, the building features irregular-shaped rooms (as a result of its having been built on the ruins of the Arab homes), but the itinerary is clearly signposted. I roam through the rooms in silence. They all have the right amount of light –brighter or more diffused, depending on the works. I come face to face with a Picasso (overwhelming) and a Miró (filled with colour). One of the last basement rooms, blessed with a series of internal arches, shows an engraving and printing press. The Museum of Contemporary Spanish Engraving is open Mon and Sat, 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m., Tue-Fri 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. and 6:30-11:00 p.m. (C/ Hospital Bazán, s/n; tel.: (+34) 952 765 741; email:; website:

“Hospitalillo” and Church of La Encarnación

Walking out of the museum, I saunter down Calle Pelleja to Plaza de Altamirano. I’ll come back to the square later, to have lunch at Restaurante Altamirano. Calle Misericordia takes me back to the heart of the Old Town, where I stumble upon the former San Juan de Dios Hospital, a.k.a. “Hospitalillo,” which is being renovated to become a cultural centre (renovation work is at an advanced stage). I walk around the former hospital, along Calle Alderete. “The building was commissioned in the sixteenth century by the Catholic King and Queen under the name ‘Hospital Real de la Misericordia’. The original Chapel of Misericordia has been retained, with a contrasting brick and whitewashed façade. The upper part, housing the belfry, has been whitewashed after the popular Andalusian tradition. The wooden door has the royal coat of arms and the emblem of the Order of San Juan de Dios engraved on it. Its Mudejar roof has also come down to us” (source: Costa del Sol Tourist Board website). Coming full circle, I am back on Misericordia Street. One of the sides of the hospital building gives access to the Chapel of San Juan de Dios, home to “La Pollinica”, whose float is the first to take to the streets during the Easter procession in Marbella. The chapel’s most remarkable features are the belfry tower –a conspicuous religious symbol– and the huge wood portal. The same street leads to the Church of La Encarnación. Boasting a spectacular Baroque façade –an over-elaborate carved stone entrance against a whitewashed background flanked by two columns where a big arch crowned by a rose window and a cross seems to rest–, this large temple is the nerve centre of all religious events in town. The double-height belfry tower features eight arches –and eight windows. The whole building is painted white, its edges being ochre. Built in 1618, the Church of La Encarnación contains lots of Baroque images and side chapels. The main altarpiece shows Saint Bernabé, Marbella’s patron saint. One of the gems is to be found against the façade. It’s the Órgano del Sol Mayor, a unique organ added in 1971. Check the organ’s official website,, for information on its history, repertoire, and concerts. Outside the church, groups of tourists get mixed with wedding guests in a melting pot that reflects the essence of Marbella: a village and a city, provincial and cosmopolitan, traditional and touristy, Andalusian and international –all at once in a perfect blend of accents, religions, countries, cultures, and foods. And talking about food…

Lunch Break: Restaurante Altamirano

Retracing my steps, I get to Restaurante Altamirano, one of Marbella’s classics. Specialising in fish (fried fish, grilled fish, you name it) and seafood, it draws local patrons and internationals alike –and even celebs! In the summer, you have to wait to get a table. In winter it’s easier, especially if you’re early. It’s characterised by a lively atmosphere: frying pans hissing, waiters coming and going, guests chatting, and so on. So much noise can be shocking, but it’s one of the restaurant’s hallmarks. I ordered a mixed salad for two (€7), grilled prawns (€15), grilled squid (€10.65), grilled hake (€9), and three ½l bottles of water. The bill = €48.50. Fresh fish, tasty prawns, generous helping of salad, squid out of this world. After the daily bread, time to see the sea.

Avenida del Mar, Sea Promenade, Beach

Back in Plaza de la Encarnación, next to the church, I walk down Callejón Gloria, past “La Paz,” a curious shop selling only religious items: rosaries, cards, scapulars, candles, and the like. Then I turn at Calle Valdés, facing Plaza África. I’ve completed my tour of the Old Town in Marbella, a district full of shops –shoes, jewellery, gifts, restaurants, bars and tourists–, as well as busy locals. Crossing Avenida Ricardo Soriano, Marbella’s main avenue, I step into the Alameda, a leafy garden with a nice fountain in it. It’s probably one of Marbella’s coolest, shadiest, quietest places. There’re seniors sitting on the stone or wrought-iron benches. The plinth of the fountain features the coats of arms of the Fraternities of Virgen del Rocío, which is where the fountain’s name comes from. The Alameda opens up onto Avenida del Mar, a pedestrian street leading to the sea promenade. So I’m right before the Mediterranean, the sun and the sand, the point where the Old Town meets the sea. There’re replicas of ten bronze sculptures by Dalí on raised platforms along the promenade: women, children, mythological creatures… I can now smell the sea, its salt, sardine skewers, paella, sunscreen –a unique mix of aromas, a colour blend typical of the Costa del Sol. I can now see the deep blue sea. The Marbella coastline is 20km long. It’s divided into 27 different beaches, some of which are really popular: La Fontanilla, la Venus, El Cable, Puerto Banús, Costabella, Bahía Marbella, Pinomar, Los Monteros, Cabopino (which contains a marina and a naturist area). Running next to the beach, the Sea Promenade boasts the highest concentration of restaurants and eateries in Marbella. Here you can eat Indian, Thai, Andalusian or international, have an ice-cream, or try some of the world-famous establishments, such as Restaurante Santiago. Facing the sea and walking to the left, you can reach the fishing port of La Bajadilla and a bunch of restaurants serving fish: Hogar del Pescador, Luca, La Relojera, Los Cañizos. If you go in the opposite direction, you’ll get past Río Verde to Puerto Banús and San Pedro de Alcántara along a cobblestone and dirt promenade. I take the latter and reach the Marbella Marina, whose deck has been rehabilitated and now houses a gravel park with wooden roofs and a children’s playground. This is where Marbella comes to life by night. I sit in the sun, feeling its warmth on my skin. I can hear the ships’ halyards beating against the masts in the wind. The sails rebel when they are taken down. I’ve decided to take a boat to Puerto Banús.

Puerto Banús

There’re regular boat services from the Marbella Marina to Puerto Banús. Fly Blue runs boats from 10:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (return tickets, €15 adults, €8.50 children; single tickets, €8.50 adults, €5 children; more info at I take the 4:00 p.m. boat. The boat ride gives you a different view of the coastline, with the peak of La Concha in the background, with its cold-and-heat dustbowl microclimate and the humid cold of Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de las Nieves. The boat reaches Puerto Banús in half an hour. I feel good amidst the mega-yachts moored in the port. Some of them are real floating mansions –30m in length and three or four storeys. I ramble around Puerto Banús. Tourists take pictures of luxury cars and ships. The owners let them do so; it seems to be natural. Here you can buy from the best brands and pick a restaurant to eat at (there’s a wide range, for all styles and budgets). Puerto Banús has a lot to do with looking and gossiping. At night, it gets filled with youngsters wearing their best clothes and meeting at the bars and nightclubs, which lie behind the forefront shops and restaurants. The whole port is dominated by the control tower and a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of El Carmen, the Patroness of sailors. A marina originally designed by José Banús and built in 1970, Puerto Banús is now an international tourist attraction. For more information, check its official website,, where you can learn about the port’s history, services, and fares. You can even take a virtual tour. I go all over the place, walking along the breakwater and feeling the sea breeze on my face. I watch the docking manoeuvre of a huge yacht. I sit down and get carried away. This is Marbella, too.


I can still see the whitewashed walls. I can still feel the sea breeze on my skin. I can still smell the salt and the sardine skewers. I can still see the engraving awakening my desire. I can still taste the squid. I’m still in Marbella and yet I’m no longer there. Marbella leads a double life. Marbella is two cities. Marbella leads a double life, it’s two cities in one. I stay in Marbella.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

Marbelleros vs. Marbellíes: Whereas Marbelleros are the people born in Marbella, Marbellíes are those living in town but born somewhere else.
Cortijo de Miraflores Museum (C/Luis Morales y Marín, s/n; tel.: (+34) 952 902 714): Housed in a fully renovated early-eighteenth-century building, this museum displays temporary exhibitions. Its permanent collection includes an old oil mill and all the tools used in the oil-making process. The museum is also a venue for talks, lectures, and even wedding parties!
Bonsai Museum (Avda. Dr. Maíz Viñals, s/n; tel.: (+34) 952 862 926): Considered to be one of the most complete museums of its kind in Europe, it houses a remarkable collection of wild olive trees and miniature Spanish firs (an endangered native species). The former President of the Government of Spain Felipe González, who’s a lover of this gardening art, has donated a specimen.
San Bernabé’s Festival: Held in June, the festival honouring the patron saint has all the ingredients of Málaga’s typical fairs. There’s food, dance, and music in Arroyo de la Represa by day and revelry in the fairground by night. Easter: Easter celebrations in Marbella take place mostly in the Old Town, with floats highlighted against the whitewashed background as they’re taken on processions along narrow streets, turning their carriers into real jugglers. The floats and the images are really magnificent.
Useful links: Besides the links included in the text, you can visit the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board, Marbella Town Hall, and the local Tourism Department.