Marbella is a place that has been discovered twice. First by Isabel, the Catholic Queen of Spain, whose army was about to drive the Arabs out of the country. Delighted, she is said to have said about the white city on the hill, which now fell to her kingdom: "How beautiful (bella) it is by the sea (mar)!"
The second discoverers, around 450 years later, are said to have come with a picnic blanket. They, too, were noble, but instead of on horseback, the von Hohenlohes had reached the idyllic bay in a Rolls-Royce, from which one had such a magnificent view: of the mountains of the Sierra Blanca in the north and in the south over the glittering blue to Africa . "How beautiful it is here," these excursionists were also amazed, and when they collected the picnic baskets after the snack and got back into their luxurious vehicle, it was clear: they would want to live here in the future.
Whether the Queen 1485 really gave Marbella its name is a matter of faith. But there is no doubt that Marbella owes its rise to myth to the prince's excursion in 1946. And the luck, despite the mass tourism on the Costa del Sol, to have remained a very special place to this day.
You don't notice it when you approach the city by car: the route from the airport in Málaga to here is an almost uninterrupted concrete strip, the same tourist settlements, one apartment block closest, in between desolate commercial buildings. But then you suddenly find yourself in the old town and can't help but think what visitors have always thought of when they think of Marbella: "How beautiful it is here!"
An Andalusian village in the middle of a big city. Whitewashed houses with carefully arranged floral decorations, well-kept, completely car-free streets, fountains, holy figures in alcoves, small shops and charming tapas bars, inviting squares and little squares, the scent of jasmine and orange blossoms - Marbella's old town looks exactly how you want it to dreams of an Andalusian idyll in the north, and somehow manages not to look like a prop.
But rather lively: the market hall gets busy early, there are all sorts of stylish restaurants and everyday bars with robust offers at moderate prices, and not all of the pretty old town houses belong to rental agencies. "We live from tourism, but we still have our normal everyday life here," says José Ortega, who opened one of the first family hotels in the old town more than 20 years ago: "Puerta de Aduares", his parents' house, behind a red flower Bougainville Cascade.
The self-evident grace of these old town streets almost makes you a little wistful when you think of all the built-up cities of the Costa de Sol. They were all dreamy fishing villages. Sure, Marbella has the advantage of having the best climate of all, thanks to its local mountain, La Concha: not-so-hot summers and fairly mild winters, allowing for beach days well into November. But that alone is not the reason why Marbella has managed to retain its charm so well. What was different here?
The answer leads back to the picnic area. A fair bit west. You can go jogging, which is also one of the advantages of Marbella: the car-free beach promenade leads to a seven-kilometre-long promenade, always along the water, to the sports port of Banús.
Although so many millionaires live here and there is one pompous villa after the next – nobody has been able to reserve private access to the water, the shore belongs to everyone. A magnificent route for cyclists, runners, Nordic walkers, complicated relationship discussions or pushchair pushers, you can jump into the water everywhere, there are a number of beach bars and probably the most elegant public toilet buildings in Spain.
And the picnic area from back then? It developed in a way that is rarely granted to a picnic area: Shortly after that trip, the Hohenlohes bought the entire finca to which the meadow belonged and built a house on it. As more and more of the family's cosmopolitan circle of friends showed up to admire their Andalusian paradise, Alfonso, the eldest son, decided to become a hotelier.
The friends were enthusiastic, the parties in an old finca building that had been converted into a motel offered the right mix of opulence and Mediterranean improvisational spirit (cigars and champagne are said to have been carted in from Málaga on donkeys), so more friends from the nobility and high finance came, and some started as well to build villas here.
Marbella became an insider tip for the early jet set, and Alfonso von Hohenlohe set about implementing an idea he had copied from Hollywood: he had a tropical garden laid out and bungalows and two-story apartment buildings built in it, so that everyone had their privacy and yet Was part of an exclusive community. "Sophisticated naturalness" should be lived here. In 1954 the "Marbella Club" was inaugurated - to this day one of the most elegant and expensive hotels in Spain. It should fundamentally change Marbella.
Because now everyone really came: Ari Onassis and Liz Taylor, the Bardot and Sean Connery, the Thyssens and the Rothschilds and the Agnellis, Ted Kennedy, Gina Lollobrigida and Franz Josef Strauss. Even Osama bin Laden, who liked to stay in Spain before his radicalization, stopped by the “Marbella Club”.
In general, Prince Alfonso was on good terms with Arab potentates with fabulous wealth. The Saudi King Fahd was so enthusiastic about Marbella that he became a regular (his arrivals with 400 servants and 200 tons of luggage were legendary) and eventually - on Boulevard Princípe Alfonso de Hohenlohe - built a palace: a marble copy of the White House, only much larger , with a mosque, helipad and its own hospital.
Sheikhs, Hollywood stars, billionaires and European nobility: their presence caused the infrastructure of little Marbella to explode. Golf courses emerged, star restaurants, designer shops, private clinics and beauty farms. In order to accommodate the XXL yachts appropriately, a luxury port was built from scratch: Puerto Banús.
"We experienced happiness by inventing Marbella," says the man who was hotel manager at the "Marbella Club" for decades and is only called Conde Rudi there: Count Rudolf von Schönburg, once organizer of the hottest parties and most festive dinners, is a charming 90-year-old who still likes to have his aperitif at the "Marbella Club", in the room of the hotel that bears his name: "Bar Rudi".
Almost lovingly, the waiters provide him with gin and tonic. The old Count, who insists on complimenting the ladies and ordering a second round for everyone, what he couldn't tell from the world of celebrities and princesses! But that's where Conde Rudi remains a cavalier of the old school, no details, he prefers to take stock with satisfaction: "He was able to live a real dream", which is also due to the "wonderful people" here, "because the Andalusians are so special".
José Ortega at his family hotel would probably return the praise. When the 66-year-old talks about the time when all the foreign rich invaded Marbella, he always does so with appreciation: they brought work and quality tourism instead of masses of holidaymakers, “it didn’t work like it did elsewhere on the Costa del Sol”.
Where the entrance to Marbella is today, the Avenida del Mar with its Dalí figures, the tropical garden in the Paseo de Alameda, the entire "Golden Mile", as the most expensive and not only attractive villa area between the sea and the thoroughfare is called, he had as a child still played in the sand: "There was no house, no nothing." Anyone who needed a job back then had to leave the city.
They benefited from each other, the jet set and the locals, even if all that money led to wild excesses. It happened several times that the police marched up in front of the geranium-decorated town hall to arrest the mayor or his employees. Illegal trade in building permits, abuse of office, embezzlement of public funds - a system of fraud and corruption, as it is known from many communities in Spain, which were caught up in the construction boom.
But nowhere did the swindle in the town hall behave as capriciously as in Marbella, where Spain's most eccentric mayor ruled in the 1990s: Jesús Gil, whose main job was president of the Atlético Madrid football club, bought a Rolls-Royce for the town hall and left the police on Harleys patrol and had his own TV show. He moderated it, surrounded by bikini beauties, from a whirlpool.
He is said to have diverted at least 26 million euros in public funds into his own pocket. And yet he is revered to this day. Because many have made money from his crooks. But also because he managed to strengthen Marbella's image as an exquisite seaside resort through a radical city beautification program and at the same time to trigger an unprecedented surge in construction and investment. The number of inhabitants tripled in those years to 140,000 - the Hollywood stars and party princesses had of course long since set out for other, more exotic places.
It doesn't matter, says Javier González, at the counter of the "Altamirano" restaurant, an institution in the old town: It looks like a football bar, but the tapas are a dream (be sure to ask for rosada frita en adobo, a sweet and sour hake tapa). González considers the idea that Marbella, as the playground of the jet set, only knows actors and spectators, to be antiquated: the city has long had enough to offer on its own - and is absolutely future-proof.
González is of course not impartial as a Marbellero ("In the fourth generation, that's what you have to say here!") and as a tour guide, but the numbers prove him right: Tourism in Marbella recovered particularly quickly from Corona, and the hotels recorded it in early summer record bookings. And building plots are as popular as ever.
This is not empty hype, but a very logical development, says Javier González. Marbella not only benefits from the mild climate, but also from its highly developed infrastructure. This is particularly evident now that one tech company after another is settling down in Málaga, 60 kilometers away. The bosses and managers, who often come from abroad, are looking for a place to live for their families that has to meet high requirements: international schools, first-class medical care, services of all kinds. "That's exactly what Marbella offers them."
The hotel "Marbella Club" still wants to commit itself to "sophisticated naturalness", albeit with a slight shift in emphasis: Today, relaxation, sport and wellness play a greater role than party life. The gym combines training with holistic health practices, the beach is not only bordered by the traditional beach club, but also a Thalasso spa, and a wellness chef uses the hotel's herb garden and trains for Ironman competitions in his free time.
Of course, opulent cuisine is also served in the various restaurants of the hotel, of course, as always, exorbitant limousines drive up here, from which world stars occasionally step out: The largest of the hotel's villas (20,000 euros a night) was rented to Lady Gaga, including sheikhs and soccer players appreciate the discreet luxury.
But the homogeneous club life of the early years, which, despite all the Mediterranean lightness, also meant that the men knew each other and the women changed several times a day and never wore a dress twice, has given way to a more diverse, more informal society.
The young generation has also taken over the family hotel "Puerta de Aduares". José Ortega is still a little confused about the new ideas that his son and daughter have for the hotel. Is it really necessary to renovate the lobby? And why on earth paint the old wooden furniture white? But he will probably submit. His children, Tatiana and Francisco, know they will continue here. Even though they would be multi-millionaires if they sold the two old town houses? Nevertheless, says Francisco Ortega: "We are part of Marbella." They want to stay that way.
Getting there: There are flights to Málaga from many German airports, then by bus or taxi to Marbella.
Accommodation: "Hotel Puerta de Aduares", studios and apartments in the old town, from 96 euros, puertadeaduares.com. "NH Marbella", well-kept four-star hotel in the district of San Pedro de Alcántara, double room from 68 euros, nh-hotels.de. "Marbella Club", five-star hotel with beach access, spa and golf course, double rooms from 529 euros, marbellaclub.com. A classy alternative is the "Nobu Marbella" near Playa de Nagüeles, double rooms from 490 euros, marbella.nobuhotels.com.
Marbella Guide: If there is a city guide, then this one: Javier González tells you how entertaining the secrets of Marbella are, group tours from 19 euros per person, private tours are also possible, tourmarbella.com.
Tapas bars: Marbella's tapas institution in the old town: "Bar Altamirano", baraltamirano.es; The "Bar El Estrecho" is also worthwhile, tiny bar in a tiny alley, but there are tables outside, de.barelestrecho.com
More information: andalucia.org/de/marbella
Participation in the trip was supported by the hotel "Marbella Club". You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.com/de/Werte/downloads.