Welcome to one of the oldest cities in Spain: Ronda
Ronda is an inland town situated in the autonomous community of Andalucia. It is said that danger, not beaches, drew 19th century tourists to southern Spain as Andalucia was one of the notorious bandit areas of Europe, where encounters with latter-day Robin Hoods added drama to the romantic landscape. And for the town of Ronda, the last Andalucian bandit was Ronda born Pasos Largos or more commonly known as Long Steps who terrorised the region until he was shot dead by agents in 1932. But don’t get me wrong, Ronda is a safe nook these days and a straightforward journey by car or train.
In my researching hours, and I suspect that many others don’t realise either that Spain is the third largest European country by land mass in the European Union (EU), after Ukraine 603,700 sq km (since the breakup of the Soviet Union), France 547,030 sq km, Spain 504,750 sq km, and then Sweden 449,964 sq km. Spain also has some of the tallest mountain peaks out of any European country – both Malaga and Granada provinces in Andalucia region are hilly with the average height of Spanish ground being greater than in any European country except Switzerland. Cool facts ha.
We certainly concur with these online facts as the five passengers (minus Steve who is focussed on just driving a right-hand drive car) are looking out the car’s windows and passing huge mountain ranges with pointy peaks or rugged rocky slopes. We are cruising at a comfortable 105km/h on the A376 motorway to Ronda from our home base Malaga city and other drivers are passing us like we’re standing still (the speed limit is 120km/h). Post Ronda wander, we drive back via the winding stretch of coastline along Malaga province’s Costa de Sol. Both the inland and coastal routes of Ronda are breathtakingly romantic – bandits or no bandits.
And Steve is especially fortunate, as this visit today marks his second time in the town of Ronda. He was here six years ago (I think mid-2011) touring Spain and Portugal in a car with his travel companions cum travel-buddy-teacher-parent Baz and Sue. I remember seeing the amazing photographs of the bridge in Ronda when he returned and thinking I’ve got to go and see that bridge! So here we are, all six of us!
Our Experience of Ronda
Today we’re standing in one of the oldest Spanish towns, Ronda. Situated in the most northwestern part of the province of Malaga, Ronda is a city which is considered as one of the oldest cities in Europe on account of its history. It is a beautifully medieval and quaint city; one that blends its current reality with mystical legend. The town sits high on top of a mountaintop with the Guadalevin River (a tributary of the Guadiaro River in Málaga) cutting a deep and impressive gorge that separates the newer 15th Century town, El Mercadillo and the older 9th Century Moorish/Islamic town, La Ciudad where a remarkably impressive bridge, and a fine piece of structural architecture, connects two the sides of the town.
There is much to see and do in this historical town (for more on Ronda’s amazingly long history keep reading at the end of this post), but right now, having left our apartment and the beachside city of Malaga without eating breakfast, we are faced with four very hungry kids. Food first!
It takes us a while of driving up and down the main road of Ronda until we site a car parking facility. We actually cross the main town’s attraction: Puente Nuevo and head all the way out of the old town as there is not enough space to make a U-turn on these extremely narrow roads. We finally scout out a secure car park on the newer side of Ronda – which has wider and roomier roads for 3 Euros per hour. We park and proceed walking down the street with our arms tucked in and around our bodies in an attempt at keeping warm against the wind tunnel of cold air hitting us. Unfortunately, the grey sky has set in and the breeze is a little chillier than expected. We find the closest bakery-style café that serves promising tasty hamburgers and baguettes for a good price which also has plenty of room for us all to sit.
The Puente Nuevo (new bridge), is a historically charming 18th Century stone bridge that straddles the 110m deep and 64m wide El Tajo gorge with magnificent views for exploring hearts and wandering eyes. The construction of the previous bridge commenced in 1735, and was the first attempt to span the gorge at this height using a single arch design. Unfortunately, in 1741 this bridge collapsed resulting in the death of 50 people due to its quick construction and poor design. The bridge that stands today commenced construction in 1759 and took 34 years to complete. Plenty of pedestrians, cars and buses cross over this old yet robust bridge and obviously it was made to last second time round!
We look out onto the Andalusian fields that stretch all the way to the hazily distant mountains and spot traditional white Spanish farm homesteads that dot the rich agricultural landscape. We walk over the Puente Nuevo and wander a little way up to an alleyway and turning right and following other wandering hearts. We trust it leads us to a walkway down to the gorge so we can get a closer look and experience of the bridge. We find an entryway and a pathway that leads down, so we commence our descent along the pretty unsealed path (there is also Camino de los Molinos which takes an hour and a half hour walk around more pathways) and soak in the experience of the lovely journey and seeing the bridge straight on. We take advantage of this uniquely spectacular backdrop for a family photo (thanks to the nice English couple who took our family portrait) while the sun’s rays stream out over the scene only momentarily. The bridge really is an architectural wonder and all around us we discover a lush landscape of shrubs and trees, uncut native grasses and a range of intriguing wild flowers.
Ronda is a busy place on the weekends with bus-loads of tourists arriving on its doorstep to explore the town’s attractions. We patiently wait our turn for the optimal place to get a photo or appreciate a view both on top of the bridge and below it. We realise we are on the tourist route at its epicentre of southern Spanish’s tourism. After we walk back up the pathway, we cross the main road and explore the other side of the bridge where the main square is located. Plaza de Espana was made famous in Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in which he describes early on in the Civil War (chapter 10) when the ‘fascists’ were rounded up, clubbed and made to walk between two lines of townspeople before being thrown off the edge of the cliff. Fact or fiction? As we look down below, we are left wondering how many people did face their last moments of life from this grand high perch. From the amazing viewing platforms hanging over the cliff and ravine below, we see the classy million dollar Spanish homes and apartments that snake along the edge of the cliff. If you ever come to Ronda, there’s a ‘can you spot the cow of Ronda?’ gimmick and if you look carefully there is a black and white cow standing in the garden of one of these luxurious homes.
The girls call me to come over to where they’re standing quickly. Low and behold just over the barrier and basking in the sun perched on a rock below the platform we are standing on is a snake. It’s a small and thin variety, and has vibrant and perfectly aligned triangular shapes creating a mesmerizing pattern all over its scaled body. I click the camera on and snap at it before it slips back under the platform and out of sight. Wow! We walk off the platform and wander slowly back over the bridge. We take a glance inside the little shops selling handicrafts and Ronda branded tourist paraphernalia (t-shirts, cups, teaspoons, postcards etc), Iberian hams, olive oils, wines, olives, and large round wheels of cheeses.
We walk over to one of the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain. The Plaza de Toros sits on the newer side of the town and is a legendary neoclassical 18th Century bullring and one of Ronda’s most recognisable landmarks after the Puente Nuevo. It was built in 1785 by the architect Jose Martin Aldehuela – the same architect who built the Puente Nuevo – with a diameter of 66m. The bullring can hold up to 1,250 spectators but now operates as a museum and is open for tourism. It comes alive for real in the spectacular September Goyesca* bullfights when combatants dress in the manner of Goya’s portraits of 18th century life in Spain (apparently tickets are very pricey!).
Feria Goyesca (properly called the Feria de Pedro Romero) stems from three main personalities spanning over three centuries with all with strong connections to Ronda. They are the famous 18th century bullfighter, Pedro Romero; the extremely influential 18th century Spanish painter, Francisco de la Goya; and the great 20th century bullfighter Antoñio Ordóñez to whom the vision of the Ronda’s modern Feria Goyesca can be attributed.
Ronda born Francisco Romero (1700-1763), is credited with giving bullfighting its modern day rules with the introduction of the muleta (cape) around 1726. His grandson, Pedro Romero (1754-1839) became one of Spain’s greatest bullfighters. He founded the Ronda School for Bullfighting and it is still known today for its classicism and strict adherence to the rules. Pedro broke away from the prevailing Jerez school of horseback bullfighting in the 18th century to found a style of bullfighting in which Matadores stood their ground against the bull on foot. It is said that Pedro would have killed in the vicinity of 5,600 bulls over the course of his long bullfighting career and never once received a goring.
I’m currently reading (well skimming through) Ernest Hemingway’s novel Death in the Afternoon published in 1932. It’s all about Spanish bullfighting. Hemingway was a huge fan of bullfighting; he was what they would call a bullfighting aficionado. It was his fondness for bullfighting which drove him to the city of Ronda where he attended many bullfights watching one of his favourite matadores Cayetano Ordóñez (1903-1961). In Ronda Hemingway has a walkway named in his honour in Ronda and along with his published work of non-fiction describing the ritual, religion and philosophical metaphysics of bullfighting, he created a popular resurgence in bullfighting that changed perceptions from little more than sport to an art form.
As we walk back up the hill to our car park, we pass a church with two tall palm trees swaying out the front. We reach our car and leave the city of Ronda by driving back over the bridge, passing the city gates and stone walls which previously made Ronda one of Andalusia’s most impregnable cities due not only because of its high geographical position, but also because of these stone gates and walls. These thick and impassable walls owe their construction to the Islamic era, a period that spanned close to 800 years from 712 until 1485.
I click my camera like a crazed fan out the window as our 7-seater Renault turns past the solid stone gates and wall leaving the beauty of Ronda behind.
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Extra: The History of Ronda (if you really want to know more)
Online source credit: http://www.andalucia.com/ronda/history.htm
I really didn’t know much about the extensive and long history of the town of Ronda (who would if you’ve never visited before) but I’ve become a lot more interested in knowing the depth of its rich historical timeline. So I’ve pulled together lots of information that, if you’re interested in the extra reading, might help you too gain a greater understanding of this beautiful town’s history and its many previous lives.
Ronda became known as The Eagle’s Nest a name given to the town for its obvious high perch above the ravine and for the reputation of its canny ferocious rulers who sat in its high nest. Although the history of Ronda does not officially commence in the history books until the Roman occupation, it has been unofficially documented that prior to this the Iberians or Bastulo Celts found comfort in the high settlement area but so too did the Romans and they attacked the weak Iberian stronghold easily and commenced the Romanisation of the Iberian settlement. It was then that the town was given its first real name: Arunda meaning surrounded by mountains.
To dislodge the Romans it took the disintegration of their Empire. Names like Sertorius, Pompey and Julius Caesar are linked to the history of the city of Ronda. Sertorius attacked and all but destroyed the place, although in 45BC a temple was built to commemorate the decisive victory of Caesar over Pompey’s sons, Gnaeus and Sextus. After the Romans it was a period of lawlessness and Arunda was flattened and pillaged. Many of the Roman buildings were ruined by their future occupants, particularly the Moors. There is evidence today of the liveliness of Roman life in and around the city of Ronda. A travel explorer’s dream.
The Byzantine Greeks came in for their turn, and seeing the ruins settled on the destroyed neighboring town of Acinipo ‘city of wine’ (which they confused everyone and renamed to Runda). The Visigoths, who ousted the Greeks, had no time for naming confusion and they moved everybody out of Acinipo/Runda and demolished it leaving the original Arunda in proud and nominally unchallenged isolation. But the town of Acinipo was not entirely forgotten and its ruins are still to this day referred to as Old Ronda or Ronda el Viejo.
Then came the Moors. Arunda was taken in the year 713 by Abd al-Aziz, son of the Moorish general Musa Ben-Nusayr. Abd al-Aziz ordered the construction of a new fort on its ruins and gave the town a new name: Izna-Rand-Onda (the town of the castle). They were turbulent times with the Moors fighting amongst themselves and in a century it was all over and the area crumbled.
In the town Izna-Rand-Onda, an opportunist named Abú-Nur seized control and founded the Kingdom of the Banu Ifrá and, as befits a king, he renamed the town yet again. It was to be known henceforth as Madinat Ronda.
In 1066, while the English were busy fighting the Norman invaders on the sands somewhere near Hastings, Madinat Ronda became the jewel in al-Muthadid’s crown…but 35 years later, in 1091, Ronda changed hands again. The Christian upstarts were becoming steadily more irritating, and the thirty or so squabbling Moorish kings stretched across Andalucía could not, between them organise a night of partying in a tavern. They needed help. To put the infidels once and for all in their place, they imported a fearsome army of thugs from Africa called the Almorávids. The thugs arrived and concluded that under the Iberian sun, their Moorish brothers had become decadent, affected buffoons. In no time they had swatted the lot of them like flies and taken complete control.
But it didn’t last. The Almorávids were accused in turn of all manner of corruption and immorality and the Almohads – a new breed of fighters dedicated to restoring family values – arrived into the peninsula in 1146 determined to repair the damage. Within fifty years they were in charge of virtually all of what remained of Moorish Spain.
The Christian reconquest of Spain was a far more complex affair than is generally perceived. Never a straightforward Arab versus Christian struggle, it involved centuries of unlikely alliances of convenience, where the cross and the crescent were as likely to fly side by side as to face each other across the field of battle. But as the 15th Century came to its end the writing was plainly on the wall – and the writing was in Castillian Spanish. The Moors were losing their grip, and the end of their long tenure was in sight. The most decisive year was undoubtedly 1485. Across the length and breadth of Andalucía their towns fell to the Christians like skittles in a bowling alley.
Making much use of new and terrifying weapons – gunpowder and the cannon – the Christians mounted a ferocious assault on the citadel. Neither natural cliffs nor man-made fortifications or walls were a match for their deadly missiles.
An earthquake in 1580 destroyed many of Ronda’s buildings, including its main church, which had only been partially rebuilt. The loss profoundly and permanently altered the physical aspect of the town.
When Pedro Romero Martínez, a sometime carpenter born in Ronda on 18 November 1754, decided to abandon his chisel and follow his father and grandfather into the more exciting and dangerous world of the bullring, he could not have then imagined that he was laying the foundation of the town’s tourist-fueled affluence two centuries forward.