Marbella’ was once the glamorous destination of the international jet set, but these days its fame has to do mostly with its many beaches and golf.
The undisputed golf capital of the Costa del Sol (sun coast), Marbella is located in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, a main golfing destination in Europe, with more than a hundred courses. Marbella has year-round warm weather, long hours of sunshine, and spectacular views of the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. On top of that, its more than 20 beaches are so popular with locals and tourists alike that in the summertime they become the most crowded stretch of all Costa del Sol.
“This is golfers paradise”, the talkative taxi driver who picked me up at the Marbella bus station assured me. “But most people who work in Marbella don’t live here. People like me, we just come here to work. Marbella is too expensive for us,” he added.
Getting into town, he stopped at a busy intersection – Ramon y Cajal and Miguel Cano avenues – pointing to a hotel right in front of us. It looked very different from the picture on the printed reservation I was holding, but he assured me it was the right one. “I cannot get there, this is a one way street. But you can cross it on the pedestrian lane very easily,” he added, proceeding in a hurry to get my suitcase from the trunk, “to avoid getting a traffic ticket”.
Looking at the modern high rise building – with zero charm – in front of me, I could not believe it was to be my home for two nights. Resigned to my fate, I took my suitcase and waited with dozens of other people for the traffic light to turn green. The area around me was like the downtowns of any city in the world – full of buses and hurried people coming and going. “If this is Marbella,” I thought to myself, “I want to get out of here tomorrow morning.”
Check-in at the hotel, inside a small and modest shopping center, didn’t change my first impression. The lobby was crowded with travelers, and they didn’t look very friendly. At least the concierge was nice, and clearly felt bad when he had to reply with a ‘no’ to all of my questions: no free wifi, no safe in the room, no bottled water, and not possible to change my reservation to one night only. When I got to the room, I had a feeling that my days in Marbella had not started well. The hotel was listed as a three star, but looking closely it shouldn’t have any. And the telephone in the room didn’t work.
It was February of 2020, winter and low season on the Costa del Sol. Marbella’s streets were empty, and most restaurants closed, when I went out looking for a place to eat, later that night. But I found an open tavern with tables outside, on Miguel Cano Avenue, near the beach, and the waiter directed me to one of the many empty tables. It was next to a group of drunken women who were smoking and laughing so loud that I was sure they could have been heard back home, in England. “Could this be the elegant Marbella one hears so much about?” I was confused, something didn’t make sense.
But I did sleep well, and things didn’t feel so bad the next morning. The same friendly concierge was still at the front desk, and he seemed genuinely interested in knowing if I had slept well. “Yes I have, thank you,” was my reply.
A modern town
I had decided to spend as little time as possible in the hotel, and the cafeteria (coffee shop) across the street had just what I needed for breakfast: fresh bread, strong coffee, and butter so smooth it melted on the tongue. It’s almost impossible to have bad bread or coffee in Spain. A second cup hit the spot, and gave me the enthusiasm that I needed to explore Marbella.
The day was cloudy, and walking on the boardwalk by the beach I could see that the buildings were new, perhaps ten or fifteen years old, with five or six floors each. The terrain was very flat, no hills or cliffs like in Nerja. The beach was nothing special, flat with dark sand, and was still empty at that early hour.
I walked on Duque de Ahumada Street, passing by shops and restaurants – mostly closed – and Playa de Casablanca and La Venus (Casablanca and Venus beaches). On my way to the tourism office I saw tanned middle-aged tourists jogging and running, while on the benches along the path locals were chatting. The temperature was balmy, a bit humid but not cold, and few African immigrants were already displaying knock-offs of brand names on the sidewalks.
After getting what I needed at the tourism office, I decided to go to Puerto Jose Banus, a favorite tourist destination in Marbella and a place that becomes party central in the summertime. I was curious.
Puerto Banus – the facts and the hype
Puerto José Banus, known simply as Puerto Banus, is a marina for 915 boats located 3.7 miles southwest from Marbella. It was built in 1970 as a luxury beach resort and shopping complex, and it has become one of the largest tourist destinations in the Costa del Sol, with 5 million people visiting it every year.
The architect who developed the resort, Arnold ‘Noldi’ Schreck, was a Swiss-Russian architect who designed the luxury Marbella Club Hotel, and also participated in the building plans of Beverly Hills, in California.
As history goes, in 1966 he was approached by a prince called Alfonso de Holenhonze (1924-2003), a Spanish businessman who started to buy land in Marbella after World War II and had sold plots to friends like the Rothschild and the Thyssen families, among others.
The prince was the owner of the famous Marbella Club, opened in 1954, the first luxury hotel in Costa del Sol to attract celebrities to the former fishing village. Holenhonze was an international jet-setter famous for his romances and marriages: first to a princess heiress to the Fiat empire, later to some of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses of the time. His name and fame were what attracted the VIPs to Marbella.
Once brought onto the scene, Noldi Schreck met a local developer called José Banus (1906-1984), a close friend of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975). Four years later, modern looking Puerto Banus was completed, becoming the first ‘port’ built by a single architect. José Banus went on to become the largest builder of residential tourism complexes in the Costa del Sol; he’s called ‘the regime’s builder,” – as in, Franco’s regime.
The opening of Puerto Banus, in May of 1970, was a lavish extravaganza attended by millionaires and celebrities. Among them were Prince Aga Khan, film director Roman Polanski, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Dr. Christiaan Barnard (pioneer in heart transplants), Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. The singer Julio Iglesias – now the name of a main avenue in Puerto Banus – was hired to sing for the guests, and 300 waiters from Seville served 22 kilos of beluga caviar to 1700 guests. If the goal was to impress the world – and link Puerto Banus to royals and billionaires – the goal was achieved: Puerto Banus received a lot of free press, and curious tourists started to pour in.
But the reputation of Puerto Banus – and that of Marbella – suffered a big blow in 1990, when a local property speculator called Jesus Gil y Gil became mayor of Marbella and started a frenetic – and mostly illegal – construction boom. Disappointed, prince Holenhonze pulled out and sold his shares in the Marbella Club. He was against the town’s growing association with Arab arms traffickers and the Russian mafia. Besides their conspicuous consumption, this association brought drugs, crime and violence to Marbella. The prince moved to nearby Ronda, one of the prettiest villages of the Pueblos Blancos (white villages), where he started a successful wine business.
Marbella became associated with corruption and violence. Plagued by a series of unscrupulous administrations, the town suffered a massive criminal investigation that lasted three years. When the trial was over, many city officials and council members were sent to jail on bribery and money-laundering charges. “Marbellan urbanism” became synonymous in Spain with governmental corruption: there are about 30,000 illegal homes built without proper infrastructure in Marbella – most of them sold to expatriate British and Irish retirees – now facing demolition as public hazards. The town is also $200 million Euros in debt.
With all that, Puerto Banus’ and Marbella’s golden days of elegance and glamour may be long gone, but the tourists – golfers or not – keep coming. Now mostly from the UK and from Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they all flock to Puerto Banus’ marina, home to large yachts and with a beach on each side, where boats can be rented. In the summertime, the bars around the port become a never ending party scene, and topless women dancing on tables are a common sight.
It is said that some of the boats in the marina belong to people like the king of Saudi Arabia and some of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Maybe, but the claim is hard to verify, as everything in Puerto Banus seems to be part of a public relations campaign designed to impress. What is known for sure is that Saudi Arabia’s royal family has – or used to have – houses in Marbella. King Fahd’s (1921-2005) house is said to be a replica of the American White House – his entourage used to spend five million dollars a day, when he visited the town. Celebrities like Sean Connery (James Bond) and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas (who has a plaza named after him in Puerto Banus) are said to have places in or around it.
Puerto Banus is small and easy to explore by foot. I stopped at some of the designer boutiques facing the marina, on Muelle Ribera, but most restaurants were closed and undergoing renovations to prepare for the busy summer season. A few bouncers and bodyguards – probably hired by Arab or Middle Eastern visitors – were relaxing and chatting in small groups. When I stopped for a drink at a restaurant by the water, a man in Arab clothes on a table next to mine was smoking a narguile. He refused politely, when I asked to take his picture. His bodyguard, standing at a discreet distance, was not as friendly.
Leaving Puerto Banus, it’s hard not to notice a huge statue called ‘La Victoria” (the victory), built of bronze and copper, on top of an 85 ft tall column of granite. It was designed by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, and given to the resort in 1994 by Moscow’s mayor. I can’t say that it adds to the place’s charms…
Last but not least, famous Golden Mile, is said to be Spain’s second most expensive real estate area (the first is Cala Marmacen, in Mallorca). It’s a luxury residential area stretching west of Puerto Banus, along the Mediterranean coast, going all the way to Marbella. Recently, there was a house for sale for 80 million Euros, or 88 million dollars, in its exclusive Santa Margarita district. Real estate agents in the Golden Mile like to mention that Baroness Thyssen lives in the neighborhood.
The Old Town
After so much glitter and hype, Marbella’s Casco Antiguo (Old Town) was a refreshing surprise, and right behind my hotel. A historic neighborhood with a taste of what Marbella used to be, in the centuries of Moorish occupation, its white washed houses with flower planters line narrow, cobblestoned streets; unique small boutiques, tavernas and centuries old fountains are everywhere. The richly-decorated church of Nuestra Senora de la Encarnacion is very unique, and deserves a visit.
In the heart of the Old Town is the beautiful Plaza de los Naranjos (Orange Courtyard), where Marbella’s 16th-century town hall is located. A Moorish-style imposing building, at night it’s floodlit by a spooky green-colored light. It’s a bit strange, as most public buildings in Andalusia use more flattering white or amber color lights. Also controversial is the town’s coat of arms, displayed in front of the building. According to some sources, when mayor of Marbella in the 90’s, Gil changed the town’s coat of arms without asking the opinion of local authorities. Officials are now asking for the rehabilitation of the real shield, granted to Marbella by the Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel, in 1493.
Controversies aside, I found pure delight in slowly meandering the streets of the Old Town, getting lost in its many plazas and stopping at fountains and small shops with local products. With its maze of pedestrian-only streets, this part of town is connected to Marbella’s history, with layers of different cultures and time-periods, and no hype.
That night I found a perfect Old Town restaurant to have dinner at. It was almost empty, but the food was delicious, the service friendly, and the price right.
As for the rest of Marbella…to each, their own. As my mother used to say, “What would be of the color yellow if everybody liked only the color blue?”