I had never heard of Nerja, until I began doing research for a trip to the province of Andalusia, Spain, in January of 2020. Then the name of this town on the Mediterranean started to come up quite often. Even those who avoid the rest of the Costa del Sol (sun coast), for considering it too crowded and overbuilt, seemed to make an exception for Nerja.
To get there, my friend Margo and I took a bus in Granada, and in less than two hours we had reached the Costa del Sol. From the bus, we could see the blue Mediterranean – always a pleasant sight – glimmering under the afternoon sun. Being on a road high on a mountain, we also noticed that some towns on the coast had been severely overbuilt. That impression was confirmed later, when the bus stopped at a few of them to let people out.
People on our bus were mostly foreigners: tall Scandinavians, English and Germans, all sunburnt and easy to spot among the darker and more naturally tanned Spanish people. A friendly lady overheard us speaking English, and told us that she lived in London but spent part of the year in Nerja with her husband, like many northern Europeans do. She said that her husband had stayed in Nerja – “he loves it there” – and would be waiting for her. Surely enough, when we arrived at the station, her even more sunburnt husband was waiting for her, all smiles. We waved goodbye to our new friend and got into a taxi.
Our hotel was in the very center of town, a pleasant tree-shaded pedestrian zone called Plaza España, with the small 17th century El Salvador church in the middle. The shops and bars around the plaza were busy, ignoring the fact that it was February – supposedly the low season in Costa del Sol. But we were more interested in getting to the Balcon de Europa (Balcony of Europe) to enjoy the sunset that we had heard so much about.
A former fishing and agricultural village east of Malaga, and bordering Granada to the north, Nerja has remained surprisingly unspoiled. Perhaps because it’s old – it was built before the craze for high-rise housing that happened in other parts of the coast in the last decades. With 320 days of sun a year, and picturesque Moorish-style whitewashed houses – many decorated with window boxes and planters – the village sits between the sea and the Sierra Almijara mountain range, offering 9 miles (14km) of coastline on the Mediterranean. It’s hard to beat that.
Nerja’s coast is mostly made of cliffs, but the few sand beaches between coves are scenic and very popular with Europeans. Nerja is also near three rivers; one of them, Rio Chillar, is famous because people can walk up it until reaching the mountains, passing by waterfalls and other scenic spots on the way. Another geographic advantage of the town is to be at the western end of the area known as the Tropical Coast, a stretch of the Costa del Sol that is well protected by the mountains in the backdrop. That guarantees temperatures a little higher than on the rest of the region; it also makes Nerja a popular destination throughout the year.
The Balcony of Europe
What really sets Nerja apart is its Balcon de Europa, a balcony above a cliff that overlooks the Mediterranean and is the focal point of the town. It offers magnificent views up and down the coast, and can be found on a promontory at the end of a pedestrian promenade lined with cafés, restaurants and ice cream parlors. It was bustling with people soaking up the sun when we passed by, Despite being the middle of winter, the temperature was in the mid-70’s and most people wore T-shirts.
When we got to the Balcón de Europa, said to be the best panoramic view in Costa del Sol, we were mesmerized. The day was clear, and looking down the coast we could see Calahonda beach and its neighbouring coves, followed by Burriana beach and, in the distance, the picturesque village of Maro, a site of famous caves. The mountains of the Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara and the Alhama Natural Park were in the backdrop; to the west we could see the Torrox lighthouse and the coastline stretching off towards Malaga. In front of us, 100 miles across the Mediterranean, would be the coast of Morocco.
The sea was like a placid lake at the end of the day, and as the sun started to descend, promising a spectacular sunset, it created a glittering effect on the sea’s surface. People started to gather on the Balcon to take pictures; in a few minutes the sky changed colors drastically, becoming red and yellow, and when the sun finally hid over a cliff, the spectacular scene was like a show that deserved a standing ovation at the end. After the sunset, people strolled slowly back down the promenade; some sat on the benches to people-watch, others went to the ice cream parlor El Valenciano Helados, a local favorite.
A rich history
The settlement that is now Nerja was called Detunda by the Romans, who in the year 205 BC occupied the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors, who invaded Andalusia in the year 711 AD, and occupied it until 1492, changed its name to Narixa – hence Nerja. It was a town known in the Muslim world for sugar cane and quality silks that were sold as far as the markets in Damascus, in today’s Syria.
The first construction on the cliff was a Moorish fort from the 9th century. After the Moors were expelled from Spain, a new fortified tower – La Bateria – was built by the victorious Christians, to warn off pirates and coastal raiders. The fortress was destroyed in 1810 by British forces, to deny its use to the French, during the Peninsula War (1807-1814). There’s a rusting cannon still guarding the position. The elegant, marble-covered terrace we have today was built in 1930.
Nerja was first made famous by Spanish King Alfonso XII (1857-1885), who visited it in 1885, after a massive earthquake destroyed most of the village. Tradition tells that when he arrived at the end of the promontory, he declared, “this is the Balcony of Europe.” Today, his statue can be seen on the same spot.
Small and charming
Nerja is small, a very easy place to explore by foot or bike. The old town is very Andalucian in style, and it clearly caters to a well-heeled clientele. There are no ugly spots around – no shopping malls or huge parking lots, no high-rise buildings. Cruise ships don’t dock in Nerja, so day trippers and backpackers are rare. All houses and shops keep the same facades of the old days; they are painted frequently in white, with changes only allowed inside. There’s no denying that the effort has paid off: Nerja is quaint and charming.
The tourists in Nerja are also of the elegant sort: most are affluent northern Europeans (some say Nerja is for the rich only), or seasoned international travelers. Perhaps that’s the reason why prices are higher here than in other Andalusian destinations: it was in Nerja that we spent the most on a dinner: over $140 for two people, as opposed to $30 elsewhere. We were surprised when the check came, but our seafood platter – a local specialty – was excellent.
Because Nerja is small, it’s important to book it early; there aren’t too many hotels or posadas (bed and breakfasts) avaiable, and they get reserved way before summer starts. The few beaches get their faithful fans year after year: Calahonda Beach, accessible by foot from the main promenade, is just a few steps down the plaza. El Salón is down the path behind a huge conifer tree in the plaza; or you can walk down picturesque Calle Carabeo (Carabeo Street) towards Burriana Beach, at the end of town. The street overlooks the Mediterranean, and has beautiful houses with colorful gardens hanging on the cliffs by the water. The day was sunny and bright, when I walked it, and I could see far away on both sides of the coast. It was a beautiful and peaceful scene, very much worthy of Nerja.
The next morning we left for Malaga, the main city in the Costa del Sol. As the bus left Nerja behind, with the blue Mediterranean on one side and the mountains of the Sierra de Tejeda on the other, the white village by the sea became just a speck in the horizon. I couldn’t help thinking how much it looked like a Greek island, right in Spain.