Text by Vivion O’Kelly – Photography by Kevin Horn
Great restaurants in the village and wonderful mountain trails around it, all located within a short car journey of Marbella and the coastal area just south of it. This is the exquisite Benahavís, and to say it’s worth a visit is an understatement.
The Moors may have long gone, but their presence is still evident in the beautiful mountain village of Benahavís, from the name itself and the names of the three rivers that flow through its territory to the layout of the narrow streets and the design of many of the old houses in the village centre. It has the distinction of being one of only two mountain villages in the immediate interior of the Marbella coastal strip that is not on the road to somewhere else, the other being Istán, and for most people living in this part of Southern Spain, Benahavís means the best selection of top quality restaurants in any place outside of Marbella itself. In fact, the village has the highest concentration of high class restaurants in the region.
Benahavís means Son of Havis: Bin al Havis, an 11th-century Moorish prince who reigned in Montemayor Castle, the remains of which stand to this day, with its Queen’s Tower still largely intact, at one and a half kilometres from the present town centre as the crow flies. The strategic importance of this fortification can be seen by standing there on a clear day and looking out over the continent of Africa and more than 100 kilometres of Spanish coastline below. The location of a high watchtower being, by definition, a place where water does not flow, the village was built where it now stands. It once belonged to Marbella, but that changed a very long time ago, in the 16th century.
The Catholic Monarchs gained possession of the village, along with others in the Marbella area, just seven years before Granada fell, and the municipality’s first mayor was, curiously, the Count of Ribadeo, a small town on the border between Galicia and Asturias. Dispute over ownership of the municipality continued, however, for another three and a half centuries. Time moves slow in some parts of the world.
The present population of Benahavís is about 8,000 people, more than half of them foreign and forty percent of the foreigners being British. This may suggest a distinct British flavour in the streets and restaurants of the village, but this is far from the case: the kind of foreigner who chooses to live in Benahavís is the kind for whom integration in the local community is of prime importance. If ever an example of peaceful, friendly and respectful coexistence between nationalities were needed, Benahavís is it. This is good news for the future owners of the Bright properties being developed in a privileged part of the municipality, far from the hustle and bustle of the coast but close to it at the same time.
The old road, back in the day, was a would-be rally driver’s delight, winding its way up the Guadalmina gorge through magnificent wooded landscape to the 500-metre-high village. The road has since vastly improved, making the drive less exciting but just as pleasurable. The entrance is now along a sophisticated avenue with plenty of greenery and flowers on both sides, and the heart of the village has changed little over the years. It used to be a place with more than its fair share of bars and restaurants, and it still is, and it used to be home to many artists and sculptors, and it still is. The biggest change over the past few decades is the number of upmarket residential developments close to, but not in, the village centre.
The location of the village is exceptional, sitting as it does in the middle of a large municipality of mountains, river valleys and wooded areas, with at least seven of the top golf courses in the entire region close at hand, and only about fifteen minutes by car from the coast and all it has to offer. I would like to say that I enjoyed walking on some of the many mountain tracks leading, it seemed, in all directions from the village in days gone by, but the truth is less glorious: it was in the company of a work colleague, and we did it in a four-by-four, churning up the pristine landscape as we went. But some things have changed for the better, and now, one of life’s real delights, free as the air we breathe, is to ramble on foot through the kind of still-virgin landscape that local residents know all about. There is a relative abundance of water along the way, whichever way one goes, and it was not unusual to see villagers splashing about in parts of the rivers that formed small pools in the valleys. Another popular option is to ride these tracks on horseback. Other activities include canyoning in the Guadalmina river through waterfalls and plunge pools. A list of the best hiking trails in the locality, with details of distances, difficulties and so on, in English, can be found on Wikiloc.
August means feria time in Benahavís, and numerous cultural and musical events take place there throughout the summer, but for obvious reasons, the Town Hall has published none so far this year. On the other hand, none is needed: the true value of Benahavís is itself and its location, ideal for what we are allowed to do in these difficult times.
It may also now be especially relevant to look at the origins of the Virgen del Rosario, the patron saint of the village. Many years ago, it is said, a cholera epidemic ravaged Andalucia, and the people of Benahavís decided to move the statue of the virgin to a safer place. The cart in which she was carried by mules, however, slowed to a stop with supernaturally increased weight as it passed over a puddle, so the mules had no option but to take it back to its place in the village church. The village was saved from cholera, and that, they claimed, was a miracle.
Perhaps not miraculous, but almost so, is the quality of food on offer in the many restaurants in the village. The culinary reputation dates from the start of the seventies, and has been built upon ever since. Fish and seafood feature on any menu, of course, because the town is so close to the coast, but also on offer is a wide range of mountain produce, such as rabbit, suckling pig, veal and venison, and that is not counting the exquisite international restaurants one can find there. It comes as little surprise to learn that there is also a Hospitality School in the village, named the Hispano-Arab School of the Mediterranean Diet.
The Sunday market is a big draw for many people living on the coast, not least because it takes place on a Sunday morning, allowing visitors to spend the morning at the market before heading off to one of the village’s restaurants for lunch.
All in all, Benahavís is one of the most complete destinations of its kind in Southern Spain. To say it has it all may be a cliché, but it is true, nevertheless, of this wonderful Andalucian village.
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