The marvels of Marbella

Marbella is like Dubai’s Marina Walk merged with Monaco’s Port Hercules. (Shutterstock)
Updated 18 April 2018
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The marvels of Marbella

DUBAI: When Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd died in August 2005, the city of Marbella on Spain’s southern coast declared three days of official mourning. To an outsider, it might have seemed an odd reaction, but to residents and local business owners it made perfect sense. Marbella was regarded as a second-home for the King, who had been visiting for more than two decades and was posthumously declared an adopted son of the city.

The New York Times reported in 1981 that the then-Crown Prince Fahd had recently built a palace “nestled in the flanks of the Sierra Blanca” with a “bougainvillea-draped garden.” Two months earlier he had quietly inaugurated the King Abdulaziz Mosque, which was funded by the Kingdom, named after its first monarch and was the first mosque built in Spain since the Arabs were expelled from Al-Andalus in the 15th Century.

Both buildings still stand resplendent 37 years on, while the special relationship between southern Spain and Saudi Arabia continues. A 2016 report published by the Costa del Sol tourism office found the average stay of a visitor from Saudi is 17 days. Members of the royal family still visit regularly — and stay much longer. Last month, the national football team elected to train here as preparations for this summer’s World Cup ramp up. They are expected to return again next month.

Situated about an hour down the coast from Malaga Airport, visitors without the luxury of helicopters and private jets can take the efficient and economical Renfe train as far as Fuengirola or catch the irregular airport coach direct to Marbella. Either way is markedly cheaper than a $100 one-way taxi ride.

The Costa del Sol boasts 24 beaches spread across 27km of Mediterranean coastline, but Marbella is more than just golden sand, warm waves and sunbathing. Inspired by Islamic architecture, the Casco Antiguo — or Old Town — is a warren of narrow cobbled streets filled with compact homes, jewelry shops, independent retailers, statues, fountains and local cafés.

While the narrow pathways offer shade from the Spanish sunshine, ornate Andalusian-style balconies hang overhead, displaying the neighborhood’s unique mix of cultures. No eatery displays this amalgamation of Arab and Andalusia better than La Casa del Hummus, a vegetarian restaurant that doubles up as a coffee shop and is situated at the mouth of the maze, on Calle Muro and Calle Mendoza.

From there, follow the road up the hill and it will be impossible not to spot the Arab Walls. Dating back to the 9th Century, the fortification once protected the old medina, and now serves as a reminder of the city’s rich history.

Of course, life has changed immeasurably for many Arabs since the discovery of oil. For a glimpse of how the one percent now live, you need only head 10km southwards and visit the marina at Puerto Banús. Here, Arabic voices float down the promenade while luxury yachts with puns (of a kind) for names — “Sea Esta,” “Aquaholic” — float inside the bay.

On the street, you’ll find Louis Vuitton, La Perla, Michael Kors, Gucci. If it is a luxury brand, it is almost certainly located here, among the shisha cafes, expensive restaurants, real estate agents, and hedonistic nightclubs. Flashy cars — a BMW i8, a Rolls Royce Phantom, a Bentley Continental GT — purr slowly past, occasionally drowning out the shoppers speaking in languages from all over the world, including, of course, Arabic.

Marbella is like Dubai’s Marina Walk merged with Monaco’s Port Hercules. And when the sun is shining, it’s easy to understand why King Fahd was such a fan.


Booming Bangalore: India’s ‘It’ city

Updated 18 March 2019
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Booming Bangalore: India’s ‘It’ city

  • Yoga at the resort offers the chance for gentle self reflection
  • The chance for some simple, but delicious food is just around the corner

DUBAI: Officially called Bengaluru — though not by the locals — Bangalore, the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka, is lauded as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ thanks to the presence of prestigious IT companies and a burgeoning technology sector. Once known for its sprawling gardens and lakes, today Bangalore is more easily identified by shiny shopping malls, hip restaurants and traffic-congested roads. But beyond the trappings of urban life, the city still surprises with refreshing spots where you can hit reset.

One such oasis of calm is Shreyas Retreat. This coconut farm turned yoga retreat, set amid 25 acres of lush greenery, is the real deal, and one of India’s best-kept secrets. Though probably not for long.

Experiences here revolve around ‘self-discovery’, but with a refined approach to wellness. An in-house doctor will prescribe treatments ranging from oil massages and herbal healing experiences based on Ayurveda — regarded as the world’s oldest medicinal system — to more modern remedies such as hydrotherapy. You can choose to stay in one of the poolside cottages strategically placed around the retreat’s central courtyard, with the 25-meter pool and heated jacuzzi on your doorstep, or be at one with nature in a charming Garden Tented Cottage, several of which are scattered across the grounds. They come complete with canopied roof and outdoor patio, offering incredible views.

Need some time to reflect, then try the resort's yoga sessions at the Shreyas Retreat. (Supplied) 

Guests can also join in group-yoga sessions in the morning and evening, deepen their meditation practice or lend a helping hand at the retreat’s organic gardens. If all seems too new-age for you, packages are entirely customizable and really do cater to everyone — from the blissed-out yogi and spa seeker, to curious foodies who want to learn more about Indian cuisine.

The retreat is also an inspiring base to explore nearby landscapes, with trekking trips and village visits easily arranged. If you’d like to plan your own thrills, the scenic Nandi Hills, Hogenakkal Falls (often called the Niagara Falls of India), and cultural hotspot Mysore are just a few hours drive away.

The Nandi Hills provide the more adventurous with some spectacular scenery. (File/Shutterstock)  

For unique attractions closer to the city, a day at Lalbagh Botanical Garden is one well spent. Sprawling across 240 acres in the heart of Bangalore, it started out in 1760 as the private garden of Mysore ruler Hyder Ali. The government-run garden is home to the largest collection of tropical plants in India and a popular spot for bird-watching. Visitors have plenty to take in, including a serene lake, bonsai garden, aviary, sculptures and more. Its best known feature is the centuries-old glass house — designed along the lines of London’s Crystal Palace — that plays host to bi-annual flower shows which attract thousands of visitors.

A short stroll away from Lalbagh is Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (or MTR as it’s more commonly known), established in 1924. This is a no-frills dining experience. Delicious steaming hot food is served on steel plates as patrons tear into crunchy dosas (savory pancakes) and soft idlis (steamed rice cakes). Make sure to order try the rava idli — made from semolina — which was invented by MTR during World War II when rice was in short supply.

Bangalore is home to a handful of world-class galleries, including the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). However, if you’re short on time, there’s only one name you need to remember – Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. Home to a respected college of fine arts, the complex is buzzing with art aficionados and curious tourists picking up unique souvenirs. There are 14 permanent museum galleries to explore here, as well as five rotating art galleries that blend the best of contemporary works alongside more traditional and Indian folk pieces. Afterwards, wander through the verdant grounds, following sand-swept paths and enjoying the city’s creative energy. Bangalore may be India’s digital heart, but it’s got soul.