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Family Travel Through Spain’s Exotic Costa del Sol

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Flamenco SpainThink young kids can’t appreciate the ancient ruins and history of a European adventure? Think again. Charlotte Safavi reports on her family’s discoveries from their journey through southern Spain’s Costa del Sol.

“Alcazaba” rolls off the tongue like a password from the Arabian Nights.

It promises entry to an exotic world, a place of flowing fountains, hidden courtyards and limestone chambers with teardrop arches.

Indeed, Alcazaba, a Moorish palace in Málaga built during Spain’s 700-year Islamic rule, delivers that—and more. Before my family steps up to the hilltop palace, we pause.

“What’s that?” asks R.J., our 7-year-old son, pointing to a loosely cordoned site characterized by rubble and a few people in T-shirts and shorts sifting through it.

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I turn to my husband Ron, “I think they’re digging up a Roman theater!”

Tinel Tower Alcazaba of MalagaWe are on the Costa del Sol, a mountain-rimmed region in southern Spain skirting the Mediterranean Sea. Even in my 20s, when I night-clubbed away the starry Spanish nights, I sunbathed daily beside some forgotten ruin.

My favorite beach had a crumbling Moorish watchtower facing the nearby continent of Africa where the Moors came from in 711 AD and claimed this land. The Christian Reconquest finally drove them back in 1492, yet their watchtowers still stand sentinel on the beaches like antiquated lifeguards. That such relics survive at all is amazing given the alarming speed and reckless manner with which the coast has developed in recent times, bringing to mind the suburban sprawl of Southern California.

This trip my family stays in the seaside community of Guadalmina. Though the apartment is in a building resembling a beached cruise ship, it has a spacious balcony overlooking a pretty residential street lined in eucalyptus trees, their papery barks mottled like moth wings.

Guadalmina lies just east of the luxury marina of Puerto Banus known for its active nightlife and Moroccan market. After a quick wander around the bazaar stalls, where haggling is acceptable, my husband, son and I are stuck in rush-hour traffic at noon.

Balcony in NerjaThe siesta is obligatory in this part of Spain, and businesses shut down from lunchtime until late afternoon to escape the heat. Excluded are restaurants, which close a bit later. Looking for a shortcut out of the congestion, we veer off the ocean-side N-340 and come upon a small town.

Though San Pedro de Alcantara has roots in Roman and Moorish times, the architecture is more recent. The town remains refreshingly unspoiled, with a central square containing a fountain and a church with a bell tower. Locals line the plaza benches at night, elderly men with puckered faces and matronly women in black, watching their grandkids kick soccer balls.

San Pedro’s main street runs from the square toward a postcard view of the sea. Part of the street is blocked off for pedestrian traffic, allowing room for browsing shop windows and lingering in restaurants that offer ample sidewalk seating. Every day we stop for coffee and ice cream at La Soberana, a family-run shop churning creamy helados in many flavors from white chocolate to caramelized flan.

Many nights we also head to San Pedro for dinner. Late-night dining is a custom we adopt in a hurry, after attempting dinner our first night at 8 p.m. and finding no place open. Our favorite casual spot is the Alcantara, a popular main street restaurant where we eat small fried fish sprinkled with lemon juice, crisp green salads layered with ripe tomato and sweet onion slices, and fresh anchovy fillets marinated in olive oil and sherry wine vinegar.

Marbella SpainWe are surprised to find a fine-dining establishment, Lemonpepper, on a side street. What the restaurant lacks in scenery, it makes up for with impeccable service and simple elegance. At linen-laden tables on a leafy candlelit terrace, we eat buttery Dover sole dotted with flecks of roasted garlic and plump shrimp oven-roasted in olive oil with tiny red peppers. Everywhere we dine the region’s crisp white Rioja wines play a prominent role.

San Pedro eases us into the Spanish rhythm. Just as we eat late, we sightsee early, going home after lunch to nap. On the day trip to Málaga, in addition to seeing the palace of Alcazaba, we walk about the Old Town, admiring from afar the Castillo de Gibralfaro, the hulking ruins of another Moorish castle.

The Moors are ever present, even when absent. The city’s Renaissance cathedral rose between 1528 and 1782 on the site of a mosque, a common practice during the Christian Reconquest.

Narrow House in MarbellaThe cathedral is nicknamed The One-armed Lady because one of the two towers is— and will forever be—unfinished. The work finished in Málaga happened centuries later when heirs of Pablo Picasso established the Museo Picasso Málaga in the city of the artist’s birth. The collection mostly consists of favorites Picasso kept in his family. As interesting as the art is the museum’s site, a restored Mudejar palace.

While the city of Málaga is largely unexplored by the hordes arriving daily at Málaga Airport, Marbella has been known to tourism for decades as one of the chicest resort towns along the coast. The glamorous Marbella Club Hotel and exclusive Olivia Valere nightclub remain popular spots. We begin our Marbella tour by strolling along the Avenida del Mar, a broad pedestrian walkway leading from the lush Alameda Park to the sea. Bronze Dali sculptures line our path, their cutouts framing the blue water. There are sandy beaches off the boardwalk, which we forgo in favor of exploring the inland Old Town.

Feria de MalagaThe historic area’s feel is classic Mediterranean, with narrow cobbled streets, painted stucco townhouses, filigreed iron balconies and terracotta roofs edged in bougainvillea. The streets converge on the Plaza de los Naranjos, named for the bitter oranges that grow on the square’s neatly pruned trees. Beyond the modern boutiques and trendy restaurants lie medieval chapels, remnants of Moorish castles, and small glassed-in Catholic shrines tucked into walls. Near the Moorish ruins, we see a pomegranate tree laden with ripening fruit and a black cat stretched out like an odalisque along the fort wall.

Our best excursion is unplanned. One morning we set out for the town of Ronda in the mountains, an hour away, but a mention in the guidebook leads us on a spontaneous, winding detour. The drive is picturesque, all canted ridges and fertile valleys, the bustling coast falling away. Our new destination is the Cueva de la Pileta, a cave with prehistoric paintings discovered in 1905 by a farmer looking for bat guano to use as fertilizer. Today, his descendants run cave tours. After about 20 people show up, a cheerful guide hands out butane lanterns and locks the cave entrance behind us. A tour in Spanish begins.

The cave is extraordinary, more than a mile long and divided into multiple chambers. There are pools of clear water, walls and floors worn smooth by dried-out subterranean rivers, and stalagmites and stalactites with unusual shapes and evocative names. Two are named for U.S. presidents, a surprisingly recognizable comic rendering of Ronald Reagan and a towering phallic stalagmite called … Bill Clinton!

Most striking, however, are the actual traces of man. Lines of sooty residue run vertically to the ceiling indicating where fires once burned. Everywhere there are cave paintings: matchstick depictions of human figures hunting animals, mysterious linear symbols resembling tally marks, and outlines of animals in red, ochre and black. Some are stunningly beautiful despite their simplicity. Though first thought to be Moorish in origin, the paintings were later dated to prehistoric times.

Bullfight in MadridAfter this adventure, we drive on to Ronda. The town is famous for the Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullring in Spain and the birthplace of modern bullfighting, where matadors stand their ground on foot as opposed to on horseback. The city sits on steep limestone cliffs, making it a historic military stronghold.

The El Tajo gorge, a 150-meter deep canyon with the watery ribbon of the Rio Guadalevin flowing through, splits Ronda in two. The New Town (18th century on) is separated from the Old Town (dating to the Moors and earlier) by three bridges spanning the gorge. The bridges neatly sum up Ronda’s historical occupation: There is the Roman Bridge, Arab Bridge, and New Bridge circa 1783. We cross one and wander around Old Town before driving back to the coast. Sandwiched between the ancient city walls are a maze of cobbled streets, whitewashed Moorish mansions, and more churches built on top of mosques.

In between sightseeing, we also go to the beach. In the old days, I would drive an hour west to the Arabian desert-like golden sand dunes of Tarifa for a full day of serious sunbathing. Now, for a couple of sun-screen-smothered hours in the sensible mid-afternoon, my family frequents the almost-deserted pebbly beach in Guadalmina, well hidden by the encroaching development. Of course, there is a requisite Moorish watchtower.

On our last day as I read a book, my husband and son go for a walk. Minutes later R.J. runs back, gesturing frantically. “Mommy, Mommy. Come!”

Surrounded by modern villas is the ruin of an octagonal building set around an octagonal pool, all split open to the sky and covered in weeds. “Las Bovedas,” reads the weathered plaque on the enclosing fence, “public Roman baths from 3 AD.”

For the first time this trip, I am not surprised.

By Charlotte Safavi for PeterGreenberg.com. Charlotte Safavi is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, DC area. She has written for several publications, including The Washington Post and The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and she blogs for The Huffington Post. Visit Charlotte on the Web at www.charlottesafavi.com, and follow her on Twitter.com/charlottesafavi.

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