virtuoso global September 2018 Beyond the Beach: 7 Surprising Things to do in the Costa del Sol

Beyond the Beach: 7 Surprising Things to do in the Costa del Sol

Antequera, often called “the Florence of Andalucía.” 
Antequera, often called “the Florence of Andalucía.” 
The aptly named Costa del Sol – literally “Coast of the Sun” – is famous for its beaches, boutiques, and golf courses. But there is more to do than bask in some of its 3,000 hours of sunshine a year and work on your tan (or golf game).

“Known for its resort towns and lively nightlife, Costa del Sol is often overlooked or misunderstood when it comes to being a luxury destination,” says London-based Virtuoso advisor Gemma Fitchett. “Underneath the façade, it is a place rich in culture, cuisine, and charm.” 

The hundred-mile stretch of Andalucía coast in southern Spain includes Málaga and Marbella, but also a swatch of hilly interior with an inviting, slow pace where vultures and eagles soar and wild goats roam. Pueblos blancos (“white villages”) stud the landscape with a distinct whitewash architecture accented by wrought-iron balconies, red-tiled roofs, and purplish-pink bougainvillea. 
Some of Spain’s most spectacular traditional cuisine can be found here. But with eight Michelin-starred restaurants, the Costa del Sol also throws a long contemporary culinary shadow. 
The Costa del Sol has much to surprise – and delight – the traveler.

Marbella’s Old Town

With its super-size yachts, high-end shopping, and trendy beach clubs, Marbella is famous as a playground for the rich. Since the 1950s, it has been drawing international royalty, celebrities, and jet-setters.
Originally, though, it was a small fishing village, and its charming original core remains. “Marbella’s Old Town is just as if you were stepping back in time,” says Chicago-based Virtuoso advisor Dena Krenzien. “I love the friendly people, the old streets, quaint stores, and the beautiful old buildings.”

To enjoy an authentic slice of old Marbella life, meander through the labyrinth of lanes and narrow alleys of the casco antiguo, step inside the sixteenth-century Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación with its exquisite rococo entrance carved in ocher stone, and have an aperitivo of dry sherry and some fried marcona almonds on the orange blossom-scented Plaza de los Naranjos.

Marbella’s beautiful Old Town. 
Marbella’s beautiful Old Town. 


In a privileged, central location at the crossroads of Sevilla-Granada and Málaga-Córdoba, Antequera long held a position of importance in Andalucía, as the imposing, sprawling hilltop fortress that dominates the city suggests.
The city’s rich architectural and artist heritage, opulent Spanish-baroque style, and more than 30 churches have given Antequera the sobriquet “the Florence of Andalucía.” While strolling amidst its spires and small squares, stop to admire the sixteenth-century Royal Collegiate Churchof Santa Maríala Mayor, with its ornate façade, fluted stone columns, and Mudéjar ceiling, or the seventeenth-century San Sebastián church with a striking brick steeple. 
Allow time to visit the trio of Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds on the northeastern edge of the city. Arguably the finest Neolithic monument in Europe, the stone slab-covered dolmens were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. 
Ronda is another fascinating inland Costa del Sol city with strong cultural heritage. Dramatically perched on a ridge with drops of some 350 feet, the ancient city is split into two by a gorge, whose chasm is spanned by an eighteenth-century arched bridge. Ronda is home to modern bullfighting, and the county’s oldest ring is one of the area’s most fascinating museums. 

Nerja Caves 

In 1959, five local boys discovered a series of caverns east of Málaga that contained Paleolithic and Neolithic tools, ceramic pottery, and cave paintings. Drawn in red and black pigments, the exceptional paintings depict horses, buffalo, goats, birds, and even seals.
The cave network stretches for three miles and about one-third of it is open to the public. (The fragile paintings can only be visited by specialist researchers.) Concrete pathways lead visitors through a series of easily accessible galleries with stunning geological formations, including massive stalactites and stalagmites. You can see the world’s largest stalagmite which stands over 100 feet high. One cavern contains a natural amphitheater that acts as a 100-seat hall for concerts and a dance festival. Try to catch a performance in this unique venue.
An unforgettable concert venue in Nerja. 
An unforgettable concert venue in Nerja. 

Museo Picasso Málaga 

Born in Málaga in 1881, Pablo Picasso spent his childhood in this ancient white city on the Mediterranean. Fulfilling Picasso’s long-held desire to have his work displayed in his native city, Museo Picasso Málaga opened in 2003, 30 years after the artist’s death. 
Housed in Buenavista Palace, a stunning Renaissance building, it holds more than 230 pieces that encompass Picasso’s eclectic range of styles and techniques. Highlights include Portrait of Lola, the sophisticated painting of his sister completed when he was barely 13, the Cubist Fruit Bowl, and the energetic, colorful Child with a Shovel painted in the last decade of his life during a renewed interest in Rembrandt and Velázquez. 
Take a break in the museum’s excellent café at a table among orange and bay trees and geraniums, an oasis in the historic heart of the city. 

Casares Cheese 

Named after Julius Caesar – who used the sulphurousspa baths outside town near Manilva – Casares is a pueblo blanco inland from the resort town of Estepona. Explore twisty, narrow streets, picturesque plazas flanked by churches, and the twelfth-century fortress that hovers protectively over the town. 
But for gastronomes, Casares’ draw is something altogether different: its celebrated goat cheeses. The town is well-known for its brilliant white queso fresco (fresh cheese) as well as more mature quesos madurados, from creamy semi-cured to pungent aged ones. 
You can visit an artisanal producer, see how these cheeses are made, and how shepherds care for the goats. Or participate in a workshop to learn how to make cheese yourself. The best part? Eating your own queso.
Named for Julius Caesar, Casares is a popular <em>pueblo blanco.</em>
Named for Julius Caesar, Casares is a popular pueblo blanco.

Michelin Stars

The Costa del Sol is filled with stars – creative, delicious Michelin stars. At the top of the list is Dani García’s eponymous two-starred restaurant in the Puente Romano Beach Resort & Spa in his hometown of Marbella. The extensive tasting menu focuses on flavors, innovation, and technique. Marbella hosts another trio of starred establishments: tiny Skina in the historical center; El Lago on Greenlife Golf course that uses “kilometer zero” produce; and the highly innovative Messina, owned and run by an Argentine husband-wife duo. 
Elsewhere in the Costa del Sol, gourmands can dine on traditional Japanese-Mediterranean fusion at Kabuki Raw in Finca Cortesin Hotel, Golf, & Spa, José Carlos García’s refined contemporary fare in the harbor of Málaga, and exquisite delicacies by the young Brazilian chef Diego Gallegos – aka “the caviar chef” – at Sollo. In 2018, Benito Gómez’s Bardal in Ronda became the newest Costa del Sol restaurant to be awarded a prestigious star. 
And while these stars draw diners, traditional cuisine is also abundant in this region, known for high-quality seafood from its coast. Spit-grilled fresh espetos(sardines) and pescaito frito, fried little fish Chilled porra, a thick local version of gazpacho. Ensalada malagueña, a cold salad with potatoes, cod fish, hardboiled eggs, oranges, and olives. While the Mediterranean diet is very important to locals, let’s not forget special treats like fried churroscon chocolate
Dani García’s two Michelin-starred restaurant draws diners to Puente Romano Beach Resort & Spa.
Dani García’s two Michelin-starred restaurant draws diners to Puente Romano Beach Resort & Spa.

Sweet Wine Culture  

Since the days of the Phoenicians, wine has been produced around Málaga. Known for sweet fortified wines made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grapes, the D.O. Málaga is one of the oldest denominaciones de origen in Europe. The D.O. extends along the coast west of the city of Málaga and up into the sierras, drawing in a quartet of hilly regions: La Axarquía, with its picturesque terraced hillsides so steep that donkeys still haul baskets of grapes during the harvest; Montes de Málaga, with different types of pines trees and wild olives among vineyards; inland Sierra Norte around Antequera, with hot summers and cold winters; and to the west, Manilva, with more humid Atlantic weather and richer soil. 
These days, the area’s wines go far beyond sweet. In 2001, the new D.O. Sierra de Málaga was established for red, white, and rosé wines to be produced in the same geographical area so deeply endowed with winemaking culture. Many glasses have been raised to that change. ¡Salud!

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