Travel: Last orders for Rover's Return: The Costa del Sol's 'sangria and breezeblock' nightmare is receding; its new look will attract a different class of visitor, says David Hewson

SUNDAY lunchtime in the Carihuela, the original fishermen's quarter of the town, and the Spanish matrons are out wearing their traditional J Edgar Hoover look: flouncy black dresses, dark stockings with a thick seam up the back, big shiny handbags that could pack a sub-machine-gun . . .

Husbands in tow, they sway from bar to bar, picking at a plate of dainty miniature squid here, a tapa of jamon serrano there, nodding gravely at the latest morsel of local gossip before working out where next to assault.

This little ritual probably predates Cervantes. Yet it escaped James A Michener, who breezed into Torremolinos in 1967 while writing his historical-epic doorstop Iberia. The Carihuela was then in its flower-power period, when a parade of dope-smoking, loose-living 'artists' basked in a bohemian heaven on a handful of pesetas a day.

Michener, sensing an absence of culture as he understood it, rapidly departed for Seville and Cordoba, places of 'history', missing the cataclysm happening under his nose. Like possessed characters in a Stephen King horror story, first the Carihuela, then Torremolinos, then the entire 100-mile coastline of the Costa del Sol performed several violent somersaults of personality before exploding into the grinning sangria-and-breezeblock nightmare of Viva Espana mass tourism.

Five years ago, when the craziness hit its peak, hotels were popping at the seams, and the beaches were covered in people, litter, fake Ambre Solaire and various less savoury items. Driving the 'Carretera de la Muerte' - the Highway of Death - meant a hair-raising ride along the infamous N340 coastal road, a carbon-dioxide-laden pandemonium of kamikaze Seat Pandas bumping over an ancient shagpile of potholes and flattened fur. If you were lucky you could cover the 40 miles from Malaga to Marbella in under two hours without having to pick a pedestrian out of the radiator grille along the way.

Andalucia has always been a little like a medieval banquet out of Poe: a feast of dishes, some familiar, some strange, ranging from the exquisite to the plain disgusting, with others fitting in somewhere in between - like the tropical durian fruit, which 'tastes like heaven, smells like hell'.

The juxtaposition of nice and nasty has been thrown into the air again these past three years. Striking hotel workers, sacked in the sudden closure of two Torremolinos hotels, picket local councillors for assistance as the unemployment rate approaches 20 per cent. The English bars and restaurants that spread like a rash along the coast in the Eighties - replica pubs, housed in apartment-block garages, and some distinctly more fancy establishments - have been devastated.

Many have simply been abandoned after their owners long ago gave up hope that the 'For Sale' signs would attract any buyers. Property prices, closely linked to those in the UK, which is by far the main source of Costa del Sol visitors, have collapsed. Fashionable villas that sold for pounds 250,000 two years ago now change hands for half that price. Small farms in the inland rural areas around Alhatirin and Coin sell for pounds 20,000 or less. Cash-in-hand buyers are picking up property bargains at unheard-of prices, though they do little to alleviate the gloom.

Ken Brown, who abandoned life as a newspaper reporter in Stoke in 1963 and fled to the then unknown Torremolinos, now publishes one of the few remaining English-language publications in Spain, the glossy monthly magazine Lookout. Three years ago, an issue of Lookout was 180 pages brimful of politics, culture, food and vital information for a readership of expatriates and everyday Iberophiles. Today, although its content remains the same, it is less than half that size.

Brown's views on the disaster are simple, and echoed all along the coast: 'For years we had it so easy, the money simply walked through the door, even though we gave no value in return in the end. When the recession arrived, people were stunned - we just didn't believe it could happen. It finally meant we all had to grow up.'

On the other hand, growing up, while painful, has its good points. Most of the coast has never looked better than it does today, with improved hotels, a rather unexpected emphasis on cleanliness and conservation, and greenery in new public parks and gardens right along its length. Modern roads have transformed journey times and now allow the Spanish driver to perform daily auditions for Death Race 2000 on highways made for the job.

The Carretera de la Muerte is now a trickle of local traffic, and Marbella a mere 40 minutes from the airport. Seville, which once seemed to be perched on the Portuguese border, is only two hours away by another motorway built for last year's Expo. A ring road means that east-west traffic no longer has to make its way through the centre of Malaga. What was once a depressing, airless bottleneck is being revealed as a city of more than passing interest, with an elegant and interesting historic quarter.

Malaga airport, only a couple of years ago, was a nasty, sweltering jam of miserable travellers, where I once witnessed two well-dressed English women having a fist-fight for the privilege of being 219th in the queue for a charter flight to Luton. Today, visitors arrive at a comfortable new pounds 80m terminal on flights that normally turn up on time. If you travel on a scheduled flight, you will find the queues are virtually gone and the prices cheaper than some of the charters on offer.

The beaches are suddenly rather clean. You can even, on occasion, witness a local, a Spanish local, ticking off someone for allowing their dog on the sand. In most resorts, workers comb the beaches religiously each morning. Vast public works programmes are cleansing inshore waters that were once among the filthiest in Europe. Blue flags should be flying most of the length of the Costa del Sol within 18 months or so.

People are also waking up to the idea that there is life beyond the beach. For independent travellers, who today make up seven out of 10 tourists passing through Malaga airport, the province now includes the quiet (in Spanish terms) and frequently magnificent hinterland of rural Malaga. You can stay in mountain lodges, watch flamingos in nature reserves, or try Andalucian Safaris' weeklong trips into the Ronda mountains run by ex-Black Watch officer Hugh Arbuthnott.

For the habitue of the Costa of five years ago, fired by the adrenalin of a spin on the N340 and the hassle of getting through the day, this is all a little unreal.

The most spectacular changes have taken place in Marbella under the iron leadership of Jesus Gil. Property millionaire, owner of Atletico Madrid football club, and by all accounts a frequently alarming cross between Ross Perot and Margaret Thatcher, he took a failing Marbella by the scruff of the neck in 1991 and set about transforming it with the uncomplicated expedient of lots and lots of money.

The police force was doubled and ran the pushers and pimps off the streets. Vast sums and a local workfare scheme among the unemployed were used to restore the still pretty old town, kick traffic off the seafront and build a handsome new promenade, with huge bronze elephants as showers on the beach, running all the way from the centre to the newly repainted marina of Puerto Banus.

Gil brooks no opposition, and will, some say, bankrupt the town before the recovery comes. The amounts involved are certainly vast - some pounds 60m from Marbella's own coffers alone. His ambitions to run for national president in this year's Spanish elections may also pose problems for what has always been a personal local campaign. Gil has his detractors, but even they normally concede that he has got Marbella off its knees.

Lookout, celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, predicts that the new Costa will eventually become the middle-class golden coast of Europe. A Nineties generation of professionals, working from electronic offices, will see it as a natural base, attracted by low property prices, the congenial climate, and an ever more attractive way of life. It is an appealing if dreamy idea. Spain is never on firm ground when talking about what will happen manana. While much of the coast has improved by leaps and bounds, the albatross of 30 years of mass tourism around its neck is, on occasions, painfully visible.

Torremolinos has no Jesus Gil, no pretty little old town, and no resident celebrities to sing its praises. Parts are now seriously blighted by closed or run-down hotels, apartment blocks and offices, few of which will ever recover. Buying up an apartment block - with many different owners - to demolish it is not much of a practical proposition, desirable as it seems. Carihuela village, and the attractive marina of Benalmadena that adjoins it, are rapidly becoming the only pleasant areas.

Elsewhere you can witness the extraordinary spectacle of the British being driven to the margin as the poor of the package-tourist world, sad little figures, mainly elderly, who trek from English bar to English bar to find the cheapest shepherd's pie in town. One British-run 'pub' in Benalmadena advertises: 'You can eat three meals a day for 1,000 ptas (pounds 6)'.

Two pensioners from Birmingham who have spent three months living in a tiny, package-hotel bedroom admit that they are as bored as hell and know the evening buffet menu off by heart. But they'll be back next year 'because think what we'll save on the heating bills'.

Or will they? The mass tour operators, having done so much to ruin the coast, are gradually pulling out, sensing better profits in Orlando, Florida. More and more of the basic package hotels, once the mainstay of British holiday brochures, are either closing or investing in expensive improvements to take them out of the UK package market.

For the coastal resorts, it's all a big gamble. Everyone these days chants 'quality, not quantity', but you still have to persuade someone to pay the bill. The truth about the Costa del Sol is that what endures, what is worthwhile, is what is Spanish.

In the Carihuela, on a February Saturday night, Lorraine, the landlady of the Black Cat, complains that there is not another English pub open in the village until you reach the Wonky Donkey half a mile away.

'When I came on holiday here I used to cry when I had to go home. Now they come in and say it's their last night, they're on the plane tomorrow, I just wish to God I was going with them.'

Walking back to my hotel, I pass the Wonky Donkey in the Carihuela's pedestrianised main street. A big iron gate bars the door and a blackboard promises that the owners, 'from Guernsey CI', will be back in business in March. In the little bodega opposite, the locals crowd around the bar, picking at jamon, homemade chorizo, and chunks of freshly cooked octopus, arguing about the football on the television over beer and wine.

They don't speak English.

Getting there: Viva Air, a subsidiary of Iberia, flies daily between Gatwick and Malaga with return fares starting from pounds 122.

Accommodation: Book hotels direct. Ask for a discount if you're staying more than a few days (haggling is not uncommon). There is an abundance of apartments on the coast that can be booked for bargain prices locally, from pounds 50 a week for a studio. Try local estate agents or tourist offices.

Hotel Tropicana, Tropico 6, Playa de la Carihuela, 29620 Torremolinos (010 34 52 386600, fax 380568). Four-star comfort in a quiet position with a lovely garden and outdoor pool, on the beach, from pounds 35 a night for two.

La Fonda, Santo Domingo 7, Benalmadena Pueblo, 29639 Malaga (010 34 52 568177, fax 568233). Gorgeous old parador-style manor house in the hills behind Torremolinos, with an outdoor pool. From pounds 40 a night for two.

Refugio de Juanar, Sierra Blanca, Ojen (010 34 52 881000). State-run parador 3,000ft above sea level in the mountains behind Marbella. Good mountain food and walks. From pounds 30 per person half-board.

Eating out: The coast has restaurants and tapas bars of all shapes and persuasions. Mix a few proven favourites with a little experimentation. Three-course fixed-price menus with a glass of wine, varying from as little as pounds 3 in a local taberna to pounds 20 in the posh restaurants, are usually to be recommended.

Torremolinos: For fish, Casa Juan, in Calle Mar, behind the seafront, is excellent, as is Casa Victoria next door. Try the red pepper salad, tiny squid (calamaritos, chopitos), large, raw Malaga clams (concha fina), eaten like oysters, and fresh prawns (gambas) in oil with garlic. Expect to pay between pounds 50 and pounds 60 for a complete blow-out for four. For a complete contrast, search out La Huerta, Decano Higueros del Castillo 1. This is real Spanish country food - bean stews, fried breadcrumbs (migas), beautiful roast meat, and rabbit with rice.

Marbella: Check in Lookout for restaurant reviews. Popular local favourites include the Italian Tony Dalli's, dinner only; Santiago, classic Andalucian fish dishes in the town centre; and the Basque Taberna del Alabardero in Puerto Banus.

Further information: Spanish Tourist Office, 57-58 St James's Street, London SWIA 1LD (071-499 0901). Lookout magazine, essential reading for anyone interested in Spanish life, culture and food, pounds 21.25 a year (12 issues) surface to the UK, pounds 36 air mail: Lookout, Puebla Lucia, 29640 Fuengirola, Malaga (010 34 52 460950, fax 461022).

Andalucian Safaris into the Ronda mountains: Abercrombie and Kent, 071-730 9600.

(Photographs omitted)

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