There is still something ineffably wonderful and for ever 1969 about Marbella, says Nick Foulkes
I HAVE A weakness for European coastal resorts. Not entirely fashionable, I know, but there it is. I know I ‘should’ be gorging myself on locally grown olives in some Provençal Mas, Spanish finca or Umbrian farmhouse: living the British middle-class dream of a European rural idyll, with only sun-shrivelled rustics for company who speak not a word of English, thus forcing me to improve myself by polishing up my European languages. But somehow I cannot bring myself to do it.
Life on the coast is so much more fun, and of all the coastal resorts my favourite by a country mile, or rather coastal kilometre, is Marbella. Granted, the boats are bigger in Porto Cervo, the sea is clearer off Mykonos, and the food is better in the South of France, but somehow Marbella has the edge for me.
And such is my fanatical devotion to the place that in a way even the disadvantages become advantages, as these ‘shortcomings’ serve only to keep the snobs and climbers away. Yes, of course Marbella has its somewhat shiny side, but in a way it is strangely without pretension — it is, for instance, the only place in the world where, on occasion, I will wear white shoes, which tells you something, although quite what and whether good or bad I do not know.
Marbella as both a geographical and emotional location exerts a powerful pull, and I suppose that I like what, without irony, I call the jet-set heritage of the place. For me it is perpetually summer at the end of the Sixties or in the first half of the Seventies in Marbella, a time when on sultry evenings glamorous women in jewels and Pucci-print evening dresses used to walk their cheetahs on leashes around the port, like latterday versions of the Marchesa Casati re-imagined by Harold Robbins; while the gentle overhead thrum of helicopter blades vied with the crickets, as Adnan Khashoggi’s personal air bridge ferried guests from his yacht to his estate in the hills.
Of course, these are memories composed of other people’s reminiscences and my imaginings; nevertheless, there is a trove of anecdote and image sloshing about, a fair bit of which is gathered in the book I wrote about the Marbella Club. Marbella really came to life when Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe opened his chic guesthouse by the sea in the early 1950s.
The Marbella creation myth recounts how Alfonso and his father set out from Madrid in a charcoal-burning Rolls-Royce to visit an eccentric playboy relative, Ricardo Soriano, Marques de Ivanrey. These men can be said to be Marbella’s founding fathers and the town’s two main roads are named after them. At the time smart people still took their holidays in palace hotels, Alfonso opened a ritzy motel that was as long on charm as it was short on bowing and scraping. In short, he invented barefoot luxury half a century before the term was coined.
AND SO MARBELLA was reborn. While I religiously attend the resort during the summer, when my life contracts to a well-trodden track of a few hundred metres from my tiny house to the beach at the Marbella Club, Marbella is at its best right now. To walk on the nearly empty beaches, the autumn sun warming one’s back, the Atlas Mountains visible across the Mediterranean, is one of the moments of consolation to be wrung from life.
In Marbella it is still summer. The days are bright and warm enough for swimming. The sinking sun silhouettes the lance-like cypresses and the spreading fronds of the palms, each blade crisply cut out against the penumbral sky. The evening air is fragranced by the exotic blooms. The harsh heat of high summer has tempered and yet the paving stones remain warm to the touch after sunset.
Evenings are no longer hot, but still sufficiently pleasant to eat dinner on the terrace of the Marbella Club Grill, underneath the majestic umbrella pines whose canopy spreads above like the tracery of the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic cathedral, the scene suffused by the soft candlelight from countless candles planted in the boughs of centuries-old olive trees…
All right, I may be exaggerating, but only a little. The terrace of the grill of the Marbella Club is a little enchanted realm all of its own, a few hundred square metres of heaven on earth that indeed have a magical and restorative effect on me, where the maitre d’, moustachioed and dark-suited Alfonso, deputises for St Peter and goes through the formal pantomime of taking my order. I say pantomime, because the ‘taking’ of my order is as much of an established and unvarying ritual as the liturgical rites of the Church of Rome: cheese soufflé, turbot and chocolate mousse.
The unpleasant irony is that I am sitting in London writing this, because, bound by the school calendar that one never truly escapes and the necessity to return to the Cleggeron capital to earn my living, I contribute to the charm of Marbella in its most beautiful months by leaving it… allowing others, less encumbered by schoolchildren and the burdensome business of working, to enjoy it in my absence.