Sunday, 22 August 2010

Between The Rock And A Sunny Place

(This is the second installment of a two-part article on Spain’s Costa del Sol.)

MARBELLA: One of the most interesting day trips I’ve ever taken in Europe was the one that began in Marbella and ended in Gibraltar. There are two Marbellas, really. One is the old town center, which is a glory of traditional architecture and gardens. The other centers on the docks, where nouveau zillionaires dock their megayachts.

My advice is to concentrate on the former and hoot at the other as your tour bus drives by. Our tour guide was a veritable almanac of interesting data, historical and economic, until he hit the outskirts of Marbella, at which point he turned into a Robin Leach clone, laying on us relentlessly about which rock star bedded at this hostelry and which royalty infested that private estate.

His Leaching reached a depressing apogee when he began to recount the saga of a sheik who had just flaunted his unlimited wealth to the locals by building a grotesque mosque (if you can imagine Disneyland Moored, you’re close enough) and a house whose principal architectural feature was the mound of dirt trucked in to lend it height if not distinction.

The bad taste of our tour guide was purged by a delicious lunch at a restaurant with a smashing view of the Sunny Coast on the left hand and the impending Rock on the right. We did the usual crawl around Gibraltar, up its sides to feed the Barbary Apes (they really are cuddlies), and down into the town center to shop and graze.

You’ve got to hand it to those Brits: They really made a complex and growing thing out of this barren rock, the full complexity of which I never understood until I visited the splendid museum at the far end of the main street. It’s not only terrific on the history, natural and political, of the Gib, but it even has some interesting local artists to brag about.

I love the etymology of the place—a corruption of Gibel (mountain) of Tarik, the Moor who took it in 711. there are untold tasty trivia you can stoke up on at the museum, such as Lord Nelson’s cadaver being preserved in a keg of rum after Trafalgar on its way to the Rock. Or the besieged soldiers who were reduced to eating their leather clothes and equipment when the tactic of catapulting sacks of food to them failed.

Fuengirola: The last Sunday of my visit I was poking around for something special to do. “Why don’t you take in a bull fight?” suggested the personable young man at the Costa Lago front desk.

In all my visits to Spain and Mexico, I had never once succumbed to the curiosity to see the bloody spectacle. A pacifist at heart, I looked upon the whole tradition as a kind of macho mess. Still, how could I teach American literature for 30 years and not test Hemingway’s judgments about the sport against my own?

“It’s easy to get to Fuengirola,” the desk clerk teased. “It’s at the terminus of the Malaga/Costa del Sol railroad.”

I succumbed. On the train, I lucked out by sitting next to a woman who taught business education in the local college and whose English was perfect. Little by little, she filled in the details. This was the bush leagues of bullfighting. The three toreadors on the bill today were unknown, inexperienced teenagers. And the bulls were two-year-olds—fierce enough, but no the full-blown behemoths you got to tackle when you graduated to Madrid.

Well, it was exciting. For a start, the first bull jumped the barrier and started chasing a couple of picadors right around the chute that surrounds the killing ground. Yikes. At the start the bulls are full of fire and really noble beasts. Gradually, the ritual (and the pics) sap them of their strength and reaction time.

Not completely, of course. The unluckiest of the fledgling trio got a haunch full of horn and had to be carted off the field. And even though their lack of skill made the “Olé!s” infrequent and lacking in conviction, I got the picture. But I hate the indignity of their dragging off the carcasses like so much meat. I left early.

I got off of this bullish low by visiting the fine zoo the city runs back-to-back with the bullfighting arena. Their tropical bird collection is especially distinguished. I had a great talk with a local high school teacher on the state of Spain as his wife and kids fed the animals. And I have to admit there was something weird about having our conversation punctuated by cries from the arena crowd on the other side of the wall.

Incidentally, there’s a fine bullfighting museum high in the mountains above the city in the picture-postcard-perfect village of Mijas, and I enjoyed visiting it bloodlessly almost as much as I thrilled to the mayhem on the sand.

I learned a great deal of fascinating lore there: that the ritual was done on horseback until the 18th Century, that when a matador fails to kill his bull within 15 minutes, it is carted off to be dispatched behind the stands—an official observes this killing to prevent chintzy promoters from using the bull again (once a bull has seen a red cape, he’s lethally unconnable).

So here’s my conclusion on the Sunny Coast. The sand on their beaches sucks, but you can always use your hotel pool. But most of all, the Costa is a pivot place for sorties all over Andalusia.

And don’t overlook the possibility of visiting Expo 92 in Seville from there. The train takes three hours, the plane an hour, not counting time to and from airport. And Grand Circle lays on good and inexpensive side tours to other must-visits like Granada, and an especially popular one that takes you from Algeciras to Ceuta and then to the high flesh pots of Morocco—Fez, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat.

The Costa del Sol has been mocked as lotsa costa and not too much sol—Miami Beach East. It seemed to me that the local politicos were really serious about putting a cap on growth, trying to shift from a mass to a class market, though the worldwide recession will slow it down.

But if you like seafood and sea breezes and shooting the breeze with a United Nations of temporary visitors, this Costa is well worth one exploratory visit—especially if you lay on the side trips like Gibraltar and Malaga. Just be careful on the streets of the bigger cities. I was showing some just-arrived Manchester secretaries how to beat the high cost of Malaga hotels by staying at a youth hostel, when a motorscooting duo deftly lifted her shoulder bag and disappeared into the night—with passport, return tickets and cash.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 28, 1992

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