Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fuengirola: Sun, sand and stereotypes on the Costa del Sol

I'm now ashamed to admit I laughed when I discovered we were heading to Fuengirola for my company's annual summer conference. In my vague defence, they've got form with package holiday resorts beloved by Brits: in 2012, we all descended on Benidorm.

My response wasn't merely mirth, though: I was also intrigued. After spending several happy family holidays near San Pedro de Alcántara further along the Costa del Sol, and a more recent trip to Estepona, I was curious to see what this particular resort resort was like. Tacking a weekend break onto the beginning of the conference trip was a quick decision; fellow expat friend Vicki was easily roped in. The choice of accommodation was less straightforward: classy-looking Spanish-run Casa Consistorial, or a high-rise beachside number bound to be brimming with Brits abroad? Although the latter had definite eyes-on-stalks potential,  our curiosity ultimately wasn't quite as morbid as we thought, and we opted for the small four-star hotel.

Just 40 minutes from central Málaga and 30 from the airport on the cercanías commuter train, Fuengirola is a well-connected resort. Swinging into town on a Friday night, we attempted not to let a fellow train passenger's ignorance of the existence of Madrid (yes, really) cloud our judgment about the typical Costa del Sol holidaymaker. A short walk later, we were greeted by a concert in full flow outside our hotel: our visit had coincided with Fuengirola's Noche Viva, an annual summer event which involves live performances and late opening at shops around town. Plaza de los Reyes Católicos was abuzz with locals and a scattering of holidaymakers soaking up the lively atmosphere. We had been expecting sunburnt Brits abroad preparing for a big night out, instead there was a family crowd that looked distinctly Spanish. It was beginning to look like I'd watched far too many episodes of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, and instead of being faced with fishbowl cocktails and Irish bars, we had a far more Spanish experience in store.

Our abode in Fuengirola: Casa Consistorial

Casa Consistorial is certainly Spanish. This comfortable hotel is in a prime location just five minutes' walk from the beach: close, but far enough away that it feels like a retreat from the seafront strip. Opened in 2013, it's modern yet traditional, with a clear focus on guests' comfort and convenience. Bathrobes, slippers, beach towels and flip-flops for each guest are all welcome touches, but the well-priced mini-bar was what grabbed us. €6 for a decent half bottle of wine? Yes please! The small hotel also boasts a rooftop pool area with a bar serving snacks and drinks to order. Guests were a mixture of Spanish, British and other nationalities: which turned out to be pretty representative of Fuengirola as a whole.

Hitting the seafront on Friday night, we finally knew we were at a seaside resort. Stepping back from the beach, most bars, restaurants and shops were Spanish, but closer to the sea there's a more international feel. The seafront is lined with low-key bars and restaurants, all filled with families: we later learned that most of the nightlife is east of the main beach. On the main part of the Paseo Marítimo you'll find cafes and restaurants serving mostly British, Italian and Spanish food, souvenir shops, ice cream parlours and a few cocktail bars. Competition keeps the prices low: pizzas start at well under €10 and drinks are also reasonably priced. The atmosphere on this part of the strip was very family-friendly, as it is around the 'Calle del Hambre': a tangle of streets one block back from the seafront crammed with every cuisine imaginable. Touts swarm at passers by, diners chomp down their meals in full view. The sounds, smells and sights were too much for me: this touristic intensity was what I had expected of a package holiday resort.

On the whole though, I was surprised by how Spanish Fuengirola remains. I'd had an ill-informed image of a beachside resort filled with my compatriots on tour; the reality was a laid-back, deeply andaluz town with good shopping, pretty plazas and public buildings. Its good weather and convenient location make Fuengirola an understandably popular summer destination for tourists from Spain, Germany, Britain and other parts of Europe: this is no Brit-dominated resort. And what if it was? I realised I'd fallen into exactly the type of stereotyping I claim to avoid, assuming that all Brits on holiday and badly behaved or drunk, as in the images propagated by the tabloids (and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, of course). But for every 18-year-old sipping from a fishbowl, there are many more holidaymakers enjoying some relaxed fun in the sun with their families. It wasn't just the people though; it was the development. Although there's a cluster of high-rise blocks by the beach and there's no denying Fuengirola is a bit built up, it's mostly low-rise, with typically Spanish constructions. Away from the seafront and the 'Calle del Hambre', you can easily forget you're in a popular holiday destination: you'll find the same style of buildings, bars and shops as elsewhere in Spain, with a few little nods to the international atmosphere.

Opinions were reassessed over Friday night cocktails, and we embraced the fusion of British and Spanish culture that Fuengirola brings. Businesses owned by people from both these countries sit side-by-side, The Times nestles next to El Pais on newspaper racks. On Sunday morning, a table of young Spaniards were chowing down on a full English next to us at Jumbo's Cafe, interacting with the British owner in andaluz-accented Spanish. You can tuck into fish and chips, but you'll actually find pescaíto frito, the chip-free Spanish version, is more readily available. Like the good expats we are, we rolled of the beach to tuck into tasty cazón en adobo and grilled hake at bustling beachside La Caracola. And as for the beach? It's a scrupulously clean black-sand affair, with plenty of showers available. There are some 'free' spots to lay your towel, but you might as well splash out a whopping €4 for a day's use of a lounger and umbrella and enjoy a bit of comfort.

By the time I headed off to the hills above Fuengirola for the conference, I knew I'd be returning. For some low-key, family-friendly fun in the sun and an easygoing fusion of my two favourite countries, Fuengirola is a winner. If you're looking for a good-value beach break, it's well worth considering.

And as for the conference? Here's part 2 of my Costa del Sol story!

A version of this post also appeared in The Lancashire Telegraph.

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