GLEAMING like a white pearl in the hills above Marbella, Benahavis is the crown jewel of Andalucia’s classic white villages for so many reasons.
Most famously, it’s the richest municipality in the region and the second wealthiest per capita in all Spain with average income pushing €29,000. And no wonder, with the likes of visitors Hugh Grant, Rod Stewart and Cristiano Ronaldo contributing to the town hall coffers.
The village is second home to a host of billionaires who have bought property in neighbouring La Zagaleta, Andalucia’s swankiest private urbanisation. Vladimir Putin is reportedly one – although the Kremlin has never confirmed it.
Where celebrities lead, classy dining follows and today there are so many top-rated restaurants in the village it’s been dubbed the Dining Room of the Costa del Sol.
But not all its riches are counted in cash. Its wild scenery, jaw-dropping views and natural rock pools watered by the crystal clear Guadalmina river are among a wealth of natural attractions that are totally free of charge.
Lungfulls of pure mountain air are also on the house although it’s a huff and a puff up cobbled streets to the top of this best-kept pueblo hung with painted flower pots, and ornamented with stylish street lanterns, fountains and viewing points.
On Sundays the effort is doubly worth it for the flea market which was in full flow when we arrived. Set in the grounds of the chapel, stalls selling art, tribal masks, household nicknacks and recycled clothes stretch in a landscape of bric-a-brac as far as the eye can see. It’s worth a rummage – you could find some of Rod’s old cast-offs! There are even food trucks for al-fresco dining if you feel peckish.
Walking around the village is a free history tour that will take you back to Moorish times, evidenced by the winding streets of this former Arabic stronghold crowned by 11th Century Montemayor castle, overlooking vast swathes of the Costa del Sol.
The village takes its name from its first wealthy resident, Havis (Benahavis means son of Havis in Arabic), a Moorish prince who once ruled from the castle. But it wasn’t always a good place to live. The fortress was reconquered by the Catholic monarchs around the 15th century but war broke out between Benahavis and Marbella and raged on for 350 years until the village gained its independence.
Although several kilometres from the coast in the foothills of the Serrania de Ronda, water babies will love Benahavis as the Rio Guadalmina is one of its coolest natural attractions. Take a river ramble along its banks, go wild swimming in one of the deep rock pools or try canyoning along the Canon de Las Angosturas. Not for the faint-hearted, the 50-metre descent starts at Charca de las Mozas – a popular picnic spot south of the water tower roundabout that’s become the unofficial swimming baths. Dive in – there’s no charge!
Parts of the river were channelled by the Arabs in order to supply farmhouses and orchards. These routes have since been adapted for hiking with the addition of a suspension bridge over the Angosturas canyon, opening up the Sendero Acequia del Guadalmina, an easy family walking route of around four kilometres. But everywhere you look, there are new trails to be discovered.
“You can walk for ages here,” enthuses resident Charlotte Wakerley. “And I especially enjoy spending time at the rock pool or at the reservoir.”
Present day Benahavis really only began to take shape within the last 60 years as one local reminisced. “When I left the village in the 1950’s it was very small with only around 300 residents…on my return after about 60 years, the town had grown to around 8,000!” One local celebrity who helped to put the village on the Google map is Scottish sculptor David Marshall whose work graces many high end homes and can be seen around the village.
“My father was the first foreigner to arrive here in 1973 when he started working from a small workshop,” explains his daughter Kristi who works at the David Marshall gallery in Plazoleta Camilo Jose Cela. “He helped to design the small Aldea complex along with the gallery after he arrived.” Marshall headed to Benahavis for the tranquility, away from the bright lights of the coast. Among his many commissions, he now designs the awards for celebrity Eva Longoria’s charity foundation, along with golfing trophies. With the nine golf courses surrounding Benahavis, it’s a thriving business venture.
But the entire village is an open air art gallery, littered with poetic quotes from Shakespeare, Blake and Sabines to educate and inspire walkers as they wander through the winding streets. Camilo Jose Cela plaza is named after the Spanish author and Nobel prize winner, highlighting the local affection for literary figures.
However, with all its wealth of natural beauty and designer charm, it’s the gastronomic artistry that attracts hungry visitors in droves.
This tiny village boasts a cornucopia of top restaurants – Trip Advisor lists over 100. Your only problem is deciding where to eat. I suggest starting with a well-deserved cafe con leche after the winding drive through the Guadalmina gorge where you can flick through the list on your phone and pick your place. My first choice was Las Canas Viejas for a rhubarb and apple crumble – not the typical order for a food connoisseur but sometimes we expat Brits crave a sweet taste of home. The restaurant fits the bill on the savoury front too with its full English breakfasts and traditional Sunday roasts.
An evening cena at La Escalera de Manolo Espada was also on the ‘must visit’ list handed to me by OP editor Jon Clarke and he wasn’t wrong. I chose from the vegetarian menu (although the meat dishes also looked divine), opting for mushroom croquettes followed by spinach and melted cheese crepe. With entertainment from a Mariachi band followed by an impromptu piano performance, it went down a treat. Señor Manolo himself insisted I finish with a chupito while he explained how he personally decorated the alluring interior, graced with an arty mural of flower pots.
That evening I chatted to Marianne and Jerry who moved to the area on the strength of one dinner chez Manolos. “We came for a meal and loved the mountain feel and the walks, the air is easier to breathe here,” said Marianne. Jerry appreciated the choice of tapas bars and lack of tacky souvenir shops.
The chance to do a bit of celebrity spotting is, of course, the icing on the cake. Tony Blair owns a pad nearby (allegedly), and the wealthy Goldsmith family are also thought to be frequent visitors.
Mostly, these famous residents keep a low profile, helicoptering back and forth to their palatial La Zagaleta mansions where the tight security lockdown buys them the privacy they seek. But even that is a privilege occasionally worth sacrificing for a moment in Benahavis – and for a reminder, perhaps, that the best things in life are free.