5 years, 26 days ago
Once upon a time a long, beautiful Spanish coastline was washed by the Mediterranean. Great mountains pierced the bluest of skies. Moorish palaces, whitewashed chapels, tiny villages and ancient towns sat peacefully in the sun. The people were known for their warmth. Fiestas filled the summer evenings. It was a charming and welcoming place and loved by all.
If you don’t recognise the description it’s probably because you – like most people – think of the Costa del Sol post 1960’s package-holiday-plague. And its famous names like Torremolinos, Fuengirola and Marbella are bywords for tacky – whether tack’s cheap beer and chip shops or monster yachts.
But check your preconceptions here and consider this: the Costa del Sol is Andalucia and it didn’t pack up its bags sometime in 1967 and just move somewhere else to be one of the most fascinating, historic and beautiful parts of Spain? No. like most places with a hot sun, beautiful beaches and an understandable need to earn a crust, the Costa del Sol corralled its tourists, gave them what they wanted and just kept quiet about everything else.
And decades later, away from the seething sunburned masses, everything else is as enchanting as ever it was.
Sugar-cube houses and flawless skies
I’m told Torremolinos is more authentic these days, but I’m not biting. I prefer Pueblo Blanca tumbling down hillsides or tucked into clefts in those magnificent Andalucian sierra. The shady little squares, medieval churches and type of narrow, cobbled streets where skinny donkeys struggle for space, take my breath away. I love Frigiliana, all postcard pretty and Andalucian earthy, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de Enmedia 7km from Nerja – one of the quieter east Costa del Sol ‘resorts’.
Slightly further inland, delightful Cómpeta in the Almijaro Mountains, is famous for walking and the sweet wine they celebrate each year on August 15th with the madre of all fiesta, ‘Noce del Vino’.
Take to the hills overlooking west Costa del Sol’s relentless resorts and it’s as if Torremolinos didn’t exist. Forget Ronda (it’s just too famous now) and visit the ‘hanging village’ of Casares instead. Just 15 minutes from the coast, with its Moorish ruins, tiny olive groves, colonies of vast Griffon vultures and sugary-white houses this is Andalucia perfectly imagined.
Istán, hidden away in the mighty Sierra Blanca but just a short drive from Marbella, is wonderful for waterfalls and ancient, tranquil streets.
And, even by the sea, it’s possible to miss the crowds and step back to what the Costa del Sol once was. Still sceptical? Wander into Estipona old town and see for yourself.
Sierra by the sea
Individual, idiosyncratic (some even completely walled), Costa del Sol’s traditional towns and villages mostly have one thing in common: mountains. From the looming Sierra Nevada in the East – this way for Granada – to the involved and craggy Sierra de las Nieves to the west, step five minutes away from the sea on the Costa del Sol and it’s all peaks and ridges and determined drama. Mix the mountains with several wonderful national parks and you have some of the best walking, climbing, bird-watching and sheer escapism in Southern Europe. Serious outdoor types can feasibly spend their entire time on the Costa del Sol and never come within 2 metres of a string bikini. But excellently marked routes, good local bus services, guides and an almost endless supply of mountain lakes, waterfalls, rivers and pools mean escaping just for a little into a more authentic experience is as easy as tying your shoelaces and taking off for the day.
But can you enjoy a gentler Costa del Sol and still have some costa in the mix? Why of course you can. You just have to join the locals on their beaches. Look to the east and that’s where you’ll find little, sandy coves hidden away under cliffs. There are beaches with no obvious attractions (beer and chips) so you might have to bring a picnic and your own water and maybe suffer fantastic seafood without sauce in a charming little family-run beach bar.
El Cañuelo is a perfect example. A string of beautiful, protected coves under the Maro Cliffs, the sea is immaculate and loved by snorkelers, there’s no development, sometimes there’s a beach café and you can’t bring a car anywhere near. And therein is the secret to a peaceful Costa del Sol beach search: walk a little and be rewarded.
If ever there was a place worthy of a second chance it has to be the Costa del Sol. Go, don’t pack your prejudices and I can guarantee you’ll be very pleasantly surprised and delighted.