The Costa del Sol: Rediscovering its Roots

The road takes us through a patchwork quilt of farmland; greens and brown fields surround humble farmhouses, gentle hills rising and falling. A soft breeze brings the landscapes to life; tall palm trees swaying from side to side, backdropped by huge modern windmills on distant mountaintops, slowly turning. The perfect rows of olive trees on top of clay-brown earth rustle lightly as the wind ripples through, having been picked clean of olives a couple of months before. Lazy towns of white-washed stone are devoid of any movement, shining brightly in the sun. Everything seems to run in slow motion around these parts - except that is, the cars.

“Quickly overtake the truck!” I say, eyeing the wing mirrors and watching the fast-approaching line of traffic coming up behind us. Ahead, a big truck is struggling to gain momentum up the hill, and we’re about to be stuck behind it. My partner puts the pedal to the floor and our rental car revs hard as it struggles to reach the next gear. Feebly pulling out into the overtaking lane to pass, it takes no time at all before the long line of cars is directly behind us. At a painfully slow pace we creep past the truck before finally pulling back in front of it, overtake complete. The patient line of cars behind us zoom past at break-neck speeds up towards the mountains, leaving us, and the truck, in a cloud of dust.

It’s a clear and warm day in the Costa del Sol region, one of Spain’s most sun-soaked regions. This southern part of Andalucía is the site of many clashes. It’s where the sea laps at the feet of mountains; where Roman and Moorish architecture have equal influence; where slow-motion mountain villages seemingly unchanged for an age are contrasted with the busy cities along the coast, teeming with tourists. Speak to any number of travellers about the region, and you’ll likely get a clashing of opinions as well – some defending the region, but many more deeming it one big tourist trap.

But with 4 days of road tripping ahead, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to drive past that reputation and discover the real heart of the region, the one that made it so popular to begin with. And if on the way I find myself in any of the tourist traps, I’m free to just drive right back out – just at a slightly slower pace than the locals.

The Beginnings of a Gastronomic Revolution

The first day, we leave the capital Málaga in our rear-view mirror and make out for the interior on one of the many fast highways, or Autovías, that connect the area. Zooming past us at a hectic pace are shiny new BMWs and Mercedes, ignoring the 120km/h speed limit. It’s very intimidating, and it’s with some relief that we pull up off the highway into the quaint historic town of Antequera.

Not having anything in mind other than to explore a little bit before lunch, we wander aimlessly through the streets. Only 50 kilometres away from Málaga and already the region feels less touristy, even in what is one of the most popular day trip excursions for tourists on the coast. Most come to visit the ancient burial mounds, and the spectacular Moorish Alcazaba that sits on top of the hill above town. We walk up to take in the view out over Antequera, spires of over 30 churches scattered throughout.

The historic and very typically Spanish streets seem the perfect place to sample some food of the region. With the Costa del Sol being packaged up as a tourist hotspot for decades, the locals have generally catered to the visitors’ concept of what Spanish food should look and taste like. On top of this, Andalusians used to look upon their traditional food as lacklustre, reminding them of poorer times. But over the past decade the region has undergone a gastronomic revolution, and restaurants are finally starting to celebrate the Costa del Sol’s heritage through modern twists on traditional dishes.

We sit down for some tapas at Arte de Cozina, found on one of the main streets in Antequera. It’s a little bit after 1pm, early for lunch in Spain, and the restaurant has only just opened its doors as we enter. The menu has a broad range of dishes both typical of Andalucía and is quite different to what you find in Madrid or Barcelona. One of the most popular dishes in town is Maimones, a simple yet scrumptuous garlic and onion soup. Another is the Mollete, a soft white flatbread typical of Antequera - I opt for mine to be stuffed with a mix of stewed pork and chicken. I also slurp down a deliciously fresh Porra de Naranja, akin to the famous Spanish gazpacho soup, except instead of tomato, it uses oranges.

After the meal the waiter gives me a handful of white cards, the recipes and history behind the dishes I’d just tried printed out in a beautiful font. It’s a lovely end to the meal.

A Region of Rich Stories

That afternoon we leave Antequera behind and strike out west towards Ronda. If you want to leave the tourist crowds behind, this ancient city is a great start. High in the mountains, Ronda was once an important crossroads between Seville, Málaga, and Cadiz, but with the onset of modern travel it fell by the wayside. It’s positioned spectacularly on top of two cliffs, cleaved in half by the 120-metre-deep El Tajo gorge. The village itself has seemingly been lifted straight out of the romantic imaginings of olden day Spain, the dizzying heights of the city offering up beautiful views out over the plains below and mountains beyond.

The Moorish and Roman influences are both very evident here, but I’m excited to explore another history that stirs the imagination and took place amongst the mountains of the area. Ronda’s long history is littered with famous bandits and outlaws, whose heroic raiding of rich caravans to spread the wealth to their poor countrymen has become legend in these parts. The Museo del Bandolero in Ronda explores these stories in detail.

We spend an hour or so inside the museum, poring over the stories and legends. Plaques on the wall tell scary tales of the most prominent of bandits and their territories of operations, while paintings depict common scenes of men on horseback raiding highway caravans.

“They were often loved by the towns people. A lot were already famous for their bullfighting skills” says the girl working at the museum. The controversial Spanish sport, which has all but disappeared in recent years, was basically invented in Ronda during the late 18th Century.

After the museum, we wander down to the focal point of Ronda, the Puente Nuevo. The bridge that spans the 120-metre-deep gorge is a fantastic feat of engineering, its stone arches making Ronda seem like a Game of Thrones set. From on top, we watch the sun set over the nearby mountain range, the sun glowing softly on the white houses that line the cliffs. As evening falls, we retire into the local tapas joints, rubbing shoulders with locals and the few tourists who remain for the night.

 

Freedom on the Road

Driving through the region, the beauty of the Costa del Sol is obvious. Spain’s second-most mountainous region also boasts some of its prettiest beaches – the best of both worlds. Winding mountain roads take us back down to the coast, mountaintop villages shimmering white in the distance. We stop at a rest stop where the dusty cowboys and truckers of Andalucía rotate through the doors. They lean against the bar and sip coffees after wolfing down plates of calamari and patatas bravas. Its people watching at its best.

Once you get used to the speed, even the highways take on their own kind of beauty. The autovías along the Costa del Sol are kept in perfect condition, wide and smooth. Tunnels dive under mountains, leading us out the other side to where views out over the ocean await. From a distance, even the gaudy hotels built up along the coast are kind of pretty. But it’s not all for tourists - we pass areas of rich agricultural land growing everything from mangoes to olives. The perfect lines of trees cover the hills, men at work amongst the soil.

One sunny morning we make the lazy hour-long drive up from the coast towards the small village of Bobadilla, where one of the region’s most important exports goes unnoticed by tourists. Spain produces 50% of the world’s supply of olive oil, and about 80% of that comes from Andalusian olive mills. There’s one mill in the area that I’m keen to visit – Finca la Torre. Recognised as the best olive oil in Spain, it’s an establishment that is keen to educate visitors about agriculture in the region.

“Tourists are beginning to look for other things to do while they’re here. It’s a change in their way of thinking – they’re after more authentic experiences rather than just sun, surf and sand” says Víctor Pérez, owner and chief engineer of Finca la Torre. His long hair is curling over his eyes as he leans back in his office chair.

“That’s why we’ve hired Theresa here. She’s going to oversee the tourism aspect of things from now on” he says, indicating to the woman sitting next to me.

We go on a tour of their high-tech olive oil mill, Víctor explaining the intricacies behind the olive oil and its creation along the way - most of which goes over my head.

“There’s a certain set of benchmarks that an oil needs to reach to be considered extra virgin olive oil. But the problem is the ceiling for quality goes so much higher than that, and people don’t know – not even the Spanish” Víctor says.

After the tour of his mill, we sample and smell various olive oils like we’re at a wine tasting. Comparing the biting taste of the regular stuff from the supermarket with Víctor’s award-winning oil is like light and day – the latter is much cleaner and somehow smells of the Spring.

“Oil is a lot like wine. There’s a lot to learn about it, the different methods of making it, where it comes from. It’s still very new knowledge, but awareness of it is growing. Like I said, tourism is changing in the region” Víctor says.

A City of Street Art and the Hollywood Affair

Each morning we’re greeted with sunny days as we hit the road, driving through coastal towns and up in mountains. We pull into Estepona, an hour down the coast from Málaga, where the old town is the most spectacular collection of labyrinth-like cobbled streets lined with cute white houses, flowers hanging off balconies at every turn. Salty air breezes through the streets, mixing with the smell from the fragrant flowers, ripe orange trees swaying gently in the squares, and fresh seafood being cooked in hidden restaurants. We wander out of the old city centre into the more regular neighbourhoods, where we find a different kind of beauty. Over 40 street art murals cover apartment buildings, including the largest mural in Spain spread out over 6 different buildings, which if viewed at the correct angle merges into one painting.

We head east of Málaga up into towns sheltering in the shadow of the Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama National Park. We drive through the touristy town of Frigiliana and take the mountain road that loops around the back of the valley, providing stunning views out all the way down to the sparkling ocean. We stop in at Torrox, advertised as the town with the best climate in Europe, and snack on fresh calamari with lemon in the sun.

Another day we cruise towards Torremolinos, one of the more crowded beach destinations between Málaga and Marbella. But this is one that deserves attention; it was this town that had a brief love affair with the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the 1950’s the first 5-star hotel was built along the coast, the Hotel Pez Espada. Torremolinos was just a quiet fishing town at the time, but the following years all of that would change as the coast gained popularity with international travellers, and Hollywood stars started to flock to the area for holidays or filming, most staying at the Hotel Pez Espada. The hotel still celebrates its liaison with Hollywood’s elite – signed pictures of the actors, musicians, and important figures who stayed line the hallway. The likes of Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, and Sean Connery are all there, but perhaps the most interesting celebrity to visit was Frank Sinatra – probably because it was in this hotel where he was arrested at the bar and deported from the country.

We enjoy a quiet beer in the small bar, renamed to Frank’s Café, and study his records hanging on the back wall. A plaque by the door details the story of his arrest. After some disagreement with a Cuban actress and her paparazzi photographer friend, Frank had one of his party destroy the photographer’s camera and aggressively shoved the actress. She later went to the police, who arrested Frank at the bar. After spending the night in jail, they dropped him at the airport the next morning where he flew back to America, never to return to Spain.

Great Weather, Even Better Wine

Our last day on the road is a little less tumultuous than Sinatra’s. Wine tourism in Spain is a booming industry, but most overlook the vineyards on the Costa del Sol, opting instead to head to the more famous locations; La Rioja, Castilla-La Mancha, and Catalonia all spring to mind when thinking of Spanish wine. Andalusian wines represent just a small part of the whole, and here it’s more about small vineyards and artisan wines. That might be why winery tourism in the region is so overlooked.

“Attracting tourists here is difficult, wineries definitely aren’t mainstream in the Costa del Sol. How did you hear about us?” asks Flavio, co-founder and owner of the Descalzos Viejos winery, just outside of Ronda. He greets us at the front gate, wearing cargo pants, boots, a warm woollen jumper and thick black sunglasses, ready for a day’s work and every inch the working farmer. Originally an architect, he bought the winery back in 1998 with one of his friends, Paco Retamero.

“I went from designing skyscrapers in Buenos Aires to living in a small farm house in this valley” he laughs, pointing out his modest home surrounded by the vines of the bodega in the fields below.

Descalzos Viejos occupies an enviable position just below the cliffs of Ronda, overlooking the El Tajo gorge, the same one that splits the city in two. The bodega itself dates to the 16th Century, when it was in use as a Trinitarian Monastery. Bought in 1998 and restored to its former glory after just a couple of years, it now sits in the middle of a lovely set of tiered gardens, complete with trees bearing fresh tangerines, hidden ponds and bubbling fountains. Below, at the bottom of the steep cliffs, the vines spread out across the valley’s fields.

After a short tour of the Monastery and its gardens, we retire to the sunny terrace where we lounge around on chairs in the sun, overlooking the vines far below. Flavio brings out a rack of wine glasses and some bottles of wine to sample. “Drinking in Andalucía isn’t about getting drunk. It’s about enjoying the conversation and company” he says. That’s exactly what we do for the next hour, discussing everything from tourism and life in the region to the Catalan push for independence.

Flavio is remarkably charismatic and worldly, embodying the openness and honesty of the locals.

“Andalucía has always been a melting pot of cultures. That’s just how it is – we don’t see the amount of people coming here as a bad thing. We realise that the Costa del Sol is a region that a lot of people are going to want to live in, and visit. We’re lucky to have something so special that we get to share” he says, in between sips of a dark shiraz we’re sampling.

He wanders over to a nearby tree and picks a handful of tangerines from amongst its branches. We peel the fruits open to pair it with our wine as the conversation shifts to different topics – his move from Argentina and drastic change of career.

“Life is good here. I never thought this would be where I ended up, but that’s life – one big exciting journey” he says.

As we sit in the warm sun looking out over the valley, it’s this sentiment that will stick with me long after I’ve gone home. While many might doubt this destination, it’s the journeys through the Costa del Sol and the experiences you’ll find along the way that make it worth travelling to. It’s a region of dusty mountains, beautiful beaches, friendly locals and amazing food. And sure, they might drive fast down here, but life and travel in the Costa del Sol is deliciously slow, with plenty to discover.