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The hidden side of Europe’s package holiday hotspot

(CNN) — It’s Spain’s Mediterranean escape, a place that for decades has been the go-to spot for jet setters, party lovers and package vacationers keen to let their hair down and enjoy sun, sea and sand in abundance.

Yet as in so many famous tourist destinations across Europe, the Costa del Sol has suffered greatly over the past 18 months, with tourist numbers slumping due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now though, as restrictions on travel ease, this brash and beautiful part of southern Spain is enjoying a much-needed resurgence. Something the owners of bars, hotels and restaurants are delighted about.

Since the 1970s, Brits in particular have flocked to the Costa del Sol for a week of guaranteed good weather with all the trappings of home, from endless pints of lager to a full English breakfast.

The Costa del Sol has long attracted vacationers from all walks of life.

CNN

For some, though, the urge to stay for more than a week is just too great. And Laura Hutchinson is one of them. Hutchinson and her partner sold their house in Hertfordshire, just north of London, and decided to follow their dream of opening a bar in their favorite part of Spain. Then the pandemic hit.

“I don’t regret a thing. I love it here,” she says from Hutchy’s Bar, which she worked to open as Covid-19 raged across the country. The idea to start a business here came after spending vacations in Spain as a child. It is, she says, a country she has always loved. It’s also the place she wants to raise her two children, who she hopes will take over the running of the bar when she and her partner retire.

“It’s been a dream to live this lifestyle,” she adds. “It’s an outside lifestyle, which you do not get in the UK.”

That’s not to say it’s been easy. Hutchinson says the cost of living isn’t as low as many back home in Britain believe, while the lack of visitors has made the first year of her venture extremely challenging. Put simply, she says, she needs more Brits to visit to help kick-start business.

However, her tenacious story shows the appeal of the Costa del Sol. Despite the struggles of 2020 and 2021, and the ongoing issues with long-term residency in the wake of Brexit, it remains a place that thousands just like Hutchinson can’t wait to get back to.

A place to be free

Experience a front seat view of southern Spain’s jet set getaway with a royal insider.

It’s the same for those heading to the famous resort of Torremolinos. The town, which is once again bustling after a quiet year, is a mecca for LGBTQ tourists in particular and famed for its inclusivity. In July 2021, tourists were back in full force. David Gomez Garcia is the manager of Torremolinos’ first gay hotel, Hotel Ritual Torremolinos, and is proud of its status as a place where people of all backgrounds can feel safe.

“It means freedom,” he says of the town. “The possibility to be yourself, a place where no one can do anything bad to you. That you can hold hands and you can kiss or you can be yourself.”

Torremolinos has a long LGBTQ history. In 1971, the town’s gay population was subject to a violent and brutal crackdown by Franco’s fascist police, with the dictator acting to clamp down on the freedom for which the town had come to be known during the 1960s.

“Since the ’60s, when the first tourist boom started in Torremolinos, people could feel free to walk around. It doesn’t matter which identity, sexuality you are or whatever. And it was a mixture of classes.”

In the wake of the 1969 New York Stonewall riots, Franco decided to bring an end to such freedoms. Over 300 people were arrested for “violating good morals and manners” and Torremolinos was laid low until the end of the dictatorship in the late 1970s.

Yet as the Brits began to arrive, so did a new dawn for Torremolinos and the Costa del Sol.

Jetset motel

Costa del Sol

Prince Hubertus Hohenlohe.

CNN

The Costa Del Sol and its beachside resorts of Fuengirola, Torremolinos and Marbella secured their status as tourist hotspots during the 1960s and 1970s, when cheap flights and package trips opened up travel to the masses. And nowhere helped bring the area into the modern world like the world-famous Marbella Club.

Today the Marbella Club is a byword for luxury in the sun. It was created by Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, a Spanish businessman and descendant of central European royalty who turned the home his own father had built in the area into the present-day hotel.

Alfonso’s son, Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, who has skied for Mexico at the Winter Olympics, had careers as a popstar and photographer and even posed for Andy Warhol, remains proud of his father’s legacy and the way his hotel set the tone for an entire region’s still booming tourism industry.

“This was the original house that my grandfather built — Max von Hohenlohe. He came here in 1947 and decided to make a house here. My father was bored and said, ‘I don’t just want a house, I want a little hotel.’ He lived a lot in LA, so he thought ‘I’ll make a motel where people stop by, put their car next to the room, have something to eat, on the way to Gibraltar.’ And that’s how it all started.”

His father’s status ensured the jetset he knew in St Tropez and St Moritz made their way to the Costa del Sol. Actor Sean Connery, the racing driver James Hunt, soccer players from Real Madrid and aristocracy from all over Europe began making the pilgrimage.

“They came here and they followed Alfonso and his open mood to have everybody enjoying themselves. If you have a bullfighter, a flamenco dancer, a crowned head, and maybe a dictator, all put together in a room, that makes a fun place,” he says.

Shabby chic

Costa del Sol

Marbella Club: A motel for the jetset.

CNN

While Prince Hubertus’s father created the Marbella Club, it was Count Rudolf Graf von Schonberg, the hotel’s first general manager who helped foster the sense of shabby chic that remains its calling card to this day. Count Rudi, as he’s known, still holds court at the club.

“It was shabby but it was very chic, but without glamor, without false pretensions. We always said we have the most beautiful place, even if it’s only with whitewashed walls… It was nothing false,” he says.

Count Rudi says the aim was to keep the authenticity and simplicity of Andalucia, of the mountains and countryside which rise up from the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

“If you have to glue false decor or if you have to invent new things, it’s already not the original thing. Here, it is the most outstanding climate, the most secure weather and charming people who look after you.

“Every piece of furniture fitted into the nature. There were no false things here and it’s mostly still, everything fits into what we had found here. We just completed it.”

While it could be argued that the high rise-hotel blocks and bars serving up English food along the Costa del Sol’s beaches have meant that authenticity has been somewhat lost, there remains a strong sense of local culture in this part of Spain. One which foreigners and those from these parts are keen to shout about.

Flamenco fanatic

Step into the passion and true spirit of one of Spain’s most authentic art forms.

“I love wandering in the sun,” says Tony Bryant, another Brit. “I love being here. But to actually sit on the beach… It always amazes me why people come here for two weeks and do nothing but sit on the beach or by the pool and then go home like a lobster.”

Bryant isn’t your average British visitor. While he moved here to work as a chef 27 years ago, today he is one of the foremost academic authorities on flamenco.

His love for the traditional dance started at a flamenco peña, an authentic show rather than the tablao that are put on at hotels for tourists.

“It’s a very, very complex subject,” he says. “And somebody said to me one day, and it was a Spanish guy, ‘The only way you’re ever going to understand this is to get in with the community that actually performs it.'”

Bryant is now deeply embedded within that community and has made it his mission to showcase true flamenco to those who come to the region. It’s an art, he says, that the audience needs to tune into to fully understand. That way, he says, they can sense the duende.

“The duende is like the wind. You can sense it and feel it, but you can’t touch it and you can’t see it,” he explains. “It’s so fascinating — once it appears, you’ll know. I think a lot of people miss it. It’s like anything, if you go to the opera and you really don’t really understand opera you might miss the best part of it. But with flamenco, if you’re tuned into what they’re doing, how they’re performing, you can feel it. It almost smothers you, and it’s a very quick thing.”

It’s not, he says, a spiritual thing conjured from the air, but rather an emotion created by the interaction between dancer and guitarist. Either way, it’s something only those who seek out authentic flamenco can experience. Another reason, to go beyond the entertainment on offer in the hotel and look for something more local.

An artist’s paradise

Visit the museum dedicated to Spain’s “artistic gift to the world.”

This urge to look beyond the bars and hotels of the beach has started taking tourists up into the mountains that tower above the resorts, to places like Mijas. This sleepy village, which has struggled this year thanks to the lack of tourists, has become a haven for those looking to make something beautiful as well as take some time out while on vacation. It’s as far as you can get from the bucket and spade tourism the region is famous for.

Mijas’ art workshops allow visitors to paint ceramic tiles and indulge their creative side in the most spectacular of settings. It’s these kinds of activities that have seen the Costa del Sol diversify, even before the pandemic, to cater for those looking for something other than a week lying on a sun lounger.

Yet while amateur artists can take the 20-kilometer drive from the resort of Fuengirola, those who would rather see the finished product can find much to love in the area’s main city of Malaga. For years, this was for many simply the place where the planes arrived from all over Europe, before coaches ferried them to their hotels and away from one of the most culturally significant places in Spain.

It’s here where Pablo Picasso was born. Today, its excellent Picasso Museum provides the perfect way to see one of the 20th-century’s most famous painters’ early works, as well as cool off from the heat in a beautiful setting. There are also Roman ruins, gorgeous churches and backstreet tapas bars that don’t feature English menus. It’s a place to come and feel the real Spain.

Malaga, much like the Marbella Club or Fuengirola’s bars and restaurants, speaks to why the Costa del Sol still draws in the crowds and will doubtless go on to do so as the pandemic eventually fades.

Put simply, there’s something for everyone — from the bucket and spade brigade, who come for two weeks on the beach, to the faded aristocracy and nouveau riche who can’t get enough of Marbella. The Spanish too, love to come here and experience another side of their country. It is truly, as David Gomez Garcia says, inclusive. Everyone is welcome.

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