The southern region of Andalucia in Spain is dramatic. Picture now if you will a sun-drenched landscape of yellows, browns and greens. Bleached sierras dotted with gorse, sparse vegetation and pristine pueblos blancos (Spanish for white towns). Once in a while vineyards terrace an otherwise arid terrain. A wild halo hangs about those sierras where service stations are few and far between. Drive through them on a Sunday as my husband and I did and you will find that the lone bodega has its shutters down.
A heat haze hung about us – right across the Strait of Gibraltar is the northern tip of Africa from where the Calima blows towards Málaga – casting over the landscape the mien of a place lodged faraway in time. With tales in our heads of the Moors, a mixed race of Berbers and Arabs who crossed into Spain from North Africa and occupied Andalucia for seven centuries, we came across the ancient mountain town of Ronda.
Roughly 100km from Málaga, Ronda is a picture of quaintness. It strings together images that are attached with the al-Andalus of the Moors, bull fighting and medieval citadels, a mysterious gorge and white houses that stand with panache upon meandering old city walls. Studded with cobbled alleys and intricate wrought iron balconies staring down from the pretty white houses, Ronda was a town after my heart. Stories of matadors, highwaymen, writers and moors came together at once to thrill my very core.
The photogenic hill town’s riveting feature is El Tajo gorge. It plummets down 492 feet into the river Guadalevín. The sight of it made me gasp and I could not take my eyes off the sprawling vista of the Andalucian countryside on either side of it. A thousand fireflies buzzed in the afternoon air above the gorge next to the Puente Nuevo, imparting it with an enchanted touch. Its name is deceiving. Puente Nuevo means the new bridge – yet it dates back to the mid-1700s.
This bridge has a daunting past. About 50 workers died during the course of its construction, while above its central arch is secreted away a chamber. During the Spanish Civil War, spanning the period between 1936 and 1939, many a Nationalist and Republican was tossed out of the windows of this chamber into the gorge. In Ernest Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, you find a reference to such incidents. The author, who was enamoured by Spain, is said to have based the incident of Fascist sympathizers being thrown off the cliffs of an Andalusian town upon a similar event in Ronda. The hoary pasts of seemingly innocuous places – they do make you ponder upon the vagaries of time.
Standing upon the Puente Nuevo, we spotted the sierras of Ronda in the distance and my fancy took over. I was back in time when those sierras were haunted by bandits. I had help. Ronda is home to a small but unique museum called the Museo del Bandolero, the Museum of Bandits that is. Old prints narrate stories of young bandoleros who in the 1800s roamed the hills of the Serrania de Ronda and became so powerful that the Guardia Civil was created to put an end to their disruptive activities. In the late 1800s, a traveller who was travelling around Málaga is said to have described the way of the bandit who was usually bedecked in amulets and charms. He noted: “The favourite and original method of the Malagueño highwayman is to creep up quietly behind his victim, muffle his head and arms in a cloak, and then relieve him of his valuables. Should he resist, he is instantly disembowelled with the dexterous thrust of a knife……”
I was captivated by the tale of a particular 18th century bandit, Diego Corrientes Mateos, famous for his generosity to the poor. The reigning king of Spain at the time put up a reward of 100 gold pieces for his capture. Corrientes fled to Portugal but was captured and brought back to Seville where he was born. He was hung, his body cut into pieces and sent to the provinces where he had operated. But his head stayed in Seville, buried in a church.
The Romance of Ronda
Ronda is bisected into two parts. The Puente Nuevo divides Ronda into Mercadillo (new town) and La Ciudad (old town) but two older bridges span the El Tajo. Of them, the oldest bridge was constructed by the Romans when they occupied Ronda at the time of Julius Caesar.
The other Moorish bridge leads to an exotic hammam, Baños de los Arabes, the former bathing houses of the Moors. The Arab baths differed from the Roman baths in the underlying concept of cleansing the body. The Romans soaked in hot pools while the Moors used steam to purify the body before entering the mosque that stood adjacent to the baths.
Ronda’s romantic past is established at once with Puerta de Almocábar (Almocábar Gate) that stands at the entrance to Ronda. The 13th century sandstone gate was built by the Almohad rulers but taken over by the Christians when Fernando el Católico (Ferdinand II of Aragon) invaded it in 1485. As a token of the Reconquista, where once stood the tower of the Almohads, the Christians erected a church, the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo. It is a massive building but simple enough in its design to celebrate the victory of the Christians on Whit Sunday in 1485.
We roamed the streets of La Ciudad and saw further signs of the mingling of its Moorish past and the Christian Reconquista. The minarets of the churches of San Sebastian and Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor are both originally Moorish in style. I was surprised that they survived despite the fact that the Arabs were thrown out by the Christians who wanted to leave behind their legacy.
And now for the most bloodthirsty aspect of Ronda. It awaited us at the Mercadillo. The new town which hails back to the 15th century has its share of beautiful old churches and plazas and old alleys, but I was captivated by the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s oldest bull ring. The favourite sport of the Spanish was kick-started here. It goes back to the 16th century to an occasion when a nobleman of the Spanish aristocracy was learning to ride in Ronda’s famous equestrian school where a part of the training included a chase round a ring by an angry bull. At one point the nobleman found himself on the ground and a pair of horns approaching him at great speed. He was saved by Francisco Romero, a local boy, who jumped into the ring, distracting the bull with a wave of his hat.
My interest in Ronda’s bullfighting heritage stemmed from Hemingway. He had authored non-fiction books such as Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer upon his obsession with matadors and their dangerous profession. Ronda, according to him, is the town where you should see your first bullfight in Spain, for every year there is a festival called Corrida Goyesca when its bullfighting past is recreated at its finest.
Outside the sandstone coloured bullring of Plaza de Toros, I spotted the bronze figure of the matador, Cayetano Ordóñez y Aguilera who was the patriarch of the Ordóñez family of bullfighters. Cayetano Ordóñez, better known as Niño de la Palma because his parents owned a shoe shop called La Palma, was a Spanish legend who had faced over 3,000 bulls and inspired Hemingway to base the character of Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises upon him. Hemingway had once said: “Everything that happened in the ring was true, and everything outside was fiction. Nino knew this and never complained about it.”
Ronda, founded in the 9th century BC and inhabited by the Celts, Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, had captured the imagination of an entire generation of Romantics. It was indeed a place for the Viajeros Románticos or Romantic Travellers who during the 18th and 19th centuries wanted to explore the pristine, untouched areas of Europe. Writers of repute – Alexandre Dumas, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles – had been enchanted by Ronda.
When you visit Ronda, you will feel exactly as I did or as Hemingway did when he had written of Ronda as the place to go “if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone”. Or for that matter, you will be as smitten by Ronda as was Rilke when he had declared passionately, “I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda.”