Marbella was first a mining town, then it turned to agriculture and finally opted for tourism as its most important economic element. It is a very old town and was frequented by well-to-do families and nobles. However, few people are aware that it started off as a Paleolithic settlement, which then became a Roman city whose presence can be still seen today in the Termas de Las Bóvedas or the Villa de Rîo Verde (with its exceptional mosaics) or that it is home of the most important Visigoths monuments in the whole country in the form of the Vega del Mar Basilca. Neither is it widely known that the Arabs chose to name it, “bien habitada” (the place of good living) and that they edified a fortress that has survived the pass of time. Or that it was once a chosen spot for the royal family who were captivated by the many vantage points and aristocratic buildings like the Bazan hospital and the convents that mediated for the release of the prisoners held by the Bebers (including a man by the name of Cervantes)
The Basîlica de Vega de Mar is the main proof that settlements were established in this area, which is a zone historians say was once the site of ancient Cilciniana. A large amount of ceramic and metal objects and burial sites have been discovered in different archaeological digs all along the coast and in inland Marbella.
When the Moors surrendered to the Reyes Católicos the final handing over of the keys to the city was conducted in front of a cross which today is still kept in a small temple in Malaga. It is known as the Cruz del Humilladero. From that moment on the inhabitants of, what had been the walled city, chose to move outside the retrains of the enclosed area and spread along the coast.
In the 19th century Marbella became the most important producer of steel and iron in the whole of Spain as it installed the only smelting ovens in the country; three in the Finca de La Concepción and another three at El Ángel, which belonged to the Heredia and Ejiró families. At one point in time 75 percent of all of Spain’s iron came from the Finca de El Peñoncillo, which was in operation until 1931. However, the whole industry declined rapidly due to the competitiveness of the factories in the north of Spain (Vizcaya). This was due to the fact that in the north they started using coal, which was more profitable than the charcoal that was being used in the south.
No sooner had this happened that Marbella began to look towards agriculture for alternatives and they became pioneers in this sense due to an initiatives like the working colonies of the Marquês del Duero and, on an even larger scale, those of El Ángel. At the end of the 19th century the General Manuel Gutiêrrez de la Concha, the, then Marquês del Duero, designed San Pedro Alcántara, which was the largest agricultural working colony in Spain that was run by an individual. It was set up on 10.000 hectares of land situated between the Guadaiza and Guadalmansa rivers and used to grow sugar cane and beetroot and had its own sugar making plant on site, which today can still be seen as it is used for all kinds of cultural events.
Marbella’s economy went into crisis both before and after the Civil War, but thanks to the vision of several people who were able to foresee the possibilities that there were for tourism in and around Marbella, it was able to relive on both occasions. The spectacular transformation began in 1940, but it was in 1943, with the arrival of Ricardo Soriano, the Marquis of Ivanrey, when he founded the Venta y Albergues del Rodeo that things really took off. The Albergues del Rodeo was a residential complex with an adjoining housing estate which was to set an example for the tourism of the future. Ivanrey copied the idea of the bungalow, although his was quite a lot more rustic, from the United States and it was similar to the country cottages. This complex attracted artists of the day like Edgar Neville, Conchita Montes and Antonio "El Bailarîn", who were happy to push a paradise-like Marbella with lovely beaches and dunes, a wonderful climate and places like the Concha.
The city was transformed in order to accommodate the visitors, the housing estates were redesigned and as a result of all this urban development the price of land went sky high. In most of the transactions the property or land owners would sell up to the promoters and they in turn would make enormous amounts of money once the final product was sold. As an anecdote, the land that was sold in the area known as Nagüeles went for 13 million pesetas (about 78.000 Euro). It is now commonly known as the “Milla de Oro” (The Golden Mile) and some of the most exclusive and expensive hotels and complexes are on the site today (El Fuerte, el San Nicolás, Guadalmina or Salduba, Los Monteros and Don Pepe).
While all these operations were going on the first of the “mega-tourism” promoters, such as Dpn Alfonso de Holenlohe and Don Josê Banús, arrived in Marbella. The second of the two was soon to set about designing and building the largest leisure complex that had ever existed in the country until then. It was a huge macro-project which went by the name of “Puerto Banus” and it included several hotels ( Hotel del Golf and Andalusia Plaza) golf courses, discos, and a yachting harbour. Ever since its inauguration, which was attended by Grace Kelly and Rainiero de Mónaco, it has been considered as one of the largest of its kind in Europe.
Years later, in the 80’s, the Arabs arrived on the scene as important investors. It was during this period that the Arab king Fahd built his palace in the municipality on a huge site on the outskirts of the urban centre. A mosque was also built in Marbella and both this religious building and the king’s palace were splendid buildings. Next in line were the Arab banks who set up shop in the coastal paradise and Marbella entered its most prolific stage as the image it gave out to the world was one full of multi-millionaires, businessmen and women, world-famous film stars and much more. Don Alfonso de Holenlohe helped promote this image as he attracted all kinds of famous people to his hotel, The Marbella Club; people like the Onassis, Maria Callas, the Dukes of Windsor or Ava Gardner. Over the years some of the most famous yachts have moored up at the port in Puerto Banus; Kassoghi’s Nabila, with its name in gold, The Count of Barcelona and his Giralda are but two examples. The almost 900 moorings are all monitored from the control tower that stands out on the horizon from amongst the whiteness of the surrounding buildings nearby.
For the last quarter of a century Marbella has been the outright leader as far as foreign investment in Spain is concerned. It also boasts one of the most complete golfing infrastructures in the world and still attracts a lot of top quality sailing vessels to its yachting harbour. It is a natural paradise complemented by some of the world’s best leisure infrastructures.
The population that makes up Marbella is spread out along the coast in different spots, with the most important being San Pedro de Alcántara, Las Chapas and El Ángel. There are a limitless number of housing estates dotted along the 26 kilometres that make up Marbella’s bouderies from el Sitio de Calahonda to Guadalmina.
All of these changes have put an end to any agricultural industries that might have existed in the past like those at the Huerta la Grande, Huerta la Chica, Huerta Belón o el Molino del Viento, which are all now housing estates.
There is no other better way to get to know the town of Marbella than to stroll through it. The urban centre is best looked at starting off at calle Lobatas, where the houses are all only two floors. From there the street leads into the Plaza del Santo Cristo then the road drops down Calle Ancha until the Puente de Ronda, which is where visitors can enjoy Marbella’s most well known square; La Plaza de los Naranjos. This beautifully preserved square is home to the Magistrates Court building, which is from the 16th century as well as the Town Hall.The building next door is known as “la Casa Grande de Marbella” and, next to, that is the Ermita de Santiago, a construction from the 16th century, too. Inside there is a magnificent image of Cristo del Amor and Marîa Santîsima de la Caridad, which are both protagonists in Marbella’s Easter Week religious processions.
In the centre of the town visitors can visit the parish church; Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, which dates back to the 18th century. It has three naves that lead up to the altarpiece at the main altar, where one of the most important organs in Andalusia can be seen. An image of the virgin Mary named “Soledad”, which is one of the oldest of all the religious images that are used in the Easter week processions, rests on the silver-plated and CAOBA altar with her black cloak. Outside the side door of this church is the well-known Calle del Viento, which is a narrow street lined by white-washed buildings which leads up to the ancient Hospital de Bazán which was founded in 1568 by Don Alfonso Bazán (the mayor of Marbella at that time). Originally this building was built in order to assist the most needy inhabitants in the town and its most outstanding feature is the Mudejar coffered ceiling. However, with the passing of time it has been remodelled and today is the home of the Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo. According to legend, a little further along in this same street there used to be monastery where the monks used to allow the prisoners to rest in on their way to and from prison and one day one of the monks substituted himself for one of the prisoners, whose name was Miguel de Cervantes. At the end of Calle Viento are the fortified walls of “Barbacana del castillo”, which was am elevated position that the Moors defended right up to the end of their surrender. The most elevated pat of this fortress that has been preserved up to today is that which overlooks the river (El Arroyo de la Represa) which is now covered over, but in its day was the main moat that protected the castle. Legend also has it that there are secret passageways that link the castle with the sea. Tunnels that lead to the beach at the Fuerte de San Luis, which was another fortified structure of which only a small tower in left standing today. These remains are used today as an exhibition space where the displays show how the tourism in the city all began. Today there is a hotel complex right next to this site.
To get to know Marbella even better the next best place to go is the streets of "El Barrio", which are mostly pedestrianzed. Far from being a ostentatious street, it is very simple with white-washed houses and flower potted-walls, wrought iron balconies and doors like the delightful Calle Luna, San Cristóbal and San Ramón. These are spots to be savoured for their simplicity and offer a somewhat different and calm image of Marbella. From these streets visitors can access other equally as beautiful places like the Calle Aduar, which has a slight slope upwards or "La Alameda", which is the oldest park in the town with century-old trees that could tell quite a few stories as it was the centre of the city’s nightlife and leisure activities in the 60’s.
As is obvious, Marbella lives off tourism and above all the hotel trade and different kinds of commercial trade. There are large luxury hotels, more humble establishments as well as simple hostels and they are complemented by an incredible number of restaurants and shops where the rich and famous can be seen. However, the very popular “mercadillo” (open air market), is also a favourite with everyone as it fills the streets with its stalls where almost everything that can be imagined can be bought.
The most emblematic time of the year when all the locals turn out into the streets is the “Fiesta Del Patono San Bernabê”( the local Patron Saint’s day), which is celebrated on 11 June each year. This festivity is always a time when the Cruz de Humilladero is visited in order to remember the Christian origins of Marbella at the same time as the Gigantes and Cabezudos parade through the town centre. Another much-loved fiesta is the one that celebrates the Virgin del Carmen half way through July when numerous fishing boats accompany the image of the Virgin into the waters to bless them for the year. The fishing neighbourhoods have lots of celebrations at this time of year like the "La Bajilla", which takes place in the fishing port area known as "El Barrio". Traditionally, once the Virgin del Carmen has blessed the waters the locals of Marbella take to the beaches, although this has been lost as the tourists are on the beaches all year round. Finally, there is the Feria de San Pedro de Alcántara half way through October.
Marbella is as close to paradise as you can get on earth, with its traditions, people, beaches, golf courses, excellent restaurants, and mix of cultures. Nobody can say that they know the Costa del Sol if they do not know Marbella.