Have Bag, Will Travel
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“It was not only in Farol that brusque changes were taking place…they were happening at a breakneck pace all over Spain…. Roads, the radio, the telephone and now the arrival of tourists… were putting an end to the Spain of old. And for those who wanted to see it as it had been, there was not a moment to be lost.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
When we visit Spain we usually avoid the tourist areas of the Costas but arriving in Malaga at the heart of the Costa Del Sol we planned a drive west along the coast before heading inland to the town of Ronda.
The reason we avoid the coast is that we find it over developed, commercialised, overrun with barbarian holidaymakers from Northern Europe and totally unrepresentative of real Spain.
Tourists have been flooding into this part of Spain for seventy years or so but this isn’t a new phenomenon because it has always been a popular place with visitors and settlers.
The first inhabitants to come here may have been an ancient Celtiberian tribe almost three thousand years ago. The Phoenicians founded their colony of Malaka here about 770 BC, and from the sixth century BC it was under the control of ancient Carthage in North Africa. From 218 BC the region came under the control of the Roman Republic and then at the end of the first century it became a part of the Roman Empire.
The decline of the Roman imperial power in the fifth century led to invasions by Germanic tribes and by the Byzantine Empire. The southern Mediterranean coast was part of Visigothic Spain from the fifth century until the Muslim Arab conquest of Hispania and it remained part of the Moorish Caliphate of Al-Andalus until the success of the Christian Reconquest.
For almost five-hundred years the area settled down into a life of existence farming and fishing centred around small villages spreading west from Malaga but real change came in the mid twentieth century with the explosion of tourism and the Northern Europeans came again with their beach towel invasion of the beaches.
In 1950 a Russian émigré called Vladimir Raitz founded a travel company in London called Horizon Holidays and started flying people to Southern Europe and the package tour was born. In 1957 British European Airways introduced a new route to Malaga and the designation ‘Costa Del Sol’ was allegedly conceived as a promotional name when it first launched its new service on Vickers Vanguard planes with four propeller driven engines at the start of the package holiday boom.
Close to Malaga, Torremolinos was the first traditional fishing village to begin to disappear under a blanket of concrete and high rise hotels that blotted out the sun and tradition and its popularity as a tourist destination had a domino effect, and nearby municipalities such as Benalmadena, Fuengirola and Mijas, also saw a rapid growth in the number of tourists. This period of often unplanned and uncontrolled development brought a radical and irreversible change in the appearance of the once small fishing villages.
This is far from the Spain that we like but as we were here we decided to pick out one of the resorts for a lunch-time stop-over.
After picking up the rental car we headed immediately to the Autopista del Sol, an ugly, charmless toll road which conveniently by-passes the congested coast road and moves traffic from east to west with brutal efficiency. It reminded me of what Laurie Lee had to say about it: “The road to Malaga followed a beautiful but exhausted shore, seemingly forgotten by the world. I remember the names, San Pedro, Estepona, Marbella and Fuengirola. They were salt-fish villages, thin ribbed, sea hating, cursing their place in the sun. At that time one could have bought the whole coast for a shilling. Not Emperors could buy it now.”
We drove quickly past the sprawling resorts of Fuengirola, Belamadena and Marbella, the marinas, the golf courses and the condominiums and eventually left the motorway and pulled into Puerto Banus.
Puerto Banus is an expensive, crude, brassy, show off, bragging sort of place where people with money and style but no class or imagination sit on their yachts in their expensively logoed designer shirts or occasionally bully their way around the streets in open-topped sports cars. At the other end of the social scale tattooed Brits wander around the port showing off their sunburn and cheap holiday clothes and imagine themselves to be temporarily part of the jet-set.
Ever pestering Looky-Looky men prowl along the beer stained promenade displaying cheap counterfeit watches and other dodgy goods and then scatter like starlings when the sparrow-hawk police car appears and drives pointlessly along the side of the port.
We wanted a traditional bar with simple tapas but most holiday-makers and the ex-pat Brits that live here want pizza and chips and Chinese restaurants so we struggled to find what we were looking for and reluctantly eventually settled on a plastic restaurant and had an instantly forgettable meal at an inflated price.
As you can probably tell, we weren’t especially thrilled with Puerto Banus but we really shouldn’t have been surprised by that because this is really not the best part of Spain to visit and with nothing to really detain us we returned to the car and without a single backward glance took the road towards the town of Ronda.
This involved a forty-five kilometre drive through the razor edged Sierra Bermeja mountains as we climbed continuously along a dramatic road, the Carreta De Ronda, that never at any time had a single straight section of more than a hundred yards and which clung to the side of the collapsing mountains and zigzagged dramatically all of the way to our destination. There was light rain and some low clouds but we could just about make out the coast line and the sea as we drove through first oak and then pine forests of this protected ‘natural area’ of outstanding beauty.
We stopped a couple of times for the views but it was cold so not for very long and late in the afternoon we arrived in Ronda and booked into our hotel.
“We are in the Spanish south. The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have dark eyes and black hair” – Jan Morris, ‘Spain’
After two years I have returned to my travels in Spain, this time to Andalucía where there is no Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or El Cid of Castilla y Leon because this is the land of Don Juan, Carmen and famous bull-fighters!
I will tell you soon about my visit to Ronda, Antequera, Cordoba and Granada…