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Andalucia, Spain: Taking in the coast

Sipping cocktails on a bar terrace with the finest view of the Balcón De Europa and the sun setting on the Mediterranean Sea, we twitch in reflexive annoyance as the DJ does an ear-abrading, Euro-poppy sound-check. But a minute later, a bridal party arrives and we find ourselves right next to an enthusiastic flamenco performance in honour of the happy couple.

Yes, living in Singapore means we have plenty of seaside resorts within easy reach. But the Spanish coastal towns offer something very different. Spaniards, for one. Plus Spanish culture and history and, of course, that glorious Spanish food.

Roy and I first visited the Spanish Costa Tropica about twelve years ago with my sister and her husband. Fortunately for us, they fell in love with the area and after a while bought a holiday house just above the charming traditional town of Nerja.

They’re just two of many thousands of sun-starved Brits who have bought real estate on this sun-drenched coast, just east of the more heavily exploited Costa del Sol. Hundreds of thousands more stream in during July and August for a week or two of absolutely dependable sunshine and scorching temperatures. The forecast was for 39 to 41 degrees Celsius for the last week of July; fortunately for us, it panned out nearer to 30.

It was the discovery about 50 years ago of a magnificent cave formation – Cuevas de Nerja – that first put Nerja on the tourism map, but the real attraction of this seaside resort lies in its picturesque old town: a maze of narrow, cobbled streets lined with shops, bars and restaurants.

Throughout the summer, a constant stream of both Spaniards and foreigners meanders through this atmospheric barrio, or quarter. You can linger in the main plaza, and join the promenading throng that gravitates towards the Balcón De Europa of a long, summer’s evening.

While we were there, a band played, dressed inexplicably in feathered American Indian-style head-dresses; blinkered horses pulled excited tourists around in carriages; a bubble-man created balloon-sized spheres that wobbled and floated above the heads of ecstatic children straining to pop them.

Out and About

Take a scenic 6-kilometre drive from Nerja to Frigiliana, a whitewashed traditional Moorish village that clings to the lower slopes of Monte El Fuerte. You could stop here for a bite at one of a number of restaurants, or continue along the winding mountainside route to Torrox, another highly picturesque hillside village. Torrox Costa (the seaside town down the hill from Torrox village) is nothing like as appealing as Nerja, but does offer a long, long beachfront with plenty of restaurants, barbecued espetados (sardines) being a specialty. Torrox Costa, a string of fairly dreary 70s high-rises, is favoured more by German tourists, while the Brits prefer Nerja.

The area is famous for its walks. You can pick up leaflets at the tourist office, or buy others with detailed walks explained by English expat Elma Thompson, who leads guided walks from December. My sister and I did a three-hour hike one morning in the National Park, easily accessed from the Ceuvas de Nerja, while our other halves slumbered peacefully.

Devote a day to visiting the city of Granada and its amazing and spectacular Alhambra. This palace fortress of the medieval Islamic Nasrid kings was built between 1230 and 1345 and is regarded as the zenith of medieval Moorish architecture. I first saw it 20 years ago, and unfortunately on my own; make sure you have someone to share it with. But if you go during the summer, try to get there by mid-morning at the latest to avoid the worst heat of the day.

Where to Eat
We were last there in July 2009, but I can still almost taste the freshness of the gazpacho, the succulence of calamares a la Romana (batter-dipped and deep-fried), the saffron-infused mixed paella, the aromatic meatiness of stewed veal-tail and the bite of rock-salted, lemon-squeezed, coal-roasted espetados served with piles of patatas, huge blood-red beef tomatoes and a salad of grilled red peppers salad drenched in olive oil.

Jutting out from the Balcón de Europa is El Rey Alfonso, for good traditional Spanish fare and magnificent views.

Casa Lucque behind the Iglesia del Salvador, on the old town’s Plaza Cavana, for upscale modern Spanish cuisine (including the aforementioned veal tail).

Las Barilles in the old town (Calle Carabeo) for tapas; also Los Cuñaos in Calle Herraraoria, up the hill away from the plaza; El Bar Redondo (or the Round Bar) in Calle Almirante Ferrandiz (also called Post Office Street).

Bella Roma for Italian, signposted and one street back from the plaza.

For Indian, Haveli Tandoori Restaurant, which backs onto the main open parking area known as Los Huertos.

On the coastal road between Torrox and Nerja, El Mirador del Guilche, which has lovely views over the sea, easy roadside parking and access to a little natural beach.

For late-night fun, hit Plaza Tutti Frutti after midnight – loads of hip locals and visitors hang out in its many bars and clubs. It’s in the newer part of Nerja, west of the Balcón and off Calle Antonio Millon.

Where to Stay
There is plenty of hotel and hostal accommodation in Nerja itself; you’ll need to book in advance for July or August. The finest hotel is probably Parador de Nerja: the best rooms are the ground-floor ones that open onto a very attractive garden and pool. They have private terraces and double spa whirlpools, and the establishment has a lift that takes you directly down to Burriana, Nerja’s biggest beach. Otherwise, you can hire the comfortable, charmingly furnished five-bedroom house pictured here, four kilometres from the centre of town, for about S$3,300 a week in high season.

Getting There
We took a flight on budget carrier bmi baby from Birmingham in the British Midlands. Coming from Singapore, you’d fly to the Spanish capital Madrid and get a connecting flight to Malaga. A hire car (about 20 euros or S$40 a day) is the best way to get around; remember that you have to drive on the right.
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