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a short break to... Costa del Sol

It's warm, cheap, easy to get to and some of Europe's best sights are on the doorstep. No wonder it's popular, writes Jeremy Atiyah
Why go there

For the warmest, sunniest winter weather in Europe; for Europe's cheap off-season flights; for beaches, cheap eats, golf-courses, fun, relaxation, siestas - and even a few touristic sniffs of old Andalucia. The Costa del Sol corresponds to that south-facing part of the Mediterranean coast immediately opposite north Africa. It runs from approximately Estepona in the west to Nerja in the east. Its centres include Marbella, Fuengirola, Torremolinos and Malaga.

When to go

The climate is not only pleasantly mild during winter, but it is also relatively cool in summer. This being Spain, you can find local festivals at various times of the year. The Fiesta de los Verdiales/Santos Innocentes on 28 December, sometimes referred to as the Spanish equivalent to April Fool's Day, is celebrated with dance and Moorish music (and weird head- dresses).

Also in Malaga is a big and boisterous Fera ("Fair") from 13-21 August - again, largely an excuse for drinking and dancing. Marbella's Fera de San Bernabe takes place from 11-18 June. Easter is a big deal, with processions of religious floats.

How to get there

There are a vast number of direct flights from Britain. Malaga is the cheapest and the most convenient airport to fly into, though Gibraltar is an alternative. Charter flights are usually block-booked by package- tour operators but are rarely full and can be bought at discount. Unijet (tel: 0990 114114) flies daily to Malaga, throughout winter, with return flights from pounds 84 return. Scheduled flights are rarely the cheapest option but offer flexibility. Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) flies daily to Malaga from pounds 172 return. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies daily with return flights from pounds 195.

Where to stay

There is no obligation to stay in a concrete tower block. Infinitely more charming, and much cheaper, are pensiones. Prices start from about 3,000 pesetas (pounds 12) for a double room. If it is luxury you want, I would steer clear of the Costa del Sol altogether. Five-star hotels here are not good value.

Hostal Derby, Calle San Juan de Dios 1 (tel: 00 34 95 2221301). One of many cheap establishments in Malaga. This one is a friendly, quiet place on the fourth floor with some rooms overlooking the harbour. Double rooms with shower Pta3,800.

Hostal El Cenachero, Calle Barroso 5 (tel: 00 34 95 222 4088). Also in Malaga, this is another friendly and quiet place near the seafront. Doubles Pta4,300 with shower.

Hotel Mediterraneo, Paseo Carmen 41 (tel: 00 34 95 2381452). One of several small family-run establishments in Torremolinos, and proof that this resort is, in fact, still Spain. Doubles Pta4,500 with bath.

Hostal La Pilarica, Calle San Cristobal 31 (tel: 00 34 95 282 0049). One of the cheapest small establishments in Marbella. Doubles Pta4,000 with bathroom.

Deals and packages

Cosmos (tel: 0161-480 5799) is offering one week's self-catering in a one-bedroom apartment in Nerja for pounds 202 per person, based on two sharing. One week with half-board accommodation at a three-star hotel in Fuengirola costs pounds 240 per person.

For something a little less typical, try B&B Abroad (tel: 01689 857838), which has rooms in a converted stagecoach inn on the coast for pounds 50 per twin/double room, per night. For golfing breaks, try Longshot Golf Holidays (tel: 01730 268621), which provide seven-night packages including return flights, car hire and discounted golf.

Getting around

Holiday Autos (tel: 0990 300 400) offers class A cars for pounds 69 per week (taking up to four people). Those travelling by car should note that the region's main highway is one of Europe's most dangerous roads.

From the airport, the electric train (every 30 mins) is the best way to get into central Malaga, if heading east, or Torremolinos or Fuengirola if heading west. All buses run from one station (tel: 95 235 00 61) in Malaga centre, just north west of the RENFE station on Paseo de los Tilos.

Taxis run up and down the coast, but without meters: they look up the fare in a book according to the distance covered. A run such as Malaga to Marbella (about 60km) costs about Pta6,000.

What to do and see

Grey sandy beaches, golf courses, tourists, palm trees, tower blocks, blue mountains, traffic, white cottages, flowers, balconies. Here are some of the highlights:

Puerto Bans. This marina just west of Marbella is the glitziest part of the coast. See the gigantic yacht of King Fahad of Saudi Arabia and mingle (possibly) with local residents such as Sean Connery.

Marbella's old town. Immaculately renovated, this whitewashed flower- filled zone embodies all your dreams of Andalucia. Come for small squares, outdoor restaurants, white churches and (in spring) the all-pervading scent of orange blossom.

Nerja. Retains vestiges of its Spanish origins and has nice beaches. It has a series of caves which were inhabited by palaeolithic man 20,000 years ago, and which contain a 63-metre-long stalactite (the world's longest) as well as a "cave theatre".

Torremolinos. Having grown from a fishing village into a medium-sized city, Torremolinos is unbeatable if you are interested in the study of European mass tourism. It also has good beaches, vigorous nightlife, vast numbers of cheap restaurants.

Malaga. By far the largest city on the coast, Malaga has been smartened up beyond recognition. It has an old town that is only slightly seedy and two charming Moorish citadels, most notably the cypress-filled Alcazaba. A further attraction - from next year - will be the Picasso museum, celebrating the often overlooked fact that Malaga was his birthplace.

Food and drink

Andalucia is one of the great places to eat tapas. In a few cases, little portions are still served alongside drinks ordered in bars; more standard is to see trays of goodies on the bar. Old favourites range from plain olives, to boquerones (anchovies), chipirones (squid), jamon serrano (dried ham). One of the other great specialities of the Malaga region is gazpacho.

Antonio Martn (Paseo Martimo). At more than 100 years old, this is probably the most famous and expensive fish restaurant in Malaga. Eat here to mingle with matadors after successful fights.

Casa Guaquin, Calle Carmen 37, La Carihuela. An excellent fish restaurant.

Restaurante Santiago, Paseo Maritimo 5, near the Puerto Deportivo. One of the best restaurants, plus great tapas bar.

Night life

In summer much of the action is highly touristy, which does not mean it is not fun - try any disco in Torremolinos. In winter, you have more chance of mingling with the natives. In Marbella, try the Pub Flamenco Albero y Arte; in Malaga drop in on the Patio Andaluz El Roco at Calle Reding 8. For a taste of giganticism, try the New Piper's Disco in Torremolinos, on Avenida de Palma Mallorca.

Away from the Costa

The attractions within two hours' drive of the Costa del Sol are among the greatest in Europe. The moorish cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba are visitable on long day-trips. Closer to hand are the "white villages", including the touristy Mijas and Casares. Extraordinary Ronda, a town built over the sheer cliffs of a ravine, contains Spain's most traditional bull-ring.

Further information

The website for the Costa del Sol is at http://www.costasol.com/ The Torremolinos tourist office is at Plaza Pablo Picasso just north of Plaza Costa del Sol (tel: 95 237 11 59). It is open daily from 8am-3pm. The tourist office in Marbella is on the north side of Plaza de los Naranjos provides good maps (tel: 95 282 35 50). It is open Mon-Sat 9am-9pm.