Old Spain close to the coast

Costa Rica

The Costa del Sol is where the Spanish beach holiday, and mass tourism was born. So it does get busy. But original Spain is never far away from the main resorts. I explored white villages, one of Europe’s top scenic train rides, spectacular mountain nature havens, and some really useful trees.

White wonder

The Costa del Sol building boom spoiled many coastal towns and villages, but left the inland white villages (Pueblos Blancos) largely intact.

Squat old homes piled up like giant sugar cubes sparkle on steep hillsides, their names as taut and stylish as a designer item - Monda, Gaucin, Istan, Ojen and Tolox. Some were founded by Berbers, who settled when the Moors were here. Every year owners meticulously whitewash their homes anew. Mijas is one of the easiest to reach on a day’s excursion from the coast. On a clear day you can see the Rif Mountains of Morocco. Another gem is Casares, fused spectacularly to the mountain side. Nerja, east of Málaga, is a sea level pueblo. The Balcony of Europe, a marble promenade, juts over the sea.

Smart saunter

Squeeze something smart into your suitcase for the evening stroll along the promenade in Marbella, still this Costa’s chicest resort, despite the credit crunch. Discovered by the terribly smart set in the 1950s, it retains some serious elegance in places like Marbella Club, one of the original luxury hotels. Take a turn along Paseo Marítimo, between the sea and the civic gardens. Carry on through the Old Town, to that most select of patios, Patio de los Naranjos (Court of the Orange Trees). There’s a rich slew of tapas bars. But for the least spoilt resort, go to Cabopino, between Marbella and Fuengirola. The beach is fringed by pines, stretching down to white sands, and guarded by an ancient stone watchtower.

Pop a cork

Buy wine in a bottle with a cork, and you could help save one of the world’s most useful trees, along with the rich wildlife around it. The Los Alcornocales National Park is a big hunk of nature N of the Costa del Sol, cut through by the road to Jerez. It contains one of Europe’s largest cork oak groves, a haven for griffon vultures and Iberian lynx. Peeling the trees’ thick corky bark (enough for 4,000 wine corks) is a totally sustainable process. No trees are cut down; harvesting does not harm the tree. A new layer of cork grows, for harvesting in 10-12 years. Trees can live for 250 years. So don’t think that by buying screw cap wine you do nature a favour. (The Huerta Grande Visitor Centre is S of Algeciras, on the N340.)

Wander to Ronda

Rail Europe has just published a list of 10 top rail journeys [June 25]. The choice for Spain is the delightful 90 minute trip from Algeciras on the coast, through the mountains to Ronda. The line climbs over ravines and rivers, past steep fields studded with cork oak, little white-walled villages and the remains of once mighty 13th century Moorish castle Castellar de la Frontera – an old village sits entirely within the walls. Tantalising short walks lead off from stations en route, e.g. to Cueva del Gato (Cave of the Cat) from Benaoján. You enter Rondo over El Tajo gorge, 150 feet deep. It divides the town, all cobbled streets and whitewashed Moorish mansions. Hotels Reina Cristina (in Algeciras), and Rondo’s Reina Victoria, built for passengers when the line opened, are comfortable stays.

Pause for Pablo

Málaga used to be the city to dash through on your way from the airport to Torremolinos or Fuengirola. The new Picasso Museum is a good reason to stop. This is Picasso’s hometown, which puts it above the many museums elsewhere dedicated to the genius’s work. Museo Picasso Málaga, (8 San Augustín), is in a sensitively restored 16th-century palace in the old city. Little galleries mix in with peaceful patios and gardens. They show paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, and graphics Picasso gave his family or kept for himself. The current exhibition (to 30 August [2009]) is his late sculptures. Highlight is a sheet-metal sculpture, Woman. The old city is much as it was in Pablo’s youth. His birthplace on Plaza de la Merced is a small museum. In Málaga you must also see the Alcazaba, a magnificent Moorish palace, with fountains and secret courtyards.

Succulent snacks

Is tapas the most versatile menu of snacks – joined up to make a meal - ever devised? Alfonso the Wise may have started it, when he ordered inns to serve nibbles so customers did not drink on an empty stomach. (Tapas means lid – perhaps a hunk of bread over a wine glass to keep the flies out.) Now countless bar owners offer their creative take on the little dishes. Many serve 70 or more choices, infinite permutations of habas con jamon (broad beans with ham), boquerones (small anchovies in oil and vinegar with garlic and parsley) and patatas bravas - potato wedges with chilli sauce. A local speciality is ajo blanco, gazpacho made with almonds. If in doubt, point. Out of a huge choice, I suggest Taperia Siglo - a fantastic old bar in Plaza de la Merced, Malaga.

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