Sometimes, travel doesn’t just broaden the mind, it completely blows it away.
Despite being the only person on the planet never to have visited Marbella, I “knew” just what to expect. It would be garish, charmless, tacky, flash and irredeemably becky: all the men would have earrings; all the women would sport tattoos. The lingua franca would be estuary English and any girl not from Essex would think herself accurs’d she was not born in the county.
I was so convinced of all this that I very nearly decided not to go at all. But on the basis that you should at least experience what you deride, I put my prejudices on hold and took my wife, my teenage sons and my own delicate sensibilities for a week’s holiday at the end of October.
Well, what a surprise — and what a delightful shock to the senses! It was absolutely stunning. Boulevards to shame Paris, shops to rival Venice, nightlife to equal New York. There were parks — proper parks, too — big open squares and, in the old quarter, satisfyingly narrow streets that yielded wonderful treasures in the form of sensational clothes, beautifully carved ornaments and souvenirs ranging from the cheap-but-tacky to the pricey-but-exquisite.
Then there were the restaurants which were as international (though sadly very few Spanish) as I’d expected but the quality and the value were surprisingly good. We ate Italian, Greek and Chinese and weren’t disappointed once.
Food, shopping and atmosphere notwithstanding, the thing that I valued most about Marbella was its sheer confidence. All around was clean, clean, clean: no beggars, no litter, no graffiti. But that doesn’t happen by accident. With police booths on almost every street, a scrupulous civic concern for hygiene and — so it is said — organised crime pulling the strings behind the scenes (there’s nothing wrong with organised crime: it’s disorganised crime that’s the problem), Marbella delivers. It’s a town that screams to the world’s tourists: “look at me,” and doesn’t disappoint when they do. In short, Marbella is what all holiday destinations should aspire to be.
This obviously explains why everyone — and I do mean everyone — wants to be there. It wasn’t particularly crowded when we were there, but the traffic jams alone gave me a distinct impression of what it must be like in high season. And therein, I think, lies the problem with Marbella — and, indeed, the Costa Del Sol. Give the people what they want and they’ll come. And stay. And tell their friends who’ll buy an apartment.
And then they’ll all retire there…With the result that the whole area surrounding Marbella looks and sounds like a vast building site.
The crane has replaced the bull as the symbol of southern Spain and, unfortunately, the crane in Spain stays mainly on the coast — helping to turn every single patch of undeveloped land with even the hint of a sea view into an “urbanisation.” Urbanisation is that charmless all-purpose word used to describe any development where they’ll flog you your very own 100 square metres of “front-line” paradise “walking distance” from Marbella (with trekking boots and six months’ training) for a very reasonable £250,000. Sometimes the developers even have planning permission…
Fortunately, amidst all the blocks of flats in various stages of development, there are still many hotels. We stayed at the five-star Puente Romano, ideally located half-way along The Golden Mile (actually about four miles, but “The Golden Four Miles” wouldn’t sound as good), between Marbella and Puerto Banus. A member of Leading Hotels, it has its own 12 acres of tropical gardens sloping down to the beach (not its own, as all Spanish beaches are public, but still fairly private).
The hotel is next door to the Marbella Club Hotel (under the same ownership) which was where the whole Marbella thing started back in the 1950s.
A Spanish aristocrat, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, first acquired the estate, Finca Santa Margarita, in 1946 as his private residence. As many of his friends were drawn to the area with its fantastic climate, his property was gradually enlarged until the family’s residence became an exclusive club.
The Prince’s own definition of luxury was “a blend of privacy and gardens,” and he was passionate about collecting the widest variety of tropical trees and shrubs. This is also evident at his later acquisition, the Puente Romano, where carefully angled buildings and large numbers of wooden pergolas ensure that shade and privacy are guaranteed. Original trees blend with imported palms and massive bamboo and ficus trees.
The Puente Romano is laid out in typical Andalucian style with rooms carefully designed so that no rustic balcony overlooks another, while the lavish tropical greenery in the beautiful gardens ensures that the traffic on the busy coastal highway is obliterated by the sounds of birds, fountains and waterfalls (although you can still hear the imam at the mosque across the road calling the faithful to prayer).
The hotel is named after the ancient Roman bridge around which it was designed, along with an old pigeon tower which makes it blend into the hills more than many other local developments.
It was originally intended as luxury owner-occupied apartments and some indeed were sold off. But the bulk of the 235 spacious and traditionally decorated rooms and suites were kept to be used as hotel accommodation. Because of the original design, however, it feels more like staying in an apartment than in an hotel, and the bathrooms were perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in an hotel.
The facilities are superb. There’s an awesome tennis club that has hosted the Davis Cup and Grand Prix tournaments, paddle tennis courts, a gym, sauna and steam room — as well as three separate swimming-pools and the beach itself.
Twenty minutes away — using the hotel’s free shuttle service — there’s a magnificent golf-course and a stable yard where you can hire sleek, very sure-footed horses for a fairly steep ride through a dried-up river into the mountains, either for an hour or for half a day.
This cost a very reasonable 21 euros (about £14) for the hour which is ample time to get clear views of Gibraltar and North Africa. But don’t attempt a longer ride unless you are extremely fit.
Where the hotel let itself — and us — down was in its service which was certainly competent, but impersonal bordering at times on the unfriendly.
There was no welcoming note when we arrived, certainly no bottle of water or bowl of fruit, and not once did anyone address us by name or ask if there was anything we needed.
Every day, the excellent buffet breakfast was somewhat marred by waiters who seemed permanently perplexed by the fact that my wife and I eat breakfast at different times, persistently asking for the room number whilst neglecting to ask whether we wanted anything to eat or drink.
Still, there was nothing wrong that a few hours in customer-care school wouldn’t put right and, despite my reservations about the warmth of the greeting, there is no doubt that the hotel — like Marbella itself — was wonderful. Hasta La Vista, as Arnie Schwarzenegger would say. In other words, I’ll be back.
After all, who wouldn’t want to repeat a mind-blowing experience?