15km (9 miles) W of Málaga, 122km (76 miles) E of Algeciras, 568km (353 miles) S of Madrid

This Mediterranean beach resort is Spain's biggest. It's known as a melting pot of visitors, most of them European and American. Many relax here after a whirlwind tour of Europe -- the living is easy, the people are fun, and there are no historical monuments to visit. Once a sleepy fishing village, Torremolinos has been engulfed in a cluster of cement-walled resort hotels. Prices are on the rise, but it remains one of Europe's vacation bargains.

But just because Torremolinos is one of the oldest and most famous resorts along the Costa del Sol, that doesn't mean it's the best: Marbella is a classier act. Because of its ghastly concrete-block architecture, filled with cheap rooms for package tours, Torremolinos has been called a holiday inferno.

It's fashionable for travel writers to mock it. One Spanish-language guide, written for nationals, recommends that visitors from other parts of Spain give Torremolinos "wide berth." Many Americans prefer to anchor in Seville, planning side trips to Granada and Córdoba. Yet for all its detractors, this resort is a kitschy hit, with crowds of northern Europeans coming year after year for the sheer offbeat fun of it.

The Costa: An Ode to Lost Virginity -- Once the Costa del Sol was a paradise, a retreat of the rich and famous, and in the words of British author Laurie Lee, "beautiful but exhausting and seemingly forgotten by the world." The world has now discovered this Mediterranean coastline with a vengeance.

Some social historians claim that the Costa del Sol -- no one knows when or how that touristy moniker debuted -- had its roots in 1932 when Carlotta Alessandri arrived, buying property west of the village of Torremolinos and announcing that she was going to launch "a Spanish Riviera to equal the French Riviera." But before she could achieve her dream, the Spanish Civil War intervened.

The marquis of Najera arrived in Torremolinos after World War II, bringing his fellow blue bloods. In time, many Spanish noble families, along with a collection of more questionable royals and aristocrats, arrived to bask in the sun. Artists, writers like Ernest Hemingway and James Michener, even movie stars, followed suit.

In the 1960s, hippies arrived in Torremolinos and brought their drugs with them. You would never have known a right-wing dictator was in power: Flower power and the wafting smell of pot filled the streets.

Turmoil in the Middle East and the 1973 oil crisis drove thousands of Arabs to the coast, seeking safer havens. The fall of the shah of Iran drove many other rich Iranians here. Their presence is still felt in large measure today.

In the 1970s, the London tabloids dubbed Costa the "Costa del Crime." A lack of extradition laws between Spain and Britain -- a situation that's since been remedied -- encouraged the arrival in Spain of dozens of "British jack-the-lad crooks." These embezzlers and con artists fled justice in England and headed for the coast, where they partied extravagantly and uninhibitedly.

By the time the 1980s arrived, the reputation of the coast had largely shifted from caviar and champagne to burgers and beer. Despite that, many big names continued to visit. Sean Connery, for example, was an annual visitor until 1998, and Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith own a second home in Los Monteros on the outskirts of Marbella. Julio Iglesias has a villa near Coín, and Bruce Willis owns a retreat outside Estepona.

Today Torremolinos is a place where everyone and anyone can let loose. Lager louts from the industrial Midlands of England parade through the narrow streets at night pursuing wine, women, and drugs. Religious cultists, real-estate hawkers, Las Vegas-style showgirls, and male hustlers in well-filled bikinis all feel at home here. Even young Middle Eastern women, minus their burkas, can be seen on the beach in bikinis smoking dope (illegally).