Empire of the Sol

ONCE upon a time, Spain’s Costa del Sol was a simple string of fishing villages.

A sleepy coastline stretching from Algericas in the west to Almeria in the east, it had no high-rise towers, tourists were a novelty, and a young Picasso sat doodling his way through school in Malaga.

Today, it is rather different. Since Spain reimagined itself as a tourist destination in the 1950s, the Costa del Sol has metamorphosed into an all-singing, all-dancing, package holiday hit parade. Millions of visitors come every year, and whether they’re squeezing into one-star apartments in Torremolinos or power-boats in Puerto Banus, they’re after the same things: sun, sea, and sand.

But despite the stereotypes (and Lord knows, there are stereotypes, from gangsters in exile to roast beef dinners in Fuengirola), the Costa del Sol is much more varied than its detractors like to think. Sure, you’ll hear Sky Sports blasting out of the local bars. You’ll get Guinness on draught. But what about the tapas bars of Malaga, the bullring in Ronda, or the Sierra Almijara Mountains?

Take Fuengirola, a halfway house between Torremolinos and Marbella. There are Irish pubs in abundance here. But there’s also a lively town radiating outwards from Plaza de la Constitución, a big pirate-ship playground, and a fun-sized train tootling up and down the promenade.

Our favourite family attraction was Fuengirola Zoo. Despite being located in the middle of town, the enclosures do a good job in recreating a tropical rainforest, providing plenty of shade for animals and visitors alike, and offering memorable close-ups of tigers, chimps, gorillas, crocodiles, flamingos and creepy-crawlies. There’s a small but well-thought-out playground too.

Then there’s Malaga, one of Spain’s most under-rated cities. Most visitors to the Costa del Sol see little more than its airport, but it’s a brilliant little city for a mosey. When the heat dissipates in the evening, hoards of locals emerge from the woodwork to walk, talk and eat ice-cream on Calle Marques de Larios, a long pedestrianised area covered with giant shade-providing sheets.

Over several visits to the city, I’ve come back to this strip again and again, weaving in and out of the smaller alleys and streets around it, grazing on tapas, pausing to check out the buskers and human statues, taking a ración of calamari here, a little earthen bowl of patatas bravas there. Alas, my curiosity didn’t stretch to eating bull’s tail, a local speciality.

Malaga’s old Moorish fort and gothic cathedral are of course draws, but the big star is the Museo Picasso, housed in the aristocratic Palacio de Buenavista. Picasso was born in Malaga, and though he left at the age of 11, it made an impression on him. A small collection of 200-odd works is the perfect respite from the heat for an hour, and there are workbooks available for kids too.

But enough culture. Everybody comes to the Costa del Sol for the beaches, and each resort has something different to offer in that regard. Benalmadena’s coast is broken up into rocky coves. Torres’s beaches are wide and long. Marbella’s throb with beachside bling.

My favourite spot is Nerja, about 45km east of Malaga, where Playa Burriana is surrounded by craggy cliffs. There are lots of shops, paella joints and playgrounds, and the water is fairly clear — beaches generally aren’t beautiful on the Costa del Sol, but this one makes a good stab at it. Loungers cost around €4 a day, though be sure to get there early to get a parking spot.

If you are going to move around with the kids, rather than flying and flopping on one particular beach, plan your trips in advance. The resorts are crammed with one-way systems, the Spanish eat very late, and waterparks should be avoided when the sun is high (12-4pm). Bring flip-flops to the seaside, too — the sand can get stinging hot — and if you can manage it, park in the shade.

Another good day trip is Ronda, a 45km drive along mountain roads out of Marbella. You’ll take a lot of hairpin bends but there are stunning views, and El Tajo gorge, a huge fissure splitting the town in two, is a very fancy finishing line. It plummets over 100 metres to the river below.

Bullfighting isn’t for everyone, but Ronda is also home to one of Spain’s seminal bullrings. Dating from 1785, it’s got a museum displaying dazzling matadors’ jackets beneath the stands, and the admission includes a stroll through the arena and the holding pens. Even empty, it’s atmospheric. I found the heat a bit suffocating this far inland, but there’s a nice spot to zone out for a while in the small park near the town church.

If Ronda sounds like too much driving, the pretty village of Mijas is an easy 8km from Fuengirola. There’s no passing this off as a hidden gem — a constant procession of tourists soaks up the sprawling vistas and snow-white buildings.

Another spot worth seeing for the sake of it, especially if you can’t afford to stay there (and few can), is the outrageous Puerto Banus. Wandering around the port here, I counted seven Ferraris on one tiny street. There are less Irish pubs and English breakfasts here than Hermes, Dior and Armani outlets — and I definitely spotted one dedicated shop selling accessories for dogs.

Next door, of course, is Marbella, the centrepiece of over 45km of beaches. By turns chipper and chic, Marbella is the polar opposite of Torremolinos. A well-to-do enclave whose Old Town is arranged around the dashing Plaza de los Naranjos. Watched over by the Sierra Blanca Mountains, bounded by a bright blue sea, you can still (just about) sense the old fishing village at its heart.

It’s probably a bit of a stretch to say that for the Costa del Sol as a whole, but there’s definitely more to this sun-kissed coastline than meets the eye. Yes, there’s no better place to crash out for a fortnight. But get out exploring too, you’ll be surprised at what you might find.

Flights

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) both fly to Malaga, hub airport for the Costa del Sol. Going to press, Budget Travel (budgettravel.ie) had seven nights in Fuengirola from €315pp, Sunworld (sunworld.ie) had 3-star self-catering in Benalmadina from €499pp, and Sunway had a 4-star week in Nerja from €937pp.

Where to stay

Most visitors to the Costa del Sol travel on package deals, but if you’re flying solo, check out selfcatering.ie or holidayhomesdirect.ie.

Other info

If you’re hiring a car in the Costal del Sol, bear in mind the Autopista is heavily tolled (€6.30 for the stretch between Malaga and Marbella alone during peak season). The A7 is the older, dual carriageway route brushing closer to the resorts — it’s free, but crammed.

Sights

Nerja has some sensational caves (cuevadenerja.es; €8.50/€4.50) in the Sierra Almijara Mountains — and they host ballet and flamenco shows during the summer. Tivoli World (tivoli.es; €10) is the biggest amusement park on the Costa.

Where to eat

Tapas is the way to go in Malaga, though the platters of Iberian meats and cheeses at Bodegas El Pimpi (bodegabarelpimpi.com) may tempt you towards restaurant fare. If you do visit, check out the barrels signed by Antonio Banderas and the Picasso family.

Where to shop

There’s no shortage of shops selling Pringles on the playas, and there are gigantic El Cortes Ingles stores in Malaga and Puerto Banus. Outside Malaga, Plaza Mayor is a retail park with Zara, H&M and others.

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