Everyone loves Marbella in Spain: from cavemen and Romans to Grace Kelly and Gemma Collins
MARBELLA has earned a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous for over half a century.
Photos of the glamorous seaside destination fill glossy travel magazines around the world and it is by far the most inspiring place to live and visit in Europe, with the possible exception of San Tropez or ‘Ibiza.
An exclusive enclave, it has long attracted celebrity visitors such as Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn to its iconic nightclubs and restaurants, while captains of industry, such as Alan Sugar and Theo Paphitis, and footballers, such as Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale, roam its fairways and marinas. .
While British reality TV show The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) has helped immortalize ‘Marbs’ as the ultimate party destination, bringing it down to earth somewhat, the truly super-rich still come to visit.
It’s no coincidence that during the two-year pandemic, its five-star hotels were nearly full, while property prices soared to incredible heights.
As a real estate agent said the olive press, Marbella is “almost bulletproof against slowing down or crashing”. “It’s almost unique in Europe,” he added.
There simply aren’t enough villas for sale and listings are becoming incredibly rare. The demand greatly exceeds the supply.
And buyers are heading to Marbella for more than sun and beaches.
While it’s fair to say that the majority of tourists come to eat well and mingle with the super rich and party, many end up marveling at its history, inspecting its Moorish walls in the center, or stumbling upon a Roman villa or Visigothic Church on its outskirts.
The Costa del Sol resort has certainly gone through an interesting trajectory to become the place it is today.
Take away the high-end cars, foreign visitors in designer clothes and rowdy revelers, then rewind the clock several millennia and you’ll find that this place has always been popular.
Marbella’s oldest origins are a Paleolithic settlement. Humans hunted and gathered on the same land that is now home to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Its next incarnation was as a Roman city. You can see the proof at the Roman baths Termas de Las Bovedas, near San Pedro de Alcantara, and at the Roman villa of Rio Verde.
Visigoths from northern Europe frequently visited the coast and left their mark in the form of the Vega del Mar basilica, a necropolis, also present in San Pedro.
The Marbella of today would be totally foreign to the Visigoths, but the early Arabs spotted the city’s potential, calling it bien habitada, or “place of good life”.
They built a walled city in the old town in the 10th and 11th centuries and even a large Alcazaba castle.
The walls, some of which survive today, were dotted with a dozen towers, including the Torre del Puente Levadizo (meaning the “tower of the drawbridge”) and the Torre de la Puerta de Hierro (or “the tower of the iron gate”).
Although it was nothing of the size of Seville or Granada, it came second only to Ronda in size and fell to the Christian Crusaders in the same year, 1485, just seven years before the reconquest was completed. Catholic.
Before the arrival of tourism in the 1950s and 1960s, Marbella was surprisingly industrial: in the 19th century it was the most important center of steel and iron production in all of Spain.
At one point, 75% of the country’s supply came from a single production plant in Marbella.
The industry eventually moved to northern Spain, transforming the local economy into agriculture, particularly the cultivation of sugar cane, before finally seeing the benefits it could reap as a destination for holidays.
Marbella’s glitz and glamor has its roots in the period following the Spanish Civil War, when it was a haven for Nazis and Franco’s Falangists.
When Spanish nobleman Ricardo Soriano founded the Albergues del Rodeo residential complex in 1943, he set Marbella’s tourism model for the future.
It was clear that the combination of green, upscale villas with the warm climate, stunning views and beautiful beaches was a winning formula.
Over the following decades, more scenic estates developed and land prices soared.
Savvy people, who would become responsible for shaping modern Marbella, began to move in.
One of them was Don Jose Banus, who developed the area that embodies Marbella’s glamorous lifestyle: Puerto Banus.
José Banus was close to the Spanish dictator, General Franco. He had worked as a spy on the Nationalist side during the country’s bloody civil war, and Franco visited him on the Costa del Sol a few years before his death.
The architect has no shortage of powerful friends to help him promote his new resort.
Puerto Banus’ grand opening celebrations in 1970 lasted a week and included dinner and dancing for 1,000 guests.
Prince Rainier of rival luxury destination Monaco was present with his wife, Princess Grace, who danced with Banus as guests, including Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, watched on.
Marbella’s glittering reputation grew, attracting extremely wealthy visitors from the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd became a frequent guest – as did Osama Bin Laden, no less (later named as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers). He spent several vacations there between 1977 and 1988.
More positive endorsements came from favorite celebrities, including former James Bond stars Sean Connery and Roger Moore who acted as international ambassadors for Marbella in the 80s and 90s.
So many world leaders have come and gone, with Tony Blair, David Cameron and Michelle Obama coming for the holidays, while former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar bought himself a house in Guadalmina.
President Putin has acquired a palace in the Zagaleta urbanization in the hills above the resort town (revealed to the world by Olive Press) while crooner Julio Iglesias has also embarked on a mega-estate on the borders of ‘istan.
Athletes came in droves, boxers Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua even came to train in the same month. Simon Cowell, Eva Longoria and Prince, the list goes on.
The new millennium has seen the volume of nightlife increase to its maximum.
The late Olivia Valère arrived from Paris to open her eponymous nightclub in 2000, and Prince came to party. . . like it was 1999.
Other legendary club and party openings followed. Wait for Ibiza’s Pacha superclub to open the road, in nearby Estepona.
Marbella is a destination that has looked very different to different people over the years, but the world-class restaurants, cosmopolitan atmosphere and perfect climate look set to attract the global elite for decades, if not millennia.