The marvels of Marbella

DUBAI: When Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd died in August 2005, the city of Marbella on Spain’s southern coast declared three days of official mourning. To an outsider, it might have seemed an odd reaction, but to residents and local business owners, it made perfect sense. Marbella was regarded as a second home for the King, who had been visiting for more than two decades and was posthumously declared an adopted son of the city.

The New York Times reported in 1981 that the then-Crown Prince Fahd had recently built a palace “nestled in the flanks of the Sierra Blanca” with a “bougainvillaea-draped garden.” Two months earlier he had quietly inaugurated the King Abdulaziz Mosque, which was funded by the Kingdom, named after its first monarch and was the first mosque built in Spain since the Arabs were expelled from Al-Andalus in the 15th Century.

Both buildings still stand resplendent 37 years on, while the special relationship between southern Spain and Saudi Arabia continues. A 2016 report published by the Costa del Sol tourism office found the average stay of a visitor from Saudi is 17 days. Members of the royal family still visit regularly — and stay much longer. Last month, the national football team elected to train here as preparations for this summer’s World Cup ramp up. They are expected to return again next month.

Situated about an hour down the coast from Malaga Airport, visitors without the luxury of helicopters and private jets can take the efficient and economical Renfe train as far as Fuengirola or catch the irregular airport coach direct to Marbella. Either way is markedly cheaper than a $100 one-way taxi ride.

The Costa del Sol boasts 24 beaches spread across 27km of Mediterranean coastline, but Marbella is more than just golden sand, warm waves and sunbathing. Inspired by Islamic architecture, the Casco Antiguo — or Old Town — is a warren of narrow cobbled streets filled with compact homes, jewellery shops, independent retailers, statues, fountains and local cafés.

While the narrow pathways offer shade from the Spanish sunshine, ornate Andalusian-style balconies hang overhead, displaying the neighbourhood’s unique mix of cultures. No eatery displays this amalgamation of Arab and Andalusia better than La Casa del Hummus, a vegetarian restaurant that doubles up as a coffee shop and is situated at the mouth of the maze, on Calle Muro and Calle Mendoza.

From there, follow the road up the hill and it will be impossible not to spot the Arab Walls. Dating back to the 9th Century, the fortification once protected the old medina, and now serves as a reminder of the city’s rich history.

Of course, life has changed immeasurably for many Arabs since the discovery of oil. For a glimpse of how the one percent now live, you need only head 10km southwards and visit the marina at Puerto Banús. Here, Arabic voices float down the promenade while luxury yachts with puns (of a kind) for names — “Sea Esta,” “Aquaholic” — float inside the bay.

On the street, you’ll find Louis Vuitton, La Perla, Michael Kors, Gucci. If it is a luxury brand, it is almost certainly located here, among the shisha cafes, expensive restaurants, real estate agents, and hedonistic nightclubs. Flashy cars — a BMW i8, a Rolls Royce Phantom, a Bentley Continental GT — purr slowly past, occasionally drowning out the shoppers speaking in languages from all over the world, including, of course, Arabic.

Marbella is like Dubai’s Marina Walk merged with Monaco’s Port Hercules. And when the sun is shining, it’s easy to understand why King Fahd was such a fan.

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