A taste of the real Spain

Forget the gaudy playground of the rich. For a flavour of authentic Marbella, you can’t beat the atmosphere – or the great food, whether from a market stall or in a tapas bar – of the old town, writes

HAVE YOU ever wondered what happened to James Hewitt, the ginger-haired former British cavalry officer, so-called love rat and reality TV player?

Princess Diana’s former consort is now running a bar in the Costa del Sol. But not any old bar – after two years lying low in the Marbella sunshine, the major has burst back into the limelight as host and patron of Polo House, a glitzy bar and restaurant near a former Aresbank building on Marbella’s Golden Mile.

Hewitt is not the only minor celebrity being dragged out to put their name to a new Marbella restaurant in these recessionary days. Jean-Christophe Novelli had practically every British soap actor under the sun when he presided over the opening of the latest of his long-distance ventures, Marbella Novelli, in the newly refurbished Hotel Lorcrimar, at the Puerto Banús end of the Golden Mile.

Polo House and Marbella Novelli are emblematic of a certain type of Marbella habitue – the sort of place you’ll find those gaudy gals from the Marbella Belles reality TV show swigging Cristal and not nibbling on canapes – but this is not the real Marbella, not by a long shot.

There is, at the heart of this historic town, a well-preserved casco antiguo (old town) where you can walk the Arab walls, investigate the remains of the 10th-century fortress, admire the harmonious mix of Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic and Moorish architecture, and catch a glimpse of traditional Spanish life in the narrow streets where, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a few doors open on to cool interior patios with lavish tiled walls and floors.

Most Irish visitors to the area stay in one of the sprawling urbanisations stretching for kilometres east and west of Marbella, and come into town for shopping and maybe dinner. But staying in the heart of the old town, in one of several excellent boutique hotels, guest houses (pensiones) or self- catering units, gives access to the real, beating heart of this vibrant town, far from the beachside glamour and glitz.

To get a real feel for Marbella, begin by taking in the views in Plaza de los Naranjos (Orange Square), the heart of the old town, but don’t have your morning coffee there. Do as the locals do and head up one of the many narrow streets and find a less touristy spot for your drink.

The terrace at El Reloj, a cafe bar on Plaza Puente Ronda, is a good spot for people-watching and mingling with a good mix of locals and visitors – and an Illy coffee, served charmingly with a mini madeleine on the side, will set you back just €1.50.

A visit to the Mercado Municipal is a must if you’re self- catering or searching for food gifts to being home. Totally hidden away on the second floor of one of the town’s multistorey car parks, at Calle Jacinto Benavente, is a thriving fish, meat and vegetable market.

Get there early in the morning for the best selection of local and imported fish. It’s not cheap – penny-wise locals buy their fish at the Eroski supermarket on Avenida el Trapiche – but the choice is huge, and the fish undeniably fresh.

If you’re in town for a while, you’ll begin to recognise many of the town’s restaurateurs doing their daily shop there, and you could just spot the very sardines you’ll be savouring later, on the beach.

Don’t miss the excellent kitchen knives, steels, cleavers and general kitchenware on sale at Chuchillería Jesús, where less than €20 will buy you a knife that will become a lifelong favourite, and Jesus Peinado Ruiz will grind it to razor-sharpness in front of you. (But don’t forget to stow it in checked luggage . . . I still hanker after the perfect paring knife I left in my hand luggage and had to dispose of at Malaga airport.)

This is also the place to buy saffron (azafrán) – the very best comes from La Mancha – and smoked paprika (pimentón) to bring home. The paprika comes in dulce (sweet), piccante (hot) and the harder to find agridulce (bittersweet) varieties; the best is Pimentón de la Vera.

Hard-core cooks will also be tempted by the strings of dried peppers, of varying levels of heat intensity.

For olive oil it’s best to head back to the old town, where a specialist shop, D Oliva, has just opened at Calle Nueva 9, near Plaza de los Naranjos. Here you can have a tutored tasting of the huge selection of Spanish and other extra-virgin oils on sale, and pick up a selection of vinegars, tapenades and even cosmetics made with olives.

With your shopping stowed away, join the locals for a late (by Irish standards) lunch at one of the old town’s many tapas bars or traditional restaurants, such as El Gallo, at Calle Lobatas 44. Three generations of the Elena Martin family are involved in this popular restaurant with rooms.

Recently, my son and I sat down to lunch there and chose, from the menú del día, a substantial meal that began with pasta with meat sauce, followed by grilled pork with home-made chips, and caramel pudding, in the company of a microcosm of Marbella residents, and without an English-speaker in earshot. Three courses each, with drinks, and a bill for €16.

And there was the prospect of a siesta in the shade to come, followed by an appetite- stimulating walk along the seafront, a pre-dinner drink at one of the beach bars, and a market-sourced, home-cooked dinner of tortillitas de camarones (delicate shrimp fritters, made with chickpea flour, bought ready to fry, from the mercado) and, for dessert, a selection of French-style mini pastries from Goyo, the deli and cake shop at Calle Alonso de Bazán.

This isn’t the high-flying, Gucci-clad, Prada bag-toting, perma-tanned, celebrity- obsessed Marbella of lore – instead it’s a charming, laid-back place to soak up the sun, shopping and eating.

5 places to stay

La Villa Marbella. Calle Principe 10, 00-34-952-766220, www.lavillamarbella.com. Proprietor Marcos Torres learned his trade with Club Med – and it shows: personal service and professionalism are unsurpassed. He now has 14 rooms in four houses in the old town, including one with a swimming pool, at the Courtyard. Doubles from €90.

Town House. Calle Alderete 7, 00-34-952-901791, www.townhouse.nu. Cool and airy Scandinavian design, every room different, and a suntrap terrace are the draws here. Doubles from €110.

Hotel Claude. Calle San Francisco 5, 00-34-952-900840, www.hotelclaudemarbella.com. The last word in boutique-hotel style, but at a price. A three-year, no-expense-spared renovation was unveiled last year, and it’s very impressive. Doubles from €250.

Hotel Don Alfredo. Calle Portada 11, 00-35-952-766978, www.hoteldonalfredo.com. Simple, clean rooms, with views to the castle, gardens or the Sierra Blanca mountain range, in a quiet part of town. Doubles from €48.

La Morada Mas Hermosa. Calle Montenebros 16, 00-34-952-924467, www.lamoradamashermosa.com. Small, charming, quirky and stylishly decorated, and it couldn’t be in a more central old-town location. The sort of place people keep to themselves, for obvious reasons. Doubles €80-140.

Self-catering. A full list of self-catering properties is available at www.marbella.es/turismo.

5 places to eat

Casanis. Calle Ancha 8, 00-34-952-900450. French bistro food, now extended to include a wine bar on the opposite side of the street. Reliable and lively.

Skina. Calle Aduar 12, 00-34-952-765277, www.restauranteskina.com. Is this the smallest one-star restaurant in the Michelin Guide? Maybe, but it’s also one of the best value – tasting menu €55.

The Orange Tree. Plaza General Chinchilla 1, 00-34-952-924613. A firm favourite with the Irish in Marbella, and it offers a €22 three-course dinner until 8pm, with an a la carte later.

El Patio de los Perfumes. Calle Aduar 1, 00-34-952-828650. Trendy, French-owned bar and restaurant with tables in a candle-lit garden in summer and a Moorish tent in winter. There is a flamenco dinner show some nights in the summer season.

Los Sardinales. Alicate Playa, El Rosario, 00-34-952-837012. A little excursion outside the old town, but worth it. Walk along the beach to Alicate Playa (an hour and a half, or a little more), eastwards from Marbella town centre, for the best paella in the area, and a gawk at Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths’s beach house, just opposite.

5 places for tapas

La Venencia. Plaza de los Olivos, 00-34-952-779963. There are several branches of this chain in Marbella – most people know the one with the barrels outside, near the beachfront – but this is the one the locals eat at.

Messura. Calle Tetuán 9, 00-34-670-348-118 www.messura.es. Strikingly modern tapas bar, with fashionable nibbles on small plates.

El Estrecho. Calle San Lázaro 12, 00-34-952-770004. The best-known tapas bar, and winner of best café bar in Marbella last year, on an incredibly narrow street lined on both sides with tapas joints.

Taberna Casa Curro. Calle Pantaleón 7, 00-34-662-462955. Cadiz-style tiled tapas bar; this is the place to go to for plates of glistening pink prawns from Sanlucar, with a small beer or a Manzanilla sherry on the side.

La Taberna del Pintxo. Avenida Miguel Cano 7, 00-34-952-829321, www.latabernadelpintxo.com. Not strictly speaking within the confines of the old town, but not to be missed. Grab a seat, select what you want from the cold counters, or whatever takes your fancy from the hot tapas brought around by the waiters. Your bill will be calculated when you have finished. Don’t hold back; bills are surprisingly reasonable, typically at about €15 per person.

Where to shop

The recession is a boon to some retailers, and none more so than the vintage sector. At Deja Vue, on Calle Pedraza 8, there has never been a better choice of high-end designer resale and vintage stock on offer, as the cash-strapped Costa glitterati cash in on their overflowing closets. Chanel, Ferragamo, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Chloé . . . it’s all here, and it costs nothing to try it on and see how haute couture, at knockdown prices, suits. More bargains are to be had at the factory shop for well-respected Spanish leather and clothing company El Caballo, at Calle Huerta Chica 14. In August you’ll see canny Madrileños queuing out the door for cut-price handbags, shoes and accessories bearing the chain’s distinctive equestrian logo.

Hot spot

Calle Peral, in the heart of the old town, is nightlife central, with everything from the traditional English bar the Tavern to tapas bars, several cocktail bars and nightclubs. Stylish Marbella youth and tourists converge here, and there’s something for everyone. For a more upscale nightlife experience head to the nightclubs run by the big hotels, right on the beach. Suite del Mar, at the Puente Romano hotel, is very sophisticated, and for a gawp at eurotrash in action book a table or, better still, a white-linen-draped daybed at Nikki Beach, in nearby Elviria.

To drink Tinto verano, the summer drink of red wine and lemonade; manzanilla sherry, dry, slightly salty and delicious; a glass of garlicky gazpacho; or a caña of beer.

To begin Jamon bellota (air-dried ham from acorn-fed pigs); salpicon de mariscos (seafood with peppers and onions in a vinegary dressing); Russian salad (nothing like you imagine it to be, really).

To follow Morzilla con cebollas (black pudding with onions); patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy mayo); pinchos de gambas (grilled prawns on a stick); rabo de toro (oxtail stew); adobo (marinated, deep-fried white fish); and lomo al horno (slow-roasted pork).

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies to Malaga from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Malaga from Dublin and Shannon.

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