Culture beckons in Spain

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TORREMOLINOS, Spain -- During our early spring visit, Spanish families on Easter holiday dominated the Costa del Sol, which counts half its tourism as domestic.

The largest contingent of foreign tourists are the British, followed by the Germans and Scandinavians. "They're all content to come and broil on the beach," said Diana Serop, spokeswoman for the Tourism Promotion Board of the Costa del Sol. "But the Americans are more adventurous."

In other words, while Europeans come here mostly to lie on the beach, Americans consider Costa del Sol part of a European cultural vacation. Americans whom we met on this journey bore out the observation.

A group of 30-something independent travelers rented a car and used Estepona as a base to visit Gilbraltar, Tangiers Morocco and the white town of Ronda. We also ran into a tour group, predominantly retirees from the Midwest, huffing up the hills at the top of Gibraltar Rock. Based in Torremolinos, they had also toured Ronda and Granada and enjoyed a flamenco show.

Some of the most popular excursions arranged by hotels and operators from the Costa del Sol include:

  • Gibraltar. Difficulties with Spanish customs mean travelers must make border crossings on foot -- about a 10-minute walk. The main street is a haven for duty-free shopping. Visits to the top of the rock are arranged either by cable car (which requires extensive walking to see the sights) or by taxi, which limits the number of sights possible. Gibraltar is about 30 minutes from the Costa del Sol.
  • Ronda. A spectacular white town atop a high gorge, Ronda was the birthplace of the modern bullfight, and the bullring remains one of its chief attractions. It's located about a half-hour from Marbella. Of the many choices, it's the most manageable in a short tour.
  • Seville. The biggest city in Andalusia (and its capital) can be overwhelming in a mere day trip, which typically includes the vast cathedral and the Moorish/Christian alcazar fortress-palace. Seville is about an hour and half from the Costa del Sol.
  • Cordoba. Tours concentrate on the medieval section of this most Moorish of Spanish cities, with its narrow streets of whitewashed houses and its impressive mosque, once the largest in the world. Cordoba is about one hour and a half from the Costa del Sol.
  • Granada. The highlight is the Alhambra, the fabled palace of the Moorish kings. As the last city to fall in the Christian reconquest, Granada retains some of the most impressive structures of Moorish Spain. Granada is about one hour and 15 minutes from the Costa del Sol.
  • Tangiers. The ferry ride from Algeciras (an hour or more from Torremolinos) gives travelers a chance to step foot in Morocco with a quick guided tour and an afternoon of shopping in the souk.
  • Fuengirola Market/Mijas. Tuesday excursions go to the huge outdoor market at Fuengirola, part of the eastern Costa del Sol and almost indistinguishable from Torremolinos.
  • Then they proceed on to the mountain village of Mijas, about 15 minutes from Torremolinos, with spectacular views, touristic donkey taxis, and restaurants and pubs specializing in English food.

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