THE first time I heard about Estepona was exactly a week and a half before I boarded a flight to move here and begin my expat life, albeit at a slightly younger age than most of the other Brits who up sticks in search of their Spanish dream.
To say I didn’t know what to expect is a bit of an understatement and it took me a few months to eventually realise I lived in the best town on the Costa del Sol.
As it was too cold to swim in the sea when I arrived, I channelled my energy into evening runs along the promenade – which were such a delight for someone accustomed to wasting two hours each day on the London underground.
I often stopped at the edge of town to skim rocks out towards the Mediterranean and look fixedly at the candy pink sun rays splashing over Gibraltar, as if I was turning over the world in my mind.
What I was actually thinking was how great I must look, a lone wolf from a far-away land, John Smith on the look-out for Pocahontas.
I spent much of my first week exploring this beautiful town, discovering new plazas daily and always marvelling at the incredible volume of flowers colouring the streets.
But my first Friday night in Estepona had been the light at the end of the tunnel from the start, billed by my flatmates as the night to surpass all nights, the hour to surpass all hours.
It was ‘happy hour’. At the port.
To Esteponians it really does seem to be the big one, my flatmate knew half of the people down at the port and if he didn’t know them he went about changing that.
The first bar – Reinaldo’s – had drinkers spilling out into the port entrance and packed like sardines inside, but I was assured it was unusually quiet because it was winter and the end of the month.
We drank bottles of beer. “Why do the English drink pints?” questioned my flatmate and carer for the night.
“It is not fresh when you get near the end, we drink bottles and just get more of them.”
Later, my decision to try a different beer from the one I first chose was met with confusion, fear and borderline mass hysteria.
“We drink the same beer all night, it is not good to change.”
As one bar’s happy hour ended we ventured deeper into the port to another hour of pure, unadulterated happiness, knocking back bottles of lager and putting the world to rights in an over-confident form of Spanglish.
I used group chats as a chance to perfect my best ‘I understand the Spanish words you are saying’ face and carry on sipping my beer in silence.
When the watch read one minute past happy hour, we decided to fill up on classic night-out fare, the Andalucian equivalent of chips and garlic mayo. So refuelled with calzone, chips, allioli and more beer, we headed back to the port for more hours of happiness.
Needless to say, that wasn’t the last time I tasted the delights of Estepona port’s Friday night happy hours.
But it was when I was driving home one night, the first time ever in a foreign country, that I finally felt like I actually live here, as opposed to awkwardly clinging to the edge like the filmy skin on over-microwaved hot chocolate.
With the long, straight, car-free road laid out before me and the moonlit Mediterranean hokey-cokey’ing on my right, Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn struck up on the radio. No matter which road I’m driving or which body of water I have for company, when Natalie’s all out of faith, I am in heaven.
So to the tune of one of the all-time classics, I made my way back to my Spanish home, to eat Spanish food and chat to Spanish flatmates about Spanish things.
My first authentic tapas experience came when I third-wheeled down to Tapa Cero on Calle Real with my flatmate – who by this point I can probably begin calling friend – and his ‘novia’.
We went to watch the Malaga v Sevilla game, the Andalucian derby, the Spurs-Arsenal clash of the Costa del Football world.
Beer was priced steeply at €1.50 with just one free bowl of tapas thrown in with each drink. I first opted for a generous portion of octopus, then a sort-of something-else type thing, unpronounceable, odd-looking, but delicious. It quickly became apparent we were there for the tapas and not the football, and I equally quickly regretted having sandwiches earlier in the evening.
Chicken and sweet onion rolls and a Russian salad later we called it a night, leaving before the game’s frenetic finish and missing Malaga’s unbelievable 3-2 win.
Three months later and Tapa Cero has become my local, the sea has become my swimming pool rather than just something to be looked at and my command of the Spanish language is still staggering forward, like climbing a mountain but the summit is still far above the clouds.
I still enter Estepona’s cobbled old town streets with a resigned acceptance that I will get lost, but with a certain smugness in the knowledge that I accidentally ended up in the Costa del Sol’s last remaining gem.