Spain’s second-largest comunidad autónoma, Andalucía, is comparable in size to European countries such as Austria, Hungary, Portugal, and American states like Minnesota, Utah, and Kansas. This southernmost region of mainland Spain includes the country’s two most visited tourist monuments: Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Mezquita de Cordoba, both remarkable flashbacks to the period of Moorish rule. Seville, the region’s sultry capital city, is a cultural and architectural paella of Spanish and Islamic Mudéjar styles, where must-see landmarks include the gothic Cathedral of St Mary and the Moorish Alcázar palace, plus museums showcasing everything from bullfighting to flamenco. Andalucía’s Mediterranean coast, the radiant Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun) is a popular tourist destination comprising resorts like Torremolinos, Marbella, and Puerto Banús.
Altogether, Andalucía welcomed 7.6 million international tourists in 2012. But the road less travelled in this part of Spain leads you away from the tourist hotspots to picturesque hilltop villages, unspoiled beaches, breathtaking mountain vistas, and, ultimately, to the very end of continental Europe. You just need to know which road to take.
No matter whether you arrive via plane, high-speed AVE train, cruise ship, or ferryboat, the primary gateway is Málaga. Although there’s plenty to see here, including an excellent museum honoring the city’s most artistic son, Pablo Picasso, I began my Andalucía adventure in Torremolinos; a four-mile drive south of Málaga Airport.
Once a sleepy fishing village in the 1950s, Torremolinos became the first place on the Costa del Sol to develop a tourist industry. Initially attracting the jet set and celebrities including Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and Marlon Brando, it rapidly morphed into a mass-tourism destination. It’s now characterized by high-rise developments, and is favored by sun-seeking Britons, Germans, and Scandinavians who help the population swell from around 70,000 to almost 250,000 during peak summer months.
Despite being a lively, good-time town, Torremolinos has managed to retain some of its fishing-village charm: quaint fishermen’s cottages with bougainvillea-draped patios stand among the ubiquitous souvenir shops and tapas bars of historic districts El Bajondillo and La Carihuela. On the beach itself, you’ll find several rustic chiringuitos (beach bars) where you can eat and drink while feeling sand beneath your toes. The recommended dish here is Espeto de Sardinas (fresh sardines sprinkled generously with sea salt, then grilled on skewers over an open fire that typically burns in the wrecked, sand-filled hull of an old wooden boat—so you’re guaranteed to taste the sea).
Gay and lesbian visitors will appreciate the fact that Torremolinos boasts southern Spain’s biggest gay scene. By day, gays and lesbians favor Beirola beach, while the terrace of adjacent beachfront café-bar El Gato Lounge is also popular.
After dark, the scene shifts to La Nogalera, a block off central Torremolinos with dozens of venues catering to all tastes. Long-established bars Contacto and Pourquoi Pas? are great for cabaret and drag shows, Bacchus is big with bears, while Free Eagle and Men’s Bar have frisky darkrooms. Most have outside terraces, so you can meander from one to another and see what’s happening. One block southwest is the Pueblo Blanco area, where you’ll find chilled, gay-friendly bars and restaurants, including Boomerang that’s run by a welcoming English lesbian and her Spanish girlfriend.
Torremolinos’ reputation as a resort town preferred by older gay men is dispelled during weekends when young Spaniards come here from Málaga, Seville, and as far afield as Madrid—altogether lowering the average age and raising the temperature! This is particularly true in venues like Parthenon Disco, a slick little dance club playing pop and house across two floors that keeps the partying going till 7 A.M.
Equidistant from Beirola beach and La Nogalera, the four-star Meliá Costa del Sol is popular with gay visitors. This recently renovated beachfront hotel has 538 rooms and suites, a swimming pool, a mini-gym, and a Thalasso Spa. If you seek a bit more Spanish charm, try gay-friendly Hostal Guadalupe, run by Robert, Antonio, and Pedro. This former fisherman’s house has six guestrooms and two self-catering apartments, and is currently ranked TripAdvisor’s #1 B&B in Torremolinos.
Soon the asphalt was beckoning us to continue our journey. Known as Autovía del Mediterráneo, Autovía A-7 is the longest national motorway in Europe, running over 800 miles along Spain’s Mediterranean coast—although I favor Autopista AP-7 because this interlinking, purpose-built toll motorway prohibits slow-moving vehicles and doesn’t get as congested (the addition of a “P” indicates that a payment is required). It’s worth noting that the A-7 is also identified on signs and maps as the E-15, part of the Europe-wide E-road network (motorways across Europe have both a national road number and a European route designation). Navigating gets even more confusing in southern Spain, because in addition to national routes like the A-7, Andalucía’s regional highways are also identified by the letter “A” (for Andalucía), but have longer numbers and different coloring to help make a distinction.
About 31 miles along the coast is Marbella. This former village expanded dramatically as a tourist resort from the 1960s onward, but whereas Torremolinos began catering for mass-market tourism in the 70s and 80s, Marbella retained much of its jet-set allure.
The narrow cobble streets of Marbella’s Casco Antigu (Old Town) are a delight to explore. At its heart is Plaza de los Naranjos, a lovely square dating back to 1485 that’s filled with fragrant orange trees and pavement cafés shaded by parasols. In my opinion, you should forsake the beachfront behemoths of Marbella’s renowned Golden Mile and stay right here at Hotel Claude. This boutique hotel in a 17th-century townhouse was once home to Napoleon III’s wife, and today its seven guestrooms, elegant lounge, and muslin-shaded rooftop are still fit for a president’s wife.
I’d say that this charming quarter remains the most glamorous part of Costa del Sol, but many claim that accolade now belongs to Puerto Banús, the glitzy, purpose-built yacht marina and shopping complex located five miles west of Marbella.
Spanish property developer José Banús hired Noldi Schreck, the architect responsible for Mexico City’s Zona Rosa and parts of Beverly Hills, and tasked him to create a sophisticated new Andalusian-style village. The eponymous complex opened in 1970 with a performance by famous Spanish singer Julio Iglesias for VIP guests including Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Aga Khan, and Playboy-founder Hugh Heffner.
Today, would-be playboys and princesses from Europe, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia shop at designer boutiques including Christian Dior, Bvlgari, and Gucci. While Lamborghini’s and Maseratti’s vie for parking spaces, Champagne flows like water at lavish nightclubs such as Olivia Valere (when water costs €20, why not drink Champagne?). To paraphrase Britney Spears, if you wanna live fancy here, you better work bitch!
For a different cultural experience, air-kiss the Champagne and sequins goodbye and head 40 miles south along the A-7 to the town of La Línea de la Concepción, then follow Winston Churchill Avenue to Spain’s border with the British overseas territory of Gibraltar.
This small, rocky outcrop has an area of just four miles, but it’s been a rock of contention throughout history. When Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziyad landed with an army in 711, he’s said to have ordered his 7,000 men to burn their boats so they knew there was no going back. It turned out he was right, because this marked the beginning of eight centuries of Muslim rule over a vast area of Spain (plus parts of southern France and Portugal) known as Al-Andalus.
In 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Gibraltar was once again captured from Spain. This time it was Britain who took control, and it remains a British territory to this day, much to Spain’s annoyance.
Although Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly against Spanish sovereignty in referendums in 1967 and 2002, Spain continues to assert a claim to the territory in a dispute that still simmers on. It, in fact, made headlines throughout the summer of 2013 with allegations that Spanish border control officials were being overzealous and intentionally causing huge delays. We drove into Gibraltar without issue, but when the time came for us to continue onward, we were confronted with a daunting queue of vehicles waiting to cross the border. After sitting in this Spanish-bound traffic jam for almost two hours, finally we were almost there, but not before a Spanish border guard delayed us awhile longer by fastidiously examining our passports, looking in the trunk of our hired car, then insisting that we get out and open each of our suitcases for a precursory rummage.
It’s impossible to predict whether such border checks will be implemented on the way in or out, or whether motor vehicles or those crossing on foot will be affected (in addition to tourists, around 10,000 Spanish citizens cross the border daily to work in Gibraltar). Quite often there are no delays at all. Nevertheless, you should take this into account when considering whether to visit, for you might spend more time queuing in your car than you do in Gibraltar!
So what’s there to see? Historically, it was a key base for Britain’s Royal Navy, of crucial importance to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and during the Crimean War of 1854-56. It remains of strategic importance today, with numerous British military personnel stationed here. Many of the key tourist attractions acknowledge this military heritage, including the fascinating Great Siege Tunnels, a labyrinth of defense tunnels excavated by sledgehammers, crowbars, and gunpowder that date from 1782; the additional 32 mile network of World War II Tunnels excavated from 1939-1944 by British and Canadian soldiers whose visitors included Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle; and the massive 100 Tonne Gun that was manufactured in 1870 but never fired in anger.
A more cutesy attraction are the Barbary Macaque monkeys that live in the wild on the Rock of Gibraltar. Once common throughout southern Europe and northern Africa, today this the only spot in Europe to still have wild primates.
For me, the most striking thing about Gibraltar is the echo of England that you encounter everywhere. Although there are British-style pubs and eateries serving full English breakfasts, fish and chips, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding in resorts throughout the Costa del Sol, here in Gibraltar every piece of infrastructure appears to have been imported from Britain. Every traffic light, lamppost, telephone box, and manhole cover are identical to those in England, Gibraltar’s police force wear the same uniform as their British counterparts, and British retailers like Marks & Spencer dominate Gibraltar’s Main Street. So it really feels like Little Britain, but with a sunnier disposition.
If you’re staying overnight, you should visit Charles’ Hole In T’Wall, a small, innocuous bar on the steps of Castle Street. Not exactly a gay bar, it’s nevertheless earned a place in gay and navy folklore thanks to its colorful middle-aged owner, known affectionately as Lovely Charlie, and his recollections of the young British sailors on shore leave who’d head here for too many cans of lager and a bit of old-fashioned seamen fun.
Continue 25 miles to the end of the A-7 and beyond, and you’ll reach the end of mainland Spain—and the southernmost tip of continental Europe. With the Mediterranean Sea and the Costa del Sol to the east, the Atlantic Ocean and the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light) to the west, and the coast of North Africa clearly visible just seven miles across the Strait of Gibraltar, the small town of Tarifa is the vibrant cultural mix you’d expect it to be.
Its fortified old town is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and whitewashed houses embellished with wrought-iron rejas. Dating from 960, Tarifa’s imposing castle was renamed Castillo de Guzmán after Spanish nobleman Guzmán El Bueno in 1296, when a besiege army threatened to kill his captured son unless he surrendered the town. Legend tells how Guzmán refused and instead threw his own dagger down from the battlements for the bloody deed to be done.
In addition to the Spanish and Islamic influences, added to the mix today is a dash of bohemian chic, a pinch of ecotourism, and a gusty measure of active sports. The best of Tarifa’s boutique hotels, such as Hotel Misiana, Posada La Sacristía, and La Casa de la Favorita, adhere to a style template of crisp white, warm terracotta, and sun-bleached driftwood, giving them an easy, youthful vibe.
Tarifa’s wild Atlantic coastline comprises six miles of white sandy beaches and, thanks to the prevailing easterly wind, boasts some of the best surfing, windsurfing, kite-surfing, and body-boarding conditions in Europe. The sky above Playa de los Lances beach is often full of butterfly-like kite surfers, while prestigious competitions including the annual Red Bull Skyride attract competitors and spectators from across the world.
Outside of Tarifa’s fortifications in the new part of town are numerous surf schools, equipment hire shops, and stores selling local and international surfing brands like El Niño, O’Neill, and Rip Curl. Café Azul is a popular surfer hangout, that has healthy breakfasts including juices, smoothies, and fruit plates that guarantee a good start to the day.
If you think responsible travel contributes to protecting our planet, then head over to Tarifa Ecocenter, a rustic-chic non-profit consumer cooperative that believe the fork is the most powerful weapon to save our planet. Here you can enjoy local, organic, seasonal food like rustic pizzas, seaweed salads, gazpacho soup with artisanal spelt bread, plus vegan, raw-vegan, and gluten-free options.
After a day of nutritious food and adrenalin thrills, the surf fraternity likes to retox, hence Tarifa boasts an outpost of Ibiza clubbing institution Café del Mar plus other venues that party till sunrise.
The chance sighting of athletic, windswept young surfers peeling off their wetsuits isn’t the only natural attraction that Tarifa can offer. It’s also an excellent spot for whale watching. Killer whales visit the Strait of Gibraltar in July and August, fin whales visit from spring to fall, while pilot whales and dolphins can be seen year-round. The unspoiled surrounding countryside of Los Alcornocales Natural Park is popular with bird-watchers too.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a ferry from Tarifa over to Tangier, Morocco. It takes just 35 minutes, so you can pop across to Africa for lunch—how cool is that?
We instead continued up the coast, passing numerous wind farms, to the picturesque hilltop village of Vejer de la Frontera.
One of Andalucía’s emblematic pueblos blancos (white villages), it’s like a dusting of icing sugar on top of a rocky brownie. As well as sugar-cube houses, Vejer boasts a sweet white boutique hotel. Simply named Hotel V… its twelve rooms are a stylish mix of antique and contemporary and guests can enjoy far-reaching panoramas from the rooftop Jacuzzi, so it’s a wonderful place to relax and unwind.
Although the Moors haven’t ruled this land since 1492, I learned that up until about 25 years ago, the women of Vejer would cover their face and body with a cobijada (a large black cape similar to a burkha). They now favor more flesh-exposing fashions, but the figure of a woman dressed in this manner remains a symbol of the town.
Driving back to Málaga, instead of taking the coastal A-7 motorway, we continued to follow the mountainous inland route, encountering more lovely pueblos blancos including Jimena de la Frontera and, each with their own authentic history and ambience. Altogether this shows that the road less travelled sometimes isn’t so far from the busy main highway, you just need the courage to go off-map and follow your heart instead of a road sign.
Hotel Claude, Calle San Francisco 5, Marbella. Renovated 17th-century townhouse in Marbella’s old town, once home to Napoleon III’s wife, is now a luxury boutique hotel with seven elegant guestrooms. Rates from €280. www.hotelclaudemarbella.com
Hostal Guadalupe, Calle Peligro 15, Playa del Bajondillo, Torremolinos. A former fisherman’s cottage on the seafront, this gay-run B&B has six guestrooms and two self-catering apartments, plus a small café-bar that’s open to non-residents. Rates from €36. www.hostalguadalupe.com
Hotel Misiana, Calle Sancho IV el Bravo 16, Tarfia. A small and fashionable hotel with 14 guestrooms and one suite, decorated in soothing shades of vanilla and cream, with art created by students from the Arts and Crafts School of Algeciras. Rates from €63. www.misiana.com
Hotel V… Calle Rosario 11-13, Vejer de la Frontera. Lovely village hotel with 12 guestrooms decorated in a mix of antique and contemporary styles, with a rooftop terrace providing stunning 360-degree vistas of the surrounding countryside. Rates from €199. www.hotelv-vejer.com
La Casa de la Favorita, Plaza San Hiscio, Tarifa. Charming house with an exotic past (previously home to a prince and a smuggler) is today a crisp white boutique hotel with eight guestrooms, each with a small kitchen. Rates from €72. www.lacasadelafavorita.com
Meliá Costa del Sol, Paseo Maritimo 11, Torremolinos. Gay-friendly four-star seafront hotel with 538 rooms, each with private terrace and sea view, plus bars and restaurants, swimming pool, small gym, and thalasso spa. Rates from €67. www.melia.com
Posada La Sacristía, Calle San Donato 8, Tarfia. A former 17th-century palace is now a small luxury hotel with 20 stylish guest rooms and suites, restaurant, and boutique. Rates from €86. www.lasacristia.net
Café Azul, Calle Batalla del Salado 8, Tarifa. Located just outside the Puerta de Jerez gate into the old town, this café with blue-and-white Arabic-style décor is popular with surfers and is recommended for a healthy breakfast and brunch. www.facebook.com/cafeazultarifa
Tarifa Ecocenter, Calle San Sebastian 6, Tarifa. This rustic-chic non-profit consumer cooperative serves local, organic, seasonal food including vegan and gluten-free options. They also host yoga and arts/cultural events. www.tarifaecocenter.com
Bacchus, La Nogalera 712. Friendly bear bar attracting a predominantly Spanish crowd. Boomerang, Calle del Fandango 4, Torremolinos. Lounge bar serving cocktails in the Pueblo Blanco area, with a gay, lesbian, and mixed crowd.
Contacto, La Nogalera 204, One of the oldest gay bars in Torremolinos, known for its crazy Spanish drag shows.
Free Eagle, La Nogalera 409, Torremolinos. Open since 2005, this popular cruise bar with a darkroom has drink offers, shirt-off Sundays, and other theme parties. www.free-eagle.info
El Gato Lounge, Paseo Marítimo, Torremolinos. Gay beachfront lounge and restaurant open for drinks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. www.elgatolounge.com
Men’s Bar, La Nogalera 713. With its Tom of Finland décor, this cruisy gay bar with a darkroom is popular with Spanish bears and older tourists.
Parthenon Disco, La Nogalera 716, Torremolinos. The most popular gay club in town, playing pop and house till 7A.M. daily for a predominantly young, Spanish crowd. www.parthenondisco.com
For more information on these and other gay venues, visit the official gay guide www.gaytorremolinos.eu