On the Beach

by wjw on October 28, 2021

As I mentioned a couple posts back, we planned three nights on the Costa del Sol as a kind of rest stop, though we managed not to get a lot of rest during our stay. Our route took us through the millionaires’ playground of Marbella, where we decided we could just about afford lunch. The tapas were good, and the paella was not very interesting. (The area seems to specialize in not-very-interesting paella, though eventually we found some good stuff.)

Marbella features the idle rich of all sorts: decayed European aristocrats, Saudis spending petrodollars, a surprising number of “retired” gangsters (the Italians refer to the area as Costa Nostra, “our coast,” but the Brits are also well represented), and (in the years after World War II) Nazi refugees. The rich get the headlines but there are places on the Costa del Sol for every budget. Torremolinos, where we stayed, is middle class, and there are other areas oriented toward families and students. There seem to be dozens of golf courses. Whatever your budget, the Costa del Sol will help take it off you.

They’ve had decades of practice. Torremolinos was the site of the first gay bar in Spain (1962), and Spain’s first topless beach. (For foreigners— under Franco, Spanish women were forbidden by law from going without their tops.)

We had got a little tired of big meals in restaurants, so for the most part we ate in chiringuitos, small restaurants built on the beach. There are hundreds of them, and they are all illegal— it’s against the law to build on the sand. Nobody seemed very worried about being arrested, and the sardines and sea bream were tasty.

Our one exception was visiting Bodega Bar El Pimpi in Málaga, with its world-class wine-cellar. Named after a local character who met the tourist boats back in the day, the restaurant is 40 years old and is currently owned by Málaga native Antonio Banderas. The tapas were colossal— a platter of chestnut-fed ham and Manchego cheese was particularly memorable.

Wandering toward El Pimpi I encountered Málaga’s Roman amphitheater, found and excavated relatively recently. In front of the amphitheater was a plexiglas pyramid in the plaza, through which you could look down to see the vats in which the Romans brewed up garum, their ubiquitous fish sauce.

The cathedral is stately Renaissance-era classical with an enormous baroque front built on it. One tower is tall and complete, and the other was never finished, supposedly because the money was donated to Bernardo de Galvez to aid the cause of American independence during our revolution. (This appears not to be true, but it’s widely believed.)

(Galvez was an interesting character, and if my Privateer series had run longer I would have detailed his conquest of Mobile, for which he blazoned “Yo Solo” [“I Alone”] on his coat of arms. In my book he wouldn’t have done it alone, but with the help of my privateer family.)

Málaga was the site of another massacre during the Spanish Civil War. The fascists launched their attack on the city with Moorish troops and Italian tanks. (Franco’s army, which of course was intended to save Spain for the Catholic Church, couldn’t find enough Catholics to join up, and so had as its largest contingent Muslim troops from Morocco, who were perfectly happy to rape and murder Christians in the name of the Pope.)

The news that the Moors were on their way resulted in an evacuation of Málaga, the refugees having to march 200km to the city of Almería. Of those who remained, 4000 were rounded up, raped, killed, and buried in mass graves. (Some of them may have been re-interred in the Valley of the Fallen.)

The 16,000 or so trying to escape were strafed and bombed by the German air force and shelled by the Italian navy for the length of their journey. Almería, in terror of the Moors, refused to help them when they arrived.

There have been so many massacres in Spain that an entire Wikipedia page is devoted to listing them.

We escaped Spain’s sanguine history for a day with a visit to that relic of Empire, Gibraltar. The name Jebel al-Tariq means “Mountain of Tariq” in Arabic. Tariq— who landed at Gibraltar— being the general who conquered most of Spain in the 8th century. Admiral Rooke took it from Spain in 1704, after first failing to take Cadiz. Spain ceded the territory in 1713, with the proviso that the British never allow Jews to live there. (The Jews moved in right away.)

After going through some rather elaborate customs procedures, we entered Gib and first had to cross the runway of the airport, which lies athwart the road leading to the town. Pedestrians are advised to look both ways before crossing. Perhaps fortunately, it’s not a busy airport.

Gibraltar’s economy is supported by online gambling and offshore banking. Tourism is encouraged by lots of duty-free shops, in which we found some spectacular bargains (but didn’t buy, because we didn’t want to haul a lot of stuff around). The British want to keep Gib happy and English, and offer the locals a lot of benefits that aren’t available to ordinary British people. A free university education, for one, along with five free trips per year to Gibraltar and back.

With a mountain sitting there on a strait between two large bodies of water, Gibraltar generates its own weather, and a gloomy cloud is often found sitting atop the rock, shadowing the town and making it look more sombre than it is.

We didn’t take the tram to the top of the rock, which was socked in. Instead we took the steep road up the rock, which offered stunning views of the Bay of Algeciras filled with shipping. Very distantly, often hidden by mist, we could see the mountains of Africa. Eventually we found ourselves at the entrance to the St. Michael’s Cave, a limestone cavern— not very large compared with, say, Carlsbad, but filled with spectacular rock formations. They’ve set up a psychedelic light show in the cave running up and down the formations. It was dazzling, but I was of two minds about it.

The most famous inhabitants of Gibraltar are the barbary apes, the only ape native to Europe. A family of them were hanging around the cave entrance and seemed fairly mellow, not as interested in the visitors as we were in them. One of them wandered into the cafe and sat on a table as if he expected to be fed. They are in fact fed regularly by the authorities, who don’t want them wandering into town in search of food.

I looked for Ack-Ack Macaque but failed to find him.

We returned to town for lunch, and felt more or less obliged to order fish and chips along with Irish stout. We had been advised on the best chippy, and found it quite good, but not so good that I can remember the name of the place.

Afterwards we returned to Torremolinos. I can’t remember doing anything for the rest of the day, so apparently I awarded myself a siesta.

Our hotel had two tower blocks. Atop one was an exclusive club that our key cards wouldn’t let us get to, though Jim took the elevator to the floor below, then went up the stairs and in. Apparently you could get free food and drinks.

We plebs went to the bar atop the other tower, which featured nightly entertainment. The first night featured the Three Not-Quite Tenors (one baritone, one tenor, and one near-tenor who couldn’t hit the high notes). They performed popular tunes like “Besame Mucho” to pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment, and while they weren’t precisely my thing, I had to admit they put on a very professional show. (By that point I was drinking Cardhu. Several container ships full of Cardhu must have unloaded recently, since I found it everywhere. Cardhu makes near-tenors sound a lot better.)

Our last night we went to the bar to discover a flamenco show, dancers again with pre-recorded music. They turned out to be very good, but maybe it was the Cardhu.

From the rooftop bar we could look at the exclusive club on the other wing, and it was dead dead dead. Score one for the plebs.

Terry October 30, 2021 at 12:38 am


oofoe October 31, 2021 at 7:50 am

While no comparison to /actually/ seeing it, it’s neat that the world wide bundle of wires allows one to collect additional impressions to go with an article like this — the home page of El Pimpi, street view of the paths up Gibraltar, discovering what an Ack-Ack Macaque is… (BTW, WTF? on that last one…) It provides a lot of context that the author doesn’t need (since being there) but is very helpful for less well-traveled plebs.

Peter Tillman November 3, 2021 at 12:01 am

Do they still have the (unsightly) tin sheets covering a fair bit of the mountain to collect rainwater? Or a more eye-pleasing substitute? An important resource, since Spain (used to) cut off the water in their eternal effort to get rid of the Brits…..

My one visit came in 1963, on the old Cunard liner Mauretania, for a few hours en route to NY. I came across a green card, signed by the purser, certifying YT as the Deck Shuffleboard champ for the voyage!

wjw November 3, 2021 at 4:58 pm

I noticed no tin objects on the Rock, and there seemed to be plenty of water, so either they’ve installed a desalinization plant since 1963 or— with Franco’s blockade no longer in effect— they’re getting water from the mainland.

Steinar Bang November 14, 2021 at 4:09 am


Costa del Sol wasa the site of our last abroad vacation pre-covid. Wife’s job has/had an apartment in the area, that could be booked by employees, so we stayed there.

(Must admit I didn’t spend that much time thinking about the various places’ violent history…)

Spent one evening in Marbella looking at yachts and Ferrarris.

Took a trip to Gibraltar as well, with a bus trip up the rock, to the cave entrance. We walked from there to the top after seeing the caves. One of the apes actually managed to tear open the backpack (as warned about by the bus guide on the trip earlier…), looking for food. Damn they are fast!

We also walked the Caminito del Rey.

And re: your Finnish: ancestry Paratiisi (i.e. “Paradise”) is a Finnish crime drama from Costa del Sol.

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