The workers teem over the building site that suddenly appeared on the overgrown river-bed which my holiday cottage overlooks. They like to get an early start before the merciless Andalusian sun starts roasting their leathery hides. A couple of hours before breakfast a raucous but not unappealing cacophony of tuned power tools fills the air. The whine of the electric saw is particularly poignant at that time of the morning, reminding me of someone trying to perform the oeuvre of Poulenc using the contents of the Black & Decker catalogue. Next there is the eerie silence of the siesta during which I recline on the day bed in my rooftop office savouring the first Havana of the day and gazing out at La Concha, the local mountain, the lower portion of which will soon be obscured by double-deluxe luxury apartments (executed in the traditional PM3, three-floor Pueblo Mediterranean-style, with all those rustic touches like underfloor heating, on-terrace plunge-pools and underground parking). In the early evening, the sun setting behind a forest of cranes, the cicadas fill in the aural gap between the downing of power tools and the resumption of the dusk-till-dawn service at the nearby niterie, La Notte, a fusion of the Ivy and Tramp. Having read to my children about the siege of Troy - we have just got to the bit where Achilles gets a brand-new suit of armour from Hephaestus - I sit on the terrace, the final cigar of the day smouldering in the ashtray, and experience about 24 minutes of that extremely rare commodity, douceur de vivre. I turn in for the night, convinced that Marbella - cranes, pueblo-style penthouses, vigorous nightlife and all - is indeed the location of the original Garden of Eden.
Shortly before moving the family to southern Europe for the summer, I bumped into Dr Simon Thurley at the races. Thurley has just taken over as head honcho at English Heritage and is spending part of the summer writing another of his scintillating books about old buildings - together with that other modern Pevsner, Clive Aslet, he is in danger of making architectural history the next big literary movement after chick lit. I suggested that he come down to Marbella where some of the buildings are at least 20 years old. I was of course being facetious: there are some parts of the Marbella Club which date back to the 1950s. Moreover, the club's founder, Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, is still around, as is his sidekick Count Rudi Schonburg, a genial figure who can be seen decorating the nocturnal scene in his striking guayaberas. Count Rudi is a walking Almanach de Gotha. He is married to Princess Marie-Louise of Prussia, and if there is a grand Euro-wedding or funeral taking place you can count on Rudi's presence. It is people like him who lend seasoning to the social diet of this charming little fishing village. For instance, one afternoon a year or two ago at the Marbella Club, I caught sight of Rod Stewart of pop-music fame; then in the evening, strolling through the jasmine-scented grounds, I encountered Rudi, who introduced me to an old friend of his who happened to be Otto von Habsburg. As well as demonstrating Marbella's catholic appeal, this allows me to recount my favourite Habsburg story which, I am assured, is not apocryphal. It was early evening at the European Parliament and the bar was emptying, so that MEPs and their friends could go to watch an important football match. Apparently someone asked Otto if he would be watching the Austria-Hungary match. He responded by asking, 'Who are we playing?'
Last night I experienced the rare feeling of pride in my mechanical ability. I was driving out to meet a former backgammon pro who had known Obolensky, Magriel and other players of note, when Jean Pierre Martel's vintage Rolls-Royce started billowing smoke and steam from under the bonnet. Martel is the area's only aesthete; a friend of the late Gerald Brenan and the diarist Frances Partridge, he is a sort of cultivated cross between Howard Hughes and Des Esseintes of Huysmans's A Rebours. Like me he shares a weakness for old and beautiful cars, and a similar inability to fix them when they go wrong. To my immense surprise I diagnosed an empty radiator, which we filled from a roadside trough and continued on our journey. However, my link with the spirits of the Hon. C.S. Rolls and Sir Henry Royce evaporated this morning when I phoned Martel and found that his car had erupted in a disconcertingly Vesuvian manner shortly after he returned home. This does little to help me off the horns of my own automotive argumentum cornutum. Do I pester Nick Lancaster at H.R. Owen for a good price on the Pink Peril (an elderly convertible Rolls-Royce executed in a colour he insists on calling Sahara) or shall I buy a Lamborghini Espada Series II (circa 1972) that someone has found for me? Something to ponder as I pile the family into the rented Ford Focus and head for the beach.
Franco may have died over a quarter of a century ago, but traces of him still survive. There is a photograph of him visiting the Instituto Costa del Sol (creation of his son-in-law the Marques of Villaverde) on display in a cabinet in one of the big hotels, while in a little chiringuito where I eat grilled sardines on the beach the owner has no qualms about displaying a bust of El Caudillo behind the bar, along with a few bottles of wine dedicated to the memory of JosZ Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange. There is even a market in trinkets from this era. It is possible to buy lead models of the Generalissimo; and an eccentric antiques dealer called Captain Garfio, who was a communist but by turn evolved into a Franquista, appears on a Thursday on the bus from Malaga, laden with all manner of knick-knacks from this controversial era of Spain's recent past.
I remember Jeremy King, former co-owner of Le Caprice and the Ivy, telling me he knew it was time to stop taking his holidays in a certain part of Provence when he received his first invitation to a private view at a local gallery. I make it a condition of my sojourns in Marbella to attend every private view I can at the Fabien Fryns gallery. Fabien, scion of an eponymous liqueur dynasty, is one of those rare things, an eccentric Belgian; moreover, he is rather brave in attempting to convert the good burghers of Marbella to contemporary art. This is not the sort of place where Messrs Saatchi and Jopling or Sir Nick Serota would feel particularly at home. But even the international billionaires who build their rustic palaces in the arriŒre pays of Marbella, where Kashoggi used to have a country estate, need to put something on their walls, and when they do they come to Fabien. Indeed, shopping is the major cultural activity down here, a fact not lost on David Linley, who recently borrowed Fabien's gallery to stage an exhibition of his furniture. Perhaps Linley should open a shop down here: after all, everyone else has.