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Beyond the Costa del Sol

An independent traveller's idea of a nightmare, the Costa del Sol is, on first glance at least, brash, overdeveloped and decidedly lacking in culture. However, away from the high rise blocks, fish and chip shops and Irish pubs, you'll also find authentic white towns clinging to the side of mountains, ruined Moorish castles, world class museums and stunning scenery.

Thanks to a glut of flights, accommodation options and package deals, a visit to the Costa del Sol is a relatively cheap and easy holiday option and once there, you've got all the best elements of Andalucía on your doorstep; just avoid the coast and enjoy a road trip around the some of the low key gems this often overlooked area has to offer.

Málaga itself is well worth a visit as this modern city has a handsome historic core with a striking, unfinished Gothic cathedral, a labyrinth of twisting, narrow laneways, a Roman amphitheatre and an 11th-century castle lording over it all. The city also plays host to a superb Picasso Museum, some of Spain's best tapas bars and the unmissable Mercado Aratarazanas with its endless rows of fruit and veg, fish, cheese and animated stall holders.

Marbella, west of Málaga, is the coast's classiest resort and its casco antiguo, the old town, is also worth a wander with its winding streets, quirky shops, bars and restaurants. Don't miss the wonderful collection at the Museo Ralli which includes work by Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Henry Moore and Marc Chagall.

From Marbella, head inland up the wildly scenic and circuitous mountain road to Ronda, stopping at some traditional towns en route. Despite being quite close to the coast, Ojén has remained remarkably unscathed by the building craze along the shoreline. Hemmed in by mountains, the cobbled streets of the old town are punctuated with trickling fountains and balconies overflowing with flowers. From here it's short hop to the Serrania de Ronda, a untamed nature reserve where you can still see wildcats, ibex and eagles along the many trails that criss cross the rocky but often forested terrain.

Tiny Monda, further along the C-337 has a bohemian air and is home to a striking castle which sits high above the town. The castle perches on the site of a Moorish fortress but it is a more modern creation now operating as a luxury hotel.

Sleepy Tolox, at the confluence of two rivers, is a historic town set between the steep hills of the Sierra de las Nieves Nature Reserve, a spectacular place with an impressive array of wildlife. Tolox has a charming but laid-back character and life here revolves around the town's health spa famed for its treatments for respiratory illnesses.

Continuing on from Tolox you'll reach Ronda, a charming town in a spectacular setting either side of the El Tajo gorge. One of Spain's oldest towns, Ronda dates back to the 9th century and over the years has been a magnet for artists and writers from Ernest Heplace for a leisurely stroll with plenty of craft shops, bars and restaurants as well as those stunning views.

Return to the coast via Gaucín and Casares, two small white towns tumbling down the mountain sides. Gaucín offers sweeping views right out to sea to Gibraltar and, on a clear day, to North Africa, and is another popular spot for artists and craftspeople. Narrow medieval streets wind between the white-washed buildings offering refreshing shade on a hot day. You'll often find eagles flying overhead here as well as kestrels, and plaques around the town will help you identify the birds commonly seen here.

Just further on towards the coast is the pretty town of Casares, founded by Julius Caesar who was lured here by the chance of a cure for his skin ailments in the sulphurous local waters. Uncommercialised, and for most of the year, decidedly sleepy, Casares offers an authentic glimpse of life in an Andaluican hill town. The views here are breathtaking and the quiet streets are a meeting place for the townspeople who chat on doorsteps and in the main square. Head up hill from the plaza to find the town's ruined yet still impressive medieval Arab fortress with its stunning views or head out of town on one of the signed walks leading into the surrounding hills.

Descend to the coast and drive east past Estepona to San Pedro where you'll find the turning for Benahavis. A few miles up this road you can pull in and join the locals for a swim in a beautiful canyon to cool off after your day exploring.

This trip was made possible with the help of Using their booking system I was thrilled to find cars filtered by fuel policies so you could avoid those costly 'return empty' deals. They also offered comprehensive advice on local operators and updated requirements following UK driving licence changes. It made all the difference when arriving late at night in a foreign country with three very small and very tired boys!

Malaga - Marbella 54km

Marbella - Ojén 8.5km

Ojén - Monda 10.5km

Monda- Tolox 21km

Tolox - Ronda 51km

Ronda - Gaucín 39.5km

Gaucín - Casares 17km

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Etain O'Carroll

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