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Spain's most popular LGBT destinations
COSTA DEL SOL
by Dan Allen


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For a long, long time, Spain's gorgeous Costa del Sol, or "Sun Coast," was very, very quiet. Except for that business of the Spanish Reconquista pushing out the Moors in the late 1400s, this near-perfect locale changed little for more than a thousand years, its utterly tranquil Mediterranean coastline peppered only with tiny fishing villages, and nary a gay bar to be found.

Then came the 1950s, and the secret of the Costa del Sol got out to the world, in a big, big way. The mid-Andalusian coastline began to lure Northern European types, weary of their long, dark winters and eager to bask in the region's ever-present sunshine. First came the super-rich and famous (think Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Laurence Olivier), after Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg opened the aristocratic Marbella Club in 1954. The demi-rich and B celebs followed, and gradually the masses—as is their wont—caught wind of the fun and sun, subsequently descending in droves. Through it all, the gays came too, establishing their beachhead at Torremolinos in the 1960s and 70s.

Unfortunately, the switch from sleepy-fishing-village-dotted seashore to frolicksome touristic playground proved too rapid for the area to bear seamlessly. Unsavory types like on-the-lam Brits, the Russian mob, and Arab arms traffickers crept in, earning the region the unwelcome nickname Costa del Crime in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Unsavory Marbella politicians meanwhile took advantage of the instability, pushing through scores of corrupt construction projects before being stopped and ultimately jailed.

Now, however, with a clean political slate and hot on the heels of a highly publicized summer 2010 visit to the area by Michelle Obama, the Costa del Sol is back with a vengeance. A new generation of hip tourists, a large faction of them gay, are now discovering the 300-plus days of sun, the warm Mediterranean beaches, the bargain-to-luxury shopping, the excellent spas, the delectable food, the rich history, the effervescent culture, and yes, those scrumptious southern Spanish men of the delightful Costa del Sol.

By far, most international visits to the Costa del Sol start in Málaga, and more specifically at its Pablo Ruiz Picasso International Airport. Low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet have turned this into Spain's fourth busiest airfield, with scores of carriers now serving over 60 countries. The airport's newly opened third terminal is expected to accommodate the growing number of travelers in the coming years. Thanks to an extension of Spain's high-speed AVE train line in 2007, it's now also possible to get from Madrid to Málaga by rail in just about two and a half hours.

While many Málaga arrivers scurry off to nearby beachside resort towns, any proper visit to the area requires a healthy dose of the beautiful city itself. With about 570,000 inhabitants, this is Europe's southernmost metropolis, not to mention one of the world's oldest towns, with an historical center dating back more than 3,000 years. In this now fully modern and vibrant city, remnants of previous civilizations are around every bend, with Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, and Reconquista Christian sites especially visible—and more still being found all the time. In 1951, during the construction of a new library, a fantastic first century B.C.E. Roman Theater was unearthed, and it's now one of Málaga's main attractions. More recently, during the construction of the Vincci Selección Posada del Patio Hotel on Pasillo Santa Isabel, remains of both the Roman and Arab walls of the city were found, and can be viewed by all from a specially designed underground walkway.

Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas are two of Málaga's most famous sons, and while you have a slight chance of seeing the latter on one of his frequent visits to town, you certainly won't miss homages to the former, known to his mother and many a modern tour guide as Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. The fabulous Museo Picasso, while just one of three major museums devoted exclusively to the artist's work (the others are in Barcelona and Paris), contains perhaps the most intimate and revealing collection, with more than 220 works donated directly by Picasso's daughter-in-law and grandson. Also worth a visit is the Museo Casa Natal (Birthplace House Museum), which features thousands of works by Picasso, his contemporaries, and those he influenced.

Just up the hill from the Roman Theater is the Alcazaba, a Moorish fort started in the eighth century but mostly taking its present form in the mid-11th century. Farther up the hill (but further forward in time) is the Castillo de Gibralfaro, where the Moorish people of Málaga famously waged a three-month battle (albeit ultimately unsuccessfully) against the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1487. Inside the castle is a small but interesting archaeological museum, but most visitors come for what's outdoors: breathtaking views of the city below. For a royal hotel stay, the Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro, part of Spain's exceptional state-owned Paradores system, is actually attached to the castle itself.

Continuing onward chronologically, Málaga's post-Reconquista city center Cathedral is known locally as La Manquita, or "one-armed lady," thanks to her clearly missing second tower, a victim of depleted coffers in the 18th century. She's still stunning, and her one beautiful outstretched arm manages to crop up in photos all around the old town.

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When you're ready for a break and some Málaga tapas, the nearby La Moraga is unparalleled, the local outpost of Michelin-starred chef Dani García's growing gastronomic family. Once sustained, try out Málaga's plentiful shopping options, especially the city center pedestrian street Calle Marqués de Larios, which is lined with chic shops, boutiques, and cafés. Málaga also has a Corte de Inglés (part of the much-beloved, Spanish, one-stop, department store chain), as well as several malls and countless specialty stores spread across the city.

One of Málaga's most famed festivals is its vivid Holy Week (or Semana Santa), during which massive ornate tronos (thrones, or floats), made of gold and silver and often weighing more than five tons, are carried through the streets, accompanied by music and song. Things turn especially dramatic on Good Friday, when shops and streetlights go dark to better showcase the solemn procession. Antonio Banderas sometimes still takes part in the festivities, as he did here in his youth. The festival dates back more than 500 years to the Catholic Reconquista, and its long history is commemorated at the Museo de la Semana Santa (Holy Week Museum).

Somewhat less holy but even more famous is the Feria de Málaga, a nine-day, mid-August festival that's one of Spain's largest. Shops and offices close so everyone can enjoy the food and drink. Meanwhile, traffic is stopped so the streets can fill with music and dancing. Traditional costumes are everywhere, with many women in colorful flamenco dresses and many men dressed as sexy vaqueros (or cowboys).

While it's not nearly as big as Holy Week or Feria, Málaga has its own Pride event as well called Hoy Málaga es Gay (Today Málaga is Gay), taking place annually in late June. LGBT life is thriving in Málaga, which boasts a growing number and variety of gay bars and clubs, many situated around Plaza de la Merced. For a fun dip into the local queer scene, start out with the lively Bohemian loungy-ness of El Carmen, then move on to the throbbing disco action of Reinas (Queen).

The refreshingly small (just 50 rooms) and colorful Room Mate Lola Hotel is a great place to lay your head in Málaga, with cool design, a central location, a hip clientele, and a friendly staff. Even more centrally located (right next to the Cathedral) is the AC Málaga Palacio Hotel, which boasts a rooftop pool and restaurant/bar with 360-degree views of the city, making it a consummate setting for that impromptu Spanish same-sex wedding.

For venturing beyond Málaga proper and onward to the splendid Costa del Sol, your best bet is to rent a car. This can be ridiculously cheap, as low as $60 a week depending on when you travel, your vehicle preference, and Euro conversion rates. Taxis are plentiful, but distances between towns are fairly large, so fares can be high. Buses are available as well, but they run sporadically. Trains, running about every 30 minutes, also connect Málaga to Torremolinos and Fuengirola, but the latter is only about halfway to Marbella, so you'll still need a cab or car to take you the full distance there.

Less than ten miles south of Málaga lies Torremolinos, long the gay capital of the Costa del Sol region. Though it began like many towns in the area as a sleepy fishing village, people were here and queer as early as the late 1950s. By 1962, Toni's Bar, Spain's first-ever gay bar, had opened. Even during the oppressive Franco regime, homosexuals were mostly given wide berth to behave as they liked in Torremolinos—as long as they spent their tourist pesetas while doing so. By the early 1970s, gay life was booming here, centered (as it still is) around La Nogalera in the heart of town.

Torremolinos lost much of its cachet in the mid-70s when down-the-coast Marbella came into full bloom, but with the decriminalization of homosexuality in Spain later in the decade, the town began to attract more and more gays from all over the country, and eventually from across Europe. After an upswing in the 1980s and much of the 90s, another downturn followed just before the millennium, as Eurogays bored of a destination that'd become too routine and gone stale. Somewhat surprisingly, Torremolinos has undergone yet another powerful resurgence in the last few years, proving it a gay Spanish phoenix that simply refuses to go quietly. As Spain's magnetism draws in more and more international LGBT travelers, Torremolinos, virtually unknown to Amerigays until recently, is now finally being discovered by those looking beyond the tried and true Madrid-to-Barcelona-and-Sitges route.

Interestingly, Torremolinos also draws many heterosexual Nordic and British types, leading to odd amalgams like a Finnish bar atop a gay disco, as in the case of the popular and very fun Home. Other current LGBT hotspots (among some 20 in Torremolinos) include Parthenon and Passion discos, both always packed on weekends.

Since Torremolinos isn't yet exactly teeming with upscale lodging options, many visitors choose to stay in Málaga and make the journey by taxi at club time—in fact, it's what many Malagueños themselves do every weekend. For those who'd rather be able to stumble home, Hostal Guadalupe is a solid Torremolinos choice.

Beyond the packed nightclubs and visible renovations around town, another clear indication that Torremolinos' star is again on the rise was the 2010 debut of Expo Gays, an international gay business expo that drew some 180 exhibitors and 15,000 visitors to the city's 60,000-square-foot Palace of Congresses and Exhibitions over three days in mid-October.

Of course, one of the main reasons people flock to Costa del Sol is to soak up the ever-present local sun. Torremolinos itself has several lovely stretches of sand, including the once gay but now mixed Poseidon Beach. Most locals will assure you, however, that the best gay beach in Costa del Sol is farther down the coast, between Calahonda and Marbella at Cabopin. While this naturist beach isn't exclusively gay, it boasts a large pink stretch (commencing about 200 yards to the west of the parking lot) that includes a very cruisy and action-packed dune area. Whether you lay or play, Cabopin makes for a nice rejuvenating stop on the journey south from Torremolinos or Málaga to Marbella.

Continued
 
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