Mention Marbella to anyone and they immediately think of money, the rich and the famous. This is the Costa del Sol’s quintessential Monte Carlo, a place to hang out with the glitterati and to be seen by the paparazzi hunting their little bit of sleaze. Stroll along the Passeo Maritimo from the Parque de la Constitucion near the main tourist office and gaze on the multi-million dollar apartment blocs dominating the skyline. Watch the rich walking their poodles and shih tzus or relaxing in the up-market health cafes near the Puerto Deportivo Marbella.

Puerto Deportivo Marbella

Puerto Deportivo Marbella – photo courtesy of Tomas Fano via Flickr

Alternatively, if you have a sudden urge to recapture your youth and have scant regard for that sudden hole in your bank balance, you could indulge in one of the many clinics overlooking the sea offering cosmetic surgery, body re-sculpting or a simpler spa therapy.

Looking for a less expensive solution? Then the coastline is festooned with public and private beaches offering a welcome relief from the intense midday sun and free hydrotherapy.

Casco Antiguo

But Marbella isn’t all about money and a visit to the Casco Antiguo (Old Town) just behind the waterfront and Avenida Ramon y Cajal is to step back into a time before the Porsches, Prada and Armani. Marbella is steeped in history and was one of the most important Moorish towns in the region rivalingMalaga and Gibraltar. Recaptured by the Christians in 1485, much of the city was rebuilt; although the remains of the Moorish walls still stand near the Castillo and the area is covered in a labyrinth of alleyways leading to beautiful plazas filled with cafes, restaurants and churches.

At the heart of the Casco Antiguo is the Plaza de Naranjos, a beautiful square surrounded by medieval buildings and filled with restaurants covered in leafy orange trees. As you approach from the south, you’ll see Marbella’s oldest church, Ermita de Nuestro Senor Santiago, dating back to the 15th century. On the left of the square is the Casa Consistorial with its wonderful wrought iron balcon–a testimony to the dominant industry that survived here until the mid-1930s when the ore ran out. Close by is the Casa del Corregidor with its 16th century façade and coat of arms.  At the top of the plaza is the town hall, the Ayuntamiento, its flags fluttering above its ornate 16th century baroque doorway and a blue plaque signifying its membership of the European Union,which is so important for the region’s economy.

Moving out of the northeast corner is a narrow street dominated by a restaurant with a magnificent blue Virgin Mary over the entrance, the El balcon de la Virgin Restaurant. Jacoranda and bougainvillea provide a wonderful backdrop. Work your way through the twisting alleyways and you arrive at the small church of Hermita del Santa Cristo in the Plaza Santa Cristo that has a fountain spewing out refreshingly cool water.

Plaza de Naranjos

Plaza de Naranjos – photo courtesy of Corma via Flickr

Move to the right and you reach the Museum of Engraving, then twisting back by the walls, there is beautiful Church of Santa Maria de la Encarnacion built in 1618. Free to enter, it offers a wonderful place of solace. There’s also a beautifully ornate altar in gold that provides a backdrop to multi-coloured windows and ornate naves. The image of San Bernabe, the patron saint of Marbella stands high above the altar. If you are culturally inclined, don’t miss the Museo del Grabado Espanol Contemporaneo housed in the Palacio de Bazan a few streets away, home to many of Picasso’s finest pieces, and the Hospital Real de San Juan de Dios with its wonderful chapel and cloisters.

The Golden Mile

Having savoured the history of the town, you can now follow the coast road westwards and step into a totally different world. They call the area between Marbella and Puerto Banus The Golden Mile, a far cry from its namesake in Blackpool in England. This is the haunt of the ultra-rich and the famous and their multi-million dollar properties line the avenues and surrounding suburbs.

Puerto Banus

Puerto Banus

Puerto Banus – photo courtesy of John Dolan via Flickr

Named after its architect, Jose Banus, a property developer with very dubious credentials, Puerto Banus buzzes with life both day and night as the tourists stroll around marina, gazing enviously at the glitterati, languishing in their yachts the size of cruise ships, hoping to catch a glimpse of some celebrity. All along the harbour are expensive shops and boutiques and at night the restaurants, bars and nightclubs overflow with diners and late night revellers.

If you want to escape from the throngs, head eastwards towards the large statue of La Victoria that stands 26 metres high and was a gift from the Mayor of Moscow, and relax on Levante Beach or move further along the coast to Playa Puerto Banus stretching towards Marbella. Alternatively, stroll along the breakwater from Muelle de Levante, providing a panoramic view of the marina, the headland and the coastline beyond. If you want to avoid the waterfront, head inland to the Mercadillo and the bullring, the Plaza de Toros or just relax in the shade in the Jardines del Puerto.

Marbella beach

Marbella beach – photo courtesy of Pablo Monteagudo via Flickr

This is a journey of contrasts. Medieval history, Moorish culture and Catholic renaissance buttressed against everything we associate with the clamour for modernity and overt wealth. Nevertheless, it provides a wonderful insight into the quest for power in one of the most strategic, political and economic regions in Spain.

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published by viator.com

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