Costa del Sol: The coast with the most
It's mid-July, crowds line the narrow streets as a procession of colour approaches, first to a staccato drum beat, and then the whole band strikes up a rousing, marching tune.
Sounds like Belfast, but we're in Los Boliches, an oasis of old Spain in the shadow of the high-rise resort of Fuengirola and the similarities with home could not be less resounding.
The fiesta of the Virgen del Carmen is one of thousands celebrated along the Costa del Sol each year, so no matter when you fly down to the sunshine coast, you're sure to experience a few, mostly involving food and wine.
Any excuse for a party, and they are a magnet for visitors. The festivals were there long before the package tourists descended and they've stood the test of time and change to provide a glimpse of age-old Spanish traditions, culture and customs.
Carmen is one of our favourites, as the local fishermen in towns up and down the coast annually give thanks for the season's catch and ask the Saint's blessing for the next.
Dressed as olden-day sailors, they slowly carry a statue of the Virgen del Carmen, shoulder high, on a flower-bedecked pedestal, from the main church in the centre of Los Boliches, through the packed streets, led by a brass band, playing in step with the marchers, all the way down to the beach.
And they don't stop there, as the fishermen continue into the sea, wading out until they are neck deep and the Virgen is resting on the waters. That is then the signal for a spectacular fireworks display to light up the night sky and the eating, drinking and dancing to begin.
It's a routine repeated around various feast days all year round and the Spanish never seem to tire of the endless celebrations.
Life's a beach: view of Fuengirola seafront from the more peaceful setting of the Red Dragon bar at Torreblanca
The festivals are another of the attractions making the Costa del Sol a year round destination. To most of us, it's a summer sun spot but you really ought to think about going 'out of season', too. It's a an eye opener how the same place can look and feel so different between summer and supposed winter. It's also a lot cheaper to get to.
In January this year, I sat outside my local, a welcoming, whitewashed oasis, incongruously called the Red Dragon, on Torreblanca seafront as the thermometer climbed to 25 degrees in the afternoon.
In the evenings the awnings are wound in and bars and restaurants where you've wined and dined al fresco in summer become cosy, low lit and intimate indoors.
With the sun low in the sky, you can walk for hours, a favourite of mine being the two-hour saunter along the coast road from Torreblanca to Benalmadena, averting my gaze at the secluded nudist beach midway, and pausing for a pint at Legends in Bonanza Square and tapas in The Wine Bar at the top of the steps on Avenida Gamonal before taking the train back. On other days, I hop on the train from Torreblanca to Torremolinos, walking the seafront promenade, through the Arabic-style marina at Benalmadena and back uphill to the tapas bar that serves boquerones en vinagre to die for (all that walking does work up a thirst and appetite).
Use the train service that runs every 20 minutes between Malaga and Fuengirola to explore the coast, or Malaga city itself, definitely worth a visit for the shopping, the history or the football.
Or head for the hills in a hire car or on one of the many bus excursions to the stunningly scenic mountain towns of Mijas, Ronda or Alhaurín de la Torre. If you can hack the queues to get in and out when Spanish customs throw a strop, Gibraltar is another handy day trip option.
Between June and September, when temperatures soar, there's nothing else for it but to stretch out on a sun lounger with a good book and begin planning your evening.
Again, most holidaymakers will base themselves in the big, bustling resorts of Torremolinos, Benalmadena, Fuengirola, Puerto Banus or Marbella.
The Los Boliches promenade in Costa del Sol
Little known Los Boliches and our own adopted Torreblanca, side by side to the noisy neighbour Fuengirola, offer the perfect havens if slower paced is your thing. Close enough to the bright lights of busy Fuengi to dip in and out, a few minutes by train or bus or a half hour walk, and at the same time, far from the madding crowd.
Relaxing on the terrace at the Red Dragon, looking out to sea is pure therapy. From there, the beach at Torreblanca stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with traditional chiringuitos (beach bars) and their speciality sardines cooking over woodfires in old boats on the sand. The area boasts some fantastic seafront restaurants, too, Paganinis and Gavia being two of our favourites and further down in Los Boliches the superb charcoal grill of Meson Bravo.
The narrow, cool backstreets of Los Boliches, a few blocks in from the seafront are a mecca of interesting little bars, restaurants and shops, not as touristy as Fuengi, and a weekly Tuesday market selling all manner of wares on the fairground. Beside the elevated rail halt, there's a Corte Ingles department store always offering great bargains and across the road, a fresh fish, fruit and veg market.
They have much to celebrate on the Costa, not least the bounty of the sea, and like those fishermen on their annual procession into the deep, you can become immersed in it all.
Any country that can arrange a party at the drop of a sombrero has got the right idea.
There are celebrations and festivals galore
Here are just a selection of the numerous festivals, events and celebrations that take place in and around Costa del Sol every year.
Full details at andalucia.com
January 5: Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) The Three Wise Men, having spent Christmas elsewhere, arrive in Spain to dispense gifts, travelling around every city, town and village on floats on the evening of the 5th, decorated according to a chosen theme. The Kings are accompanied by helpers who throw sweets and presents into the crowd (traditionally, kids who've been naughty get coal).
Feb 1-2: Fiesta of bonfires Neighbourhoods across Andalucía compete to see which can build the biggest bonfire, and sardines and chorizo are grilled on the flames. Songs are sung as townsfolk hold hands in a circle around the fire, and wine is drunk. Sometimes a figure, like a guy, is strapped to a post and burned.
March: Semana Santa (Holy Week) On various dates, depending on the start of Holy Week each year, processions of penitents in long robes and tall, pointed hoods walk through the streets, carrying statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on flower-decked floats, accompanied by brass bands.
April 21-26, 2015: Seville Fair Following on from Semana Santa, in a huge area in Los Remedios, to the south-west of the city, next to the river, Seville's famous Spring fair is a week of serious dancing, drinking, eating and socialising, with late nights -- or all-nighters -- the norm. The sheer size of the spectacle is extraordinary. From around midday until early evening -- especially on Tuesday, the first official day -- Seville society parades around the fairground in carriages or on horseback.
Mayday: Every town and village in Andalucia has its own feria or fair, with stalls, entertainment and all manner of food and drink on sale.
June 24: Noche de San Juan The Night of San Juan is a celebration held on the beach with roaring bonfires, drink and food. It can be a memorable, almost surrealistic scene and one that needs to be experienced. Taking place this year in Alhaurín, Benalmádena, Fuengirola and Nerja.
July 15-16: Virgen del Carmen festival (see above).
August 11-15: Noche del Vino (Night of Wine) The town of Competa's famous wine festival originated as a farewell to the grape-pickers who were off to bring in the harvest. You can see flamenco performances and exhibitions; and the highlight is free muscatel wine in both dry and sweet varieties for all comers, with tours and tastings. This day is also when Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, the town's patron saint, is honoured.
September 3: Fiesta de Goyesca (Ronda) The breathtaking mountain town of Ronda's famous celebration of the link between its bullfighting tradition and the artist Goya, who depicted the 18th century matadors.
Bullfighters and festival-goers throng the streets in period costume but be warned, tickets must be purchased well in advance.
October 6-12: Festival of the Virgen del Rosario (Fuengirola) Yet another Saint's day, dating from the 16th century, with parades, fireworks and carnival figures -- the patron saint's procession is on October 7.
November 11: The feast of San Martín Saint Martin's Feast is a traditional day of celebration in all the towns and villages of the mountain areas of Andalucia with hog roast served to mark the arrival of winter time.
Additionally, in Atajate, the smallest town in Malaga province, there is a grape juice festival on the last Sunday of November, with free mosto (natural fermented grape juice) for everyone.
December: The Christmas season starts much later in Spain than here with many families waiting for the arrival of the Three Kings in January to exchange gifts. Papá Noel (Santa Claus) does put in an appearance, though.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are generally celebrated as a family with one rich meal after another, served from mid-day on Christmas Eve through late night Christmas Day. There is no Boxing Day but on New Year's Eve there's the ceremony of the 12 grapes, eaten one by one with the chimes of the clock to welcome in the New Year. Alternatively, you can consume them already squashed and bottled!
Jim Gracey flew to Malaga with leading leisure airline Jet2.com, currently celebrating their 10th anniversary, flying direct from Belfast International Airport.
Malaga is Jet2.com's newest route. Flights to Malaga are available from May 24 until November 1, 2014 and recommence on April 7, 2015. Flights cost from £50 including taxes and 22kg baggage allowance. Malaga is Jet2.com's 13th destination from Belfast International. For villa and apartment rental, check out Sol Rentals at solrentals.co.uk (00 34) 952 66 12 37.