A Deserter Abroad: Marbella

We alighted from the bus at noon and turned into the Old Town, leaving the traffic noise behind us. Around the second corner was an A-board in a pretty square advertising “Pinta – €3”, our first sign, looking back, that something was afoot. Something astonishing.

In the square, with its palm trees, rustic brick paving and whitewashed buildings, stood an array of cafe tables. Sunlight fell upon half of them and it was in this spot that a dozen beatific patrons sat, enjoying coffees and beers, smoking and smiling. One woman was wearing a T–shirt, her bronzed arms held languorously behind her head. Her male friend was in shorts.

I turned to my companion, The Fixer.

“Remind me of the date today?”

“The 8th”, he said. “The 8th of January.” And our gazes locked in a moment of unspoken bewilderment. What was this winter wonderland?

“Let’s get right on it,” he said.

Blow-ins in the wind

Before it was renamed Costa Del Sol, last century, this part of coastal Spain was known as the “Costa del Viento”. Those with an interest in developing the area as a tourist destination thought, probably correctly, that the idea of visiting the “Windy Coast” would have limited allure, and so the new name was coined. But windy it is. The Levante regularly blows from the east, the Poniente puffs cooler air in from the Atlantic, and the warm sirocco breathes in from the Sahara. To the north, though, Marbella and surrounding areas are protected by the dramatic mountains of the Sierra de las Nieves, giving the town something of a microclimate.

If you can get out of the wind – which Andalucian bar owners seem very adept at ensuring – and stay in the sun, the Costa del Sol is one of the few places on mainland Europe where you can wear a T-shirt all year round. Which no-one had ever thought to tell us. Rude.

It’s been a couple of years now since that first visit, as the world emerged from lockdown, and thanks to a friend who has a flat up the road, I’ve returned each subsequent winter to warm the bones and relive the magic. Over time, and with the input of my various visitors, I believe I have honed a day out in Marbella to something perilously close to perfection, the bulk of it confirmed on that very first day, when we wandered, starry-eyed and besotted. And I’m telling you about it because no-one ever thought to tell me. See? Polite.

Bar Ceuta

As you rove the labyrinthine passageways of the Old Town a thirst will inevitably arise within you. Our favourite place to slake it is at this unassuming bar, hidden down another alley with just a couple of outside tables and a sliver of sunlight. The alley is narrow so if you want sunshine you must time your visit to be between 12.30 and 1.30pm, as the sun passes overhead.

As well as a glass of cold beer, Juan, the proprietor, will also provide you with a bowl of olives with pickled garlic cloves the size of your thumb, to keep you going until lunch. This is important as you will be eating nothing more than bits of fruit until then. Or reading them. 

Juan for the road

It was in Bar Ceuta that I encountered Casino Sam, a dapper US pensioner who would visit Marbella’s casino each night armed with his pension pot. He would bet €100 on red. If he won, he would leave, having won enough for another day’s food, booze and lodging. If he lost, he would double the stake until he won his €100. Then he’d leave. He had enough reserve, he said, to double the stake seven times – which, I estimated, meant he was risking about 13 grand each night, just to win €100. The rules of probability, he told me, suggested he’d last about three months before encountering a run of black seven times in a row, which would wipe him out and send him back to Minnesota. He’d been in Marbella five years. A beautiful story, even if it was most likely baloney. I bought him a drink anyway.

If, as is sometimes the case, Bar Ceuta is closed, then Taberna Casa Curro is a fine alternative, similarly situated in another narrow alley in the southern part. Indeed, Moose prefers it because he likes the prawns you can get there, in a paper wrap, and is averse to massive garlic. Another option is Bar San Francisco, a raucous workers’ watering hole with glorious street-lean shelving. There are little beer bars everywhere – you won’t go short of carbs in Marbs.

Cafe Bar Central

Located in the middle of the Old Town, perhaps unsurprisingly given its name, Cafe Bar Central is the jewel in Plaza de los Naranjos, where it sits in the sun all day, taking the piss out of the bars on the other side that lie in the shade. Here one should bag a table and order a jug of sangria.

Feeling fine

It’s not the best sangria. I suspect there’s no brandy in it, as there should be. And banana? Please. And neither is it the cheapest. Nor was Moose amused when he forked out a piece of apple from his glass that still had the label on. “Why am I reading my fucking fruit?” he asked, not unreasonably.

But the point is, you are sitting in an exquisite, windless square, adorned with blue flower pots, in a spot so warm you have to ask if you can move table to a shadier one. Twice. In January. Yeah?

Five a day

If you do make it in January you’ll be able to enjoy the vibrant splash of colour from the fully laden orange trees that give the square its name, and which look odd against the backdrop of the remaining Christmas decorations but fantastic against the deep blue skies beyond. Truly a photo op. of epicly annoying proportions for those back home. If you come in February, the oranges will be gone. Maybe they label them and send them to the library.   

El Gallo

Lunch is taken at locals’ institution, El Gallo, hidden up in the north of the Old Town, the only establishment in another long narrow street. Because the Spaniards consider 19 degrees freezing, they tend to gather inside at the tables by the open fire (I kid you not) which leaves the little tables outside free for idiot tourists in T-shirts – that’s right, us. 

Chicken run

For €14 you can enjoy a three course home-cooked Menu Del Día. That’s fourteen Euros. One four. Outside, one of you can take a seat looking down the length of the pretty street, the other can gaze northward at the moody clouds that form over the mountains. And both of you can toast your good fortune with the wine that’s included in the deal. 

Good moody

La Marina

Next we leave the charming confines of the Old Town and stroll down to the sea front. It was on this promenade two years ago that the full force of warm winter possibilities seeped into our tipsy minds. Tree-lined and sun-bathed, the Paseo Marítimo is filled with the people who are in on the secret: chatting, walking, leaning on rails gazing at the ocean, or stopping off somewhere for a fag and quick half. 

“Why has no-one ever told us about this place?” said The Fixer, as he stopped off for a fag and a quick half.

“I know, right. I’m going to tell everyone,” I said.

“You do that, Raider. The people need to know. And let’s face it, you’ve got fuck all else to do.”

Fag and a quick half

As you pass, the Tiger Bay bar will be advertising, perhaps, the third round of the FA Cup, and words like Wrexham and Barnsley will seem madly incongruous. Tempting perhaps, but you should push on, as we did that fateful first time, to La Marina, a beachside bar that sits on the marina jetty, facing west.  

That’s right, west. It’ll be around 4pm now and given the aspect, the time difference and the Earth’s rotation or something, you’ll now have a couple of hours to enjoy a perfect sunset – one in which the sun sinks into the bella mar. To accompany it we recommend the special offer on the local gin, Gin Larios, the measures of which are so large there’s barely room for the tonic water.

“It must be watered down. Has to be,” said Roxy when she was over. “There’s no way anyone would give you that much gin.” After her fourth we found her asleep in the lavs.

Barman!

From the bench seats at La Marina you can watch the cognoscenti ambling up and down. It’ll still be warm in the sun, and you may scoff at their hideous puffer jackets and quilted jerkins, but they know what’s coming. As soon as the sun goes, you’ll need a second or even third layer. I mean, it is winter after all, even if it is unlike any you’ve previously experienced. A winter that, for northern Europeans, seems to defy reality.

And that’s more or less it. How to do one of my favourite days. I’m sure there are plenty of other things to do and see in Marbella, but why fuck about with perfection? There’s even something called the “Golden Mile”, apparently. Never been. 

Beef eaters

At this point, various options may present themselves to you. Roxy likes to go dancing, for example. You could catch the late game at Nelly Mc’s. Spud once gave some money to a “dealer” in return for a small bag of sand. Casino Sam will no doubt be on his way to the casino… Or you can do my favourite: Uber home for dinner and an early night. You deserve it after a solid seven hours of messing about.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Marbella before I came. I can’t quite catch my pre-visit thoughts on it. Queasy glamour, maybe? Garish gift shops? Irish bars? Fried breakfasts? All these things exist, it’s true, but not in any overwhelming way. Not like the trashy parts of Tenerife, say. The overriding feeling is of a pretty, languorous Spanish town at ease with itself and the world: two hour lunches, walks along the front, beers and bonhomie.

I’ve never been there in summer, though. Maybe it’s hellish. But in winter it’s worth a week of anyone’s time. Or you could do what I did, and stay another month. 

Follow Dulwich Raider and Deserter on Twitter or whatever the fuck it’s called now

Like our Facebook page for post alerts and pictures of pints

Join our mailing list to receive our highly irregular email update

Image credits: Blow-ins in the wind and Fag and a quick half by The Fixer; Juan for the road by Juan; Barman! by Micky Science; Beef eaters by Roxy. Other photos by the author.