With its balmy climate, flashy bars, and ready supply of haciendas with high walls, the Spanish resort of Marbella has long been a favourite haunt of villains on the run.
These days, though, the local criminal fraternity isn’t just limited to burly, polo-shirted men from London, Liverpool and Dublin. Also putting a tan on their tattoos are various shadowy types from Russia, where demand for Costa boltholes is now so great that it’s helped ease Spain’s property crash.
This is partly due to the so-called “Golden Visa” system introduced in Spain last year, by which non-EU nationals with more than €500,000 to invest can automatically get residency permits. In the first six months of 2013, before the system was even introduced, the number of Russian visitors to Spain rose by 30 per cent to 838,876.
How many of them are actually “thieves professing the code” – a lovely Russian phrase for organised crime – is another matter. But last week, I learned that arguably the biggest Russian bad boy of them all – Vladimir Putin, Czar of Russia and now Crimea too – is among them.
Uncle Vlad, it seems, is the owner of this £15 million pile inside the Zagaleta estate, just outside Marbella, which has its own spa and gym, cinema, piano bar and swimming pool. And, yes, a specially-built retaining wall to keep out prying eyes, itself costing £4.5 million. While Mr Putin is never afraid to be photographed topless in public, it seems he prefers it not to be done by unlicensed paparazzi, who might catch his moobs in unflattering light.
Rumours that Mr Putin had bought up this pad have been circling for about 18 months now, fuelled partly by reports that the Russian leader has family living on the Costa del Sol. However, it’s never been quite clear whether it was actually him who owned it, or some other Russian high-up, few of whom ever buy properties in their own name anyway.
Last week, though, in the wake of sanctions being slapped on Mr Putin’s inner circle, I put this to a senior government source, who told me that he believed it was indeed the Russian’s president’s. “Hopefully, we ought to know,” he added.
Which, of course, raises the question of why Mr Putin is still free to sun himself in Spain, when so many of his cronies are now having to contemplate “stay-cations” in their dachas back in chilly, mosquito-plagued St Petersburg. After all, was it not surely him, rather than them, who gave the go-ahead for the annexation of Crimea?
The answer, it seems, is Western diplomatic protocol, which continues even in these times of hostility. Heads of state are generally the last people to get asset freezes and visa bans put on them, in order that at least a few top-level channels of communication are kept open. In other words, were Mr Putin to suddenly want to talk peace, he can come to Europe at a moment’s notice for talks.
Alternatively, he can just come for a weekend in Marbella. As they say in Russia these days, “dos cervezas por favor”.