It wasn’t only the Romans, Moors, Christians and a well-connected German Prince who shaped the resort city of Marbella. A captain of industry, a visionary agriculturist and an aristocrat with a bizarre sexual fetish are among others who had intriguing parts to play, as Belinda Beckett reports.

If Marbella history had worked out differently, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe might have gone straight to the nearest garage when his Rolls Royce broke down in Marbella, and the jet set holiday playground might never have been built. Incredible though it may seem, one century before the ‘chance arrival’ of its ‘founding father’, Marbella was in the vanguard of Spain’s Industrial Revolution, producing 75 per cent of its iron ore.

Had that enterprise prospered, the Prince would surely have taken one look at the landscape of slag heaps and blast furnaces and moved on. Providentially, fate took a different turn and, like all good fairytales, The Prince fell in love and stayed on to open the Marbella Club, which marks its 60th birthday this year.

With its landmark La Concha mountain backed by a blue screen of cloudless skies, Marbella had a similarly bewitching effect on others, through the ages. ‘Location – location – location’, to quote the well-worn realtor’s mantra, dictated its history then, as now. Sheltered by mountains and watered by rivers, with a microclimate perfect for cultivation and an ocean teeming with fish, almost every civilisation in history was eager to capitalise on nature’s cornucopia.

Conquered by all the usual suspects, Marbella also benefitted from these ‘benevolent invaders’ who left their mark in positive as well as negative ways. Inhabited since the Stone Age, vestiges of a Phoenician fish factory near Los Monteros, and a Carthaginian version near Puerto Banús, suggest that Marbella earned a good living from garum, a fish sauce that was the caviar of its day. The fossilised shells of murex sea snails, which produced a purple die that was all the rage in Rome, are also liberally scattered through the municipality’s subsoil.

A Roman ‘Des Res’

Evidence that people were building fine summer homes here long before Taylor Woodrow was unearthed as recently as 1960, with the excavation of the Roman villa at Rio Verde near the Coral Beach Hotel, now restored and open to the public: an almost perfectly-preserved black and white mosaic patio floor whose depictions of amphorae, kitchen utensils and tables heaped with meats and fruits provide a fascinating insight into Roman life…

Words Belinda Beckett – Photography Count Rudi von Schönburg

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