Marbella is a city and municipality in southern Spain, belonging to the province of Málaga in the autonomous community of Andalusia. It is part of the region of the Costa del Sol and is the headquarters of the Association of Municipalities of the region; it is also the head of the judicial district that bears its name.
Marbella is situated on the Mediterranean Sea, between Málaga and the Gibraltar Strait, in the foothills of the Sierra Blanca. The municipality covers an area of 117 square kilometres (45 sq mi) crossed by highways on the coast, which are its main entrances.
In 2012 the population of the city was 140,473 inhabitants, making it the second most populous municipality in the province of Málaga and the eighth in Andalusia. It is one of the most important tourist cities of the Costa del Sol and throughout most of the year is an international tourist attraction, due mainly to its climate and tourist infrastructure.
The city also has a significant archaeological heritage, several museums and performance spaces, and a cultural calendar with events ranging from reggae concerts to opera performances.
The Marbella municipality occupies a strip of land that extends along forty-four kilometres (27 miles) of coastline of the Penibético region, sheltered by the slopes of the coastal mountain range, which includes the Bermeja, Palmitera, Royal, White and Alpujata sub-ranges. Due to the proximity of the mountains to the coast, the city has a large gap between its north and south sides, thus providing views of the sea and mountain vistas from almost every part of the city. The coastline is heavily urbanised; most of the land not built up with golf courses has been developed with small residential areas. Map of Marbella. Marbella is bordered on the north by the municipalities of Istán and Ojén, on the northwest by Benahavís, on the west by Estepona and on the northeast by Mijas. The Mediterranean Sea lies to the south.
Early modern age
On 11 June 1485 the town passed into the hands of the Crown of Castile without bloodshed. The Catholic Monarchs gave Marbella the title of city and capital of the region and made it a realengo (royal protectorate). The Plaza de los Naranjos was built along the lines of Castilian urban design about this time, and some of the historical buildings that surround it, as well. The Fuerte de San Luis de Marbella (Fort of San Luis) was built in 1554 by Charles V. The main door faced north and was protected by a moat with a drawbridge. Today, the ruins of the fort house a museum, and on the grounds are the Iglesia del Santo Cristo de la Vera Cruz (Church of the Holy Christ of the True Cross) and Ermita del Calvario (Calvary Chapel). Sugar cane was introduced to Marbella in 1644, the cultivation of which spread on the Málaga province coast, resulting in the construction of numerous sugar mills, such as Trapiche del Prado de Marbella.
In 1828 Málaga businessman Manuel Heredia founded a company called La Concepción to mine the magnetite iron ores of the Sierra Blanca at nearby Ojén, due to the availability of charcoal made from the trees of the mountain slopes and water from the Verde River, as a ready supply of both was needed for the manufacture of iron. In 1832 the company built the first charcoal-fired blast furnace for non-military use in Spain; these iron-smelting operations ultimately produced up to 75% of the country’s cast iron. In 1860 the Marqués del Duero founded an agricultural colony, now the heart of San Pedro de Alcántara. The dismantling of the iron industry based in the forges of El Angel and La Concepción occurred simultaneously, disrupting the local economy, as much of the population had to return to farming or fishing for a livelihood. This situation was compounded by the widespread crisis of traditional agriculture, and by the epidemic of phylloxera blight in the vineyards, all of which accounted for Marbella’s high unemployment, increase in poverty, and the starvation of many day labourers.
The associated infrastructure built for the installation of the foundry of El Angel in 1871 by the British-owned Marbella Iron Ore Company temporarily relieved the situation, and even made the city a destination for immigrants, increasing its population. However, the company did not survive the worldwide economic crisis of 1893, and closed its doors in that year due to the difficulty of finding a market for the magnetite iron ore removed from its mine.
In the late 19th century, Marbella was a village composed of three parts: the main districts, the Barrio Alto or San Francisco, and the Barrio Nueveo. There were three smaller nuclei arranged around the old ironworks and the farm-model of the colony of San Pedro Alcántara, as well as isolated dwellings in orchards and farms. The general population was divided between a small group of oligarchs and the working people, the middle class being practically non-existent.
In the early decades of the century the first hotels were built: the El Comercial, which opened in 1918, and the Miramar, which opened its doors in 1926. During the Second Republic, Marbella experienced major social changes and contentious political parties mobilized.
As the Spanish Civil War began, Marbella and Casare suffered more anticlerical violence than the rest of western Málaga province. The day after the failed uprising that led to the Civil War, several religious buildings burned in Marbella. Only the walls of the Church of St. Mary of the Incarnation and the Church of San Pedro Alcantara were left standing. With the aid of Fascist Italian troops, Nationalist forces seized Marbella during the first months of the war. It became a haven for prominent Nazis, including Léon Degrelle and Wolfgang Jugler, and Falangist personalities like José Antonio Girón de Velasco and José Banús.
After World War II, Marbella was a small jasmine-lined village with only 900 inhabitants. Ricardo Soriano, Marquis of Ivanrey, moved to Marbella and popularised it among his rich and famous friends. In 1943 he acquired a country estate located between Marbella and San Pedro called El Rodeo, and later built a resort there called Venta y Albergues El Rodeo, beginning the development of tourism in Marbella.
Soriano’s nephew, Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, descendant of a high-ranking aristocratic family (his mother María de la Piedad de Yturbe y Scholtz-Hersmendorff, was the Marquesa de Belvís de las Navas) acquired another estate, Finca Santa Margarita. In 1954 it became the Marbella Club, an international resort of movie stars, business executives and the nobility. Both these resorts would be frequented by members of European aristocratic families with well-recognised names: Bismarck, Rothschild, Thurn und Taxis, Metternich, de Mora y Aragon, de Salamanca or Thyssen-Bornemisza, transforming Marbella into a destination for the international jet set. Trading on Prince Alfonso’s kinship to the royal courts of Europe, the hotel quickly proved to be popular with vacationing members of Europe’s social elites for its casual but discreet luxury. Jaime de Mora y Aragón, a Spanish bon vivant and brother to Fabiola, Queen of the Belgians, as well as Adnan Khashoggi and Guenter Rottman, were frequent visitors. Prince Alfonso’s first marriage was to Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, an Agnelli heiress. Princess Marie-Louise of Prussia (great-granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II) and her husband Count Rudolf “Rudi” von Schönburg–Glauchau, eventually took over the Marbella Club Hotel from Prince Alfonso.
In 1966, Prince Alfonso brought in a Beverly Hills architect and, with the assistance of the Banus family, personal friends of dictator Francisco Franco and who had developed the later-controversial Valle de los Caídos, developed the high-end tourist resort Puerto Banus. The resort opened to much fanfare in 1970. Celebrities in attendance included Franco’s designated successor, Juan Carlos (then Prince of Asturias), Prince Rainier of Monaco and his wife Grace Kelly, and Aga Khan IV; entertainers included Julio Iglesias. In 1973, exiled dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, who held left Cuba with a fortune estimated at between $100 and $300 million and lived extravagantly in various Iberian resorts, died of a heart attack there. Fugitive financier Marc Rich bought a house in Marbella, renounced American and claimed Spanish citizenship during his decades of evading American income taxes, although he spent more time (and died) in Switzerland.
In 1974, Prince Fahd arrived in Marbella from Montecarlo. Until his death in 2005, Prince Fahd was a frequent and profligate guest; Marbella welcomed his retinue of over a thousand people spending petro-dollars. The then-anonymous Osama bin Laden visited on a number of occasions with his family between 1977 and 1988.
In the 1980s, Marbella continued as a popular jet set destination. However, the 1987 kidnapping of Melodie Nakachian, the daughter of local billionaire philanthropist Raymond Nakachian and the Korean singer Kimera, focused less-favorable international media scrutiny on Marbella, even though a police raid ultimately freed her.
From the first democratic elections after the adoption of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, until 1991, all the mayors of Marbella were members of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (‘El Partido Socialista Obrero Español’ or PSOE in Spanish).
In 1991, the builder and president of Atlético Madrid, Jesús Gil y Gil was elected mayor of Marbella by a wide majority. He and his party, the neo-conservative Independent Liberal Group (‘Grupo Independiente Liberal’ or GIL in Spanish), promised to fight petty crime as well as the region’s declining prestige. Actor Sean Connery became Marbella’s international spokesman, although Connery later ended this business relationship after Gil used his image in an election campaign. Gil’s administration facilitated a building boom. However, critics complained about disregard for the existing urban plan, market speculation and environmental predation by developers; the regional Andalusian government suspended some development. Gil despised town-hall formalities, instead ruling from his office at the Club Financiero, and cultivated a maverick image. The PSOE and the People’s Party criticized Gil even at the national level, but voters re-elected him–and Spanish celebrities continued to spend summers there. Gil’s political party, GIL, also proved popular in other tourist-dependent Costa del Sol towns like Estepona, and even across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla.
In 1999, Gil was convicted of embezzling public funds and falsifying public documents. Gil died in 2004, and his party remained in power until 2006, but related scandals continue to this day, as discussed below.