It's Spain, but not as I know it

THE FIRST car I saw parked outside the front door of my hotel was a Lamborghini with a Saudi Arabian number plate, the only car in the world designed to be no thicker than a credit card. It was slung so low that it could comfortably have slipped a path underneath any normal vehicle. And yet it was wide enough to accommodate the driver and several girl-friends in the front seat.

The devil has to be in details like these. I have just arrived in the phenomenon that is Marbella and am struggling to pin it down into my scrapbook of preconceptions about Spain. Where are the mules and beaten up motorscooters? The second car I saw by the way was a soft-topped Rolls Royce being driven by a lady with a lap-dog. Was Marbella in fact a part of the Cote d'Azure? Had Franco ordered it to be built as a means of deflecting suspicions that Spain was becoming the cheap end of Mediterranean tourism?

God knows. The only reason I am staying in a five star hotel by the way is because The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has invited me to attend their annual conference in one. But I am wondering what effect the Gran Melia Don Pepe is having on my perceptions: I walked around today and saw a lot of expensive-looking buildings, overhung by palm trees of uncanny tidiness. The streets were immaculately clean. It could have been Zurich by the sea.

Well, almost. I admit I also saw signs outside pubs saying LIVE FOOTBALL: SATURDAY. CHELSEA V ASTON VILLA. I heard snatches of pop songs I had not heard for 20 years. And I saw some of those strange dishes on restaurant menus that insecure British people eat when they come to Spain, as a means of reminding themselves that they are British. Dishes like "Bangers, mash, onions and peas" for example. I believe that the people who order this in Marbella eat gazpacho and smoked swordfish when they are at home.

Except this is getting off the point, because everybody knows Marbella is not another Torremolinos. It's whether or not this is Spain that I worry. In fact it has an old town that almost looks like Andalucia and most of the menus in town feature local dishes. Plazas brim with orange trees, and white streets are stuffed with black balconies and tumbling flowers. Look up and you'll see mountains flanked by white churches. Yes, there are still shops selling naff souvenirs like plastic bulls and nylon flamenco dresses, but these are classy naff souvenirs - plastic bulls made of cut marble for example.

Marbella even appears to have Spanish people. I saw them. All those young women from shampoo advertisements carrying folders and smoking ducados, and Pinochet-lookalikes with enormous dark glasses mooching around in bars during the day-time. Of course the real bull-fighters and flamenco dancers live in ugly modern tower blocks far from the centre of town, while English tourists occupy the Andalucian whitewashed area. But in the context of the Costa del Sol, isn't that just a quibble?

I've found the test. In the old town of Marbella, there are still pensions lurking in the backstreets, governed by grumpy old landladies with mops and loud television sets, where a bed costs only 12 pesetas a night. I had better check out of the Gran Melia Don Pepe and check into the Hostelleria Los Peques tomorrow for a night instead. If the bed creaks and the stone tiles on the floor feel cold in the morning - then I'll drink my cafe con leche for breakfast in the sunshine and I'll know I'm in Spain.

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