Paella in the Costa Del Sol's Beautiful Coastal Town of Nerja
"I was in the area, I thought I might pop in, Sorry I didn’t let you know. You could have prepared yourself better, but I’m here now so let’s get on with it."
Politeness is a funny thing when writers travel to places that aren’t necessarily their cup of tea. I was told of the most picturesque town on the Costa del sol. It probably is, as it's truly lovely, and I was most pleasantly surprised by the overall ambience and 'wellkeptitude' of the place too. The beaches are varied and beautiful, the bars & restaurants plentiful and the shopping strips provide more than just the tourist trimmings and traps expected with this part of the Spanish coast. What had mainly brought me here was my research. When planning my trips I always like to pack in as much as possible and if excursions can be found, I’m ready to act - Jump on a train or hop a bus or do whatever one does to get in a taxi these days, .... especially if it involves food, and my research, and a little folklore, had told me Nerja did. We were staying north of Nerja in Granada for 5 days, primarily to relax and although this turned out to be no time at all, a trip to the coast for the day seemed ideal, and after much trawling the net, reading travel guides and reputable newspaper travelogues I chose Nerja. Not just because of its apparent beauty but also because it's one of those things you must do... to eat paella on the beach in Nerja.... and for little money. "If you haven't eaten 'all you can eat paella' on the beach in Nerja you haven't been born" they said. For those brought up on UK long weekends spent at the seaside in England and Wales, apparently it was akin to licking a lolly at Llandudno, wolfing a winkle at Whitstable or slapping on sunscreen in St.Helens….. Isle of White, not the one in Lancashire, which I don’t think is on the sea, though it might be, so let’s say Scarborough instead….. to be on the safe side, or Skegness, even better. “Whatever you do, you have to try the paella on the beach in Nerja. It’s cooked over wood and is delicious…. and it’s all you can eat.” You must, really.” Well we did, and more on that later.
Firstly....ish, Nerja is beautiful. Sandy coves, brightly coloured blooms set against pristine white stucco buildings, clear blue waters and similar skies make it a perfect setting for a Spanish beach holiday. The low rise building laws in the town also mean that it hasn't shot skywards and lost any of it's original charm. Modern hotels and holiday rentals having to nestle into the rolling hillside, and nod courteously towards the Mediterranean Sea. It's not only a good idea to ensure the build's stay close to the ground for aesthetic reasons either; it also keeps the holiday-maker numbers manageable too. Over-crowding is not a particular favourite of mine, and this lower summer population is certainly another selling point of Nerja to 'old school' travellers like me.
Getting there - Easy peasy, and keeping to the paella theme, lemon squeezey. Just caught an ALSA bus from Granda to Nerja for about 20 Euros. The drive is great, along sweeping Spanish highways, through the Sierra Nevada and then along the very picturesque coast road of the Costa del Sol arriving 100 minutes later. After a quick head-bobbing and dribbly nap you’ll be ready for the short walk into town and a bit of an explore. After the usual outer ring rubbishy bit (squalor is too harsh a word for these areas just outside of the centre historicos of most beautiful towns), you soon find yourself walking along the very pleasant and sun-canopied pedestrian streets of the old town. A quick drink should be taken in one of the many bars here, as it will fortify you for the finding of the important stuff later on.
The free tapas was excellent in several of these places by the way. Soon you get to the delightful main square and the promenaded headland that juts forward splitting two of Nerjas primary beaches. Playa de Nerja to one side, did look particularly lovely and had surprisingly few bodies on it. The beaches from here head off in two directions but our goal was the furthest of 4, Burriana Beach and the famous paella at Chiringuito Ayo. Further refreshments should be taken in any one of the pleasant cafes that line the square around the Catholic Church. The walk to Burriana Beach is a no brainer. You just follow the coastal line but along another very pretty street, the Calle Hernando de Carabao, mostly pedestrianised also with many restaurants and bars running its length. Some, on the waterside, have exquisite little balconies overlooking the med and sandy coves there along and are well worth a quick Cerveza or 2. In retrospect, I would like to recommend 4 or 5.... large ones.
After passing yet another fine looking beach, the Playa de Carabao, and a slight detour away from the coastal line, you finally descend an steep S bend on to the beach at Burriana. Here you are greeted with a much busier beach, with sun loungers, beach volley ball courts, para-gliders and every other beach activity imaginable.
Behind these is a very beachy path lined with the bars and restaurants that serve the happily tanning beach community. This strip itself lies parallel to the road which houses yet more eateries, bars and shops. It’s the classic and often ideal set up for a beach vacation. Our destination lay at the far end of the beach itself. It couldn’t easily be missed as the thick plumes of woodsmoke acted as a beacon to those in search of a decent feed and 'all you can eat paella'. We passed several other places that offered the same sort of thing, stopping here and there to take it all in and to gauge the differences between them. One offered the same paella as Chiringuito Ayo but for four times the price. That must be some paella as nobody had told me about that one.
I have subsequently checked on the infernal Trip Advisor and the jury seemed to be out on which might be the best but that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. We arrived at our destination hungry and with a few glasses in our bellies, just to heighten our appetite, and as we were slightly earlier than the usual lunchtime rush here in Spain, we gained a table on the front, overlooking the beach with no problems at all. The paella had gone up in price this season to 7.50 Euros. The menu was clearly for a tourist market, which was to be expected. 'Egg and Chips' was at the head of the English Version. I can only assume that it was at the head of the German and French menus also, just in case they like to copy Brits abroad while on vacation or not to be outdone. The tables and chairs were plastic as previously advised - No problem there at all, this was the beach. Housed on sand - ditto, and with simple disposable tablecloths, it was exactly as I'd envisaged and hoped for. I was later to find out more than ever as to why disposable table cloths are such a good idea here. At the far end of the line of tables 'Insert Name Here', as I shall call him if I can’t be bothered to read my notes to find out his name, has been serving up his paella on this spot for 30 years and really knows his stuff. With three massive paella pans on the go at the same time, and in different stages of cooking, he certainly lorded it over the entire proceedings, and with this, the smoke wasn’t the only thing filling the air. The smell was an absolute delight.
Soon the famous paella was ordered, as was some grilled Swordfish, along with some local wine and some beers. The paella was received favourably and the swordfish was huge and fresh and lovely. The waiters knew their stuff and were very proficient at getting the food out to where it was required efficiently and with great haste.
We got it right as far as the timing was concerned too, as the place was soon beginning to fill up. You would think that the tables near the toilets would be the least favoured but as the afternoon wore on, it turned out that all the tables were near the toilets. We were wondering if 'seconds' or refills were needed or going just a bit far, but we were assured that all it required was for us to get off our butts and go see 'Insert Name Here' and our plates would be happily replenished.
By now the beach was clearing and the pedlars were setting up their low slung pavement stalls. If you wanted a fake Spanish football kit from two seasons ago with Mossi or Ranoldo’s name on the back, you'll have come to right place. Handbags were popular too. Fucci and Gendi’s abounded and at these prices, genuine bargains such as these couldn’t be overlooked…. The delightful customer service of having them paraded over our lunches only added to the whole premium shopping experience at hand. Soon came the street performers, fresh from Cirque de Soliel and Broadway - I never tire of bongo drums and Tarzan screams whilst sipping on a glass of 2019 Rioja. It was time for a post lunch dip in the crisp early summer Med. It was bracing to say the least but right on the money. The beach crowd was varied, the beach itself clean and organised and there was a general air of contentment amongst the sunbathers, sand players and swimmers alike. After a brief dry off on the sand, we returned to our table at Ayo. Now, I don’t need to recommend this place. 'Insert Name Here' doesn’t need my help. It will continue to run and run and that's all good, but it just doesn’t need to be recommended. It just is what it is. A cheap feed of a local dish made freshly and adequately, served quickly and professionally on or nearly on a popular beach. We can save everybody’s time by never mentioning it again. What is there to lose by trying it if you’re there? Absolutely nothing. By all means go ahead. What's to lose by going somewhere else? Nothing again. It isn’t a 'must do' by any stretch of the imagination. it's a 'might do if I'm there.' at best. At the end of the day, it's a couple of prawns, a chicken knuckle and a plate of fish stock soaked rice and Pimentón. The cost to make this dish would be negligible and to turn into a bucket list idea of the last meal is over egging the pudding by some degree. If you are on holiday in Nerja and are near the beach, go have a meal. If you want paella, go here or somewhere else but please, please, please, don’t go here expressly because its been turned into something worthwhile by an over-exaggerator, or a super duper over-exaggerator par excellence.
The restaurant crowd was now changing too. And by changing, I mean changing. A Spanish couple, two tables down, were changing their ..... how can I put this delicately? their shit-ridden child right on the tabletop. Amongst the diners merrily eating their 'all you can eat'. Now you know why disposable table cloths are such good idea here. This intimate act of impersonal hygiene seemed to go on for ages and as I had my back to the action, thank goodness, it was the best I could do to keep a straight face as I watched the horror form in both my fellow diners and amongst the other guests who were all beginning to notice the change in the weather. There were grimaces and knee jerks in every direction from those 'witness to the execution'. As tissues were tossed and aromas released the mood was now very dark indeed. As were the tissues. With this, the cafe filled. Sea-sodden g-string bathing suits were hanging from the grossly contorted gussets of well seasoned beachgoers as the brushed by searching for a vacant table, and it was far past seaside fun and pleasure now. It had turned into something far more macabre and ultimately nightmarish. Water was dripping from bits that shouldn’t drip, especially this close to food. This wasn’t the dressing I’d ordered. Other 'bits' fell out, dropping like guilty little men from gold lamé gallows. Peeling skin also fell, like pink snowflakes from an even pinker, bitter sky, fluttering down like radioactive ash on to the gingham paper tablecloths. Swollen bodies catching their breath from underneath last years swimwear can be seen in every direction. Back in the day, folks used to dress for dinner. I don’t expect that by any stretch of the imagination, this is the beach after all. It should be relaxed, but surely, surely, a sarong, or two sarongs tied in the middle with duct tape, or a T-shirt and shorts, or a printed cotton tunic, a poolside wrap (not a hotel kebab) or a silk kaftan, a boiler suit and a balaclava…… the options are endless. Surely just climbing out of the sea and standing with your fluorescent arse hanging out and dripping its … 'dripping' into our wine isn’t the way forward. There is something to be said for being proud of our bodies, especially in later age. The Med is great for seeing the elderly have their day in the sun and joining the youthful and 'ripped' strut their stuff amongst the sun loungers and palm trees of the Costa Del Sol, but to wear something that I'd used to cut cheese with, and at 87 isn’t my thing, not my thing at all. And call me pompous, go ahead, but when I’m eating? … No matter what the price, nothing is that reasonable. The whole experience had turned and it was only getting worse. I understand that we all need to 'holiday'. That we all need to relax in our own ways and that some places are more suitable to some than to others, but there needs to be a level, a minimum base standard so that families, couples and groups can at least enjoy themselves knowing what they’re in for. We then moved on very hastily indeed, after something that I cannot describe on this forum occurred on a sun-lounger only 20 feet from our table. That story will have to wait for another day, dear reader, and well after the watershed too, but trust me, my hands are tied on this one. We gathered our belongings with great speed, the money was left and we fled, as if our lives depended on it... Like a maddened 'Insert Name Here' was running after us with a meat cleaver in his raging Pimentón stained hand.
It was certainly time for a stiff cocktail and we soon found the place only moments away. The crowd was altogether different - the food more modern and 'refined' and the crowd a little more laid back than the nappy changers et al back at Ayo. Our smiles quickly returned as did some conversation with our fellow travellers. A taxi was ordered and we were soon on our way back to the bus for the long ride home along the coast and up through the Sierra Nevada. A quick beer at a bar by the bus stop and we were gone. I listened to music all the way home as others slept. I watched the beautiful scenery pass by my window and with all things considered, was very pleased with our day. I enjoyed the goings on at Ayo and on the waterfront. I like things happening, especially the unexpected. I can live with that,.... I live for it in fact. It was a good day. I could cross off Nerja - We had made the effort. It was eyeopening and rewarding, enjoyable, and I had got all I needed from the experience. Once again though, it is very hard to know who to trust when researching for a holiday. You need to know your reviewer. You need to be able to relate to them and to trust them. Some of you will disagree with my report on Nerja. Please do, but for those that trust me, trust my eye and trust my judgement, don’t bother. Go somewhere else for your paella. Better still, go somewhere that serves great paella and just be content with the one serving .... and the linen tablecloths.
Summing up; Nerja is very pretty, very pretty indeed, and I could easily spend more time there quite happily, but ultimately, my thoughts gathered on the trip home, were that I couldn't handle the crowd. I know these things could easily be seen as just a one off, but there was just too much ....‘toomuchicity’. Too much noise, too much 'cheese', too much holiday maker, too much 'me' not enough 'us'. I do prefer a place where fewer people are, doing fewer things and with more courtesy, more consideration. It was all a bit …. Costa del Sol. The jewel in the crown it might me but I’m not a great fan of bling.