After spending a couple of days in Granada amidst the hauntingly beautiful Alhambra and the nearby historic district, I thought I had seen the best of Andalusia. And then I came to Ronda.
This historic town of Ronda is precariously perched on top of a hill. Running through the middle of the the hill – and the town - is a 120 meter deep gorge, El Tajo – the slash, cut over millions of years by rio Guadalevin, a seemingly unbelievable feat if you go by how gentle a trickle of water it is today. The astonishing achievement of nature has then been one upped by an engineering masterpiece, a triple arched bridge that spans the gap, the two main columns descending all the way down on the floor of the gorge. The 18th century bridge is simply called Puente Nuevo or the new bridge, hinting at the fact that despite it being 200 years old, there is an elder structure in the vicinity. That older bridge, Puente Arabe, lies further east on the gorge and is 400 years older, dating back to the 15th century.
Standing on the edge, pressing against the parapet, you have to lean into the gorge just a bit to understand why someone wanting to end their life would chose this spot – there is no chance of surviving - yet believe that the quaintness of the town and the beauty of the rugged Andalusian terrain that surrounds it might just force a change in heart. The gorge has swallowed a few people in the course of its existence and is at the center of many an urban myths, none more popular than the one which claims the architect of this bridge having slipped and hurtled to death. Such stories are often told in a tone of hushed confidentiality by shopkeepers trying to get you to buy an expensive souvenir; don’t believe him.
Clinging to the precipitous edge, are the more prosperous apartments, shops, restaurants and paradors, the sheer drop an obvious premium real estate magnet, exactly like a waterfront is, in a beach town. Some of the best hotels have their most expensive rooms precariously overlooking the El Tajo, none more vertigo inducing close than the Parador de Ronda situated on the northern tip of Puente Nuevo. So close is the hotel that the only way to take a photo of Puente Nuevo from the west without getting Parador de Ronda in the frame is to take the photo from the parador itself.
The gorge is breathtaking. There is nary a spot on the edge that does not blow the mind. There is an approach from the west – first by a car and then a small hike – that allows a different perspective, one from the floor of the gorge. Don’t miss it.
El Tajo pulled me to Ronda. El Tajo lives up to the reputation.
While the spectacular El Tajo is the crowd puller of the modern day Ronda, that is not how it used to be. For over two hundred years, sporting fans from all over Spain and rest of the world have flocked to Ronda because modern bull-fighting was born here.
Martin de Aldehula, the architect who designed and completed Puente Nuevo, built Plaza de Toros, demonstrating that the art (as building was in those time) that bridges chasm to connect two parts of a city, can be applied equally well to start at ground level to create a monument that connects hearts. One of the oldest, if not the oldest, modern bullring - with a seating of 5000 amidst a myriad Tuscan columns - is not the staring point of the bull fight revolution, but a confirmation of its longevity. The inventor of the modern bullfight is one Pedro Romero. His innovation eliminated the matador’s steed, in theory making that occupation a wee bit more dangerous and swinging the game a wee bit more for the poor bull. The 5000 odd bulls Pedro slayed “without gathering an injury worth noting” and I, would not agree that the ground was leveled enough. If you read the bull fight playbook, the animal never has a chance of surviving chance once it leaves the pen.
The battle is gory, but the battlefield is bathed in serenity. It reminded me of the Charles V palace next to Alhambra that I had seen less than three days ago. For a non bovine (though I am a Taurus), it is a place to sit down, breathe deep and reminisce.
What more is there in Ronda? Tiny streets, locals markets, popular eateries and a lot of atmosphere. More to experience than to see.
You can go south on the Puente Nuevo and encounter the pretty Church of Santa Maria. Built on top of a mosque, and showing, it has Moorish domes, the Gothic aisles, Renaissance stalls and a Islamic mihrab. And no entrance fee.
A block from Plaza de Toros, is the charming Plaza del Socorro where the locals turn out in large numbers to watch the tourists. In the center of the plaza is a nude statue of Hercules with two lions he will tame. It is in this square, back in 1918, Blas Infante unfurled the flags and the colors of Andalusia paving a movement that would eventually get Andalusia recognized as Spain’s national community. The square is lined with restaurant, al fresco, that serve the most delicious, eclectic meals. They are certainly not the cheapest places in Ronda to eat, eateries around the main square never are, but the magic of the place makes it worthwhile.
If you want to stay in the town, try your best to get a room hanging over the gorge. Despite booking two months in advance, we were late and the rooms were sold out. We stayed 10 KMs away in a place called La Cazalla. The beautiful bungalow converted into a bed and breakfast is run by the old-fashioned owner adding to the charm. The hotel was a revelation in living Andalusian style.
The bungalow is build on an ancient two thousand year old Roman foundation and has a 7th century Arabian watering hole in the backyard. I would highly recommend this place, as I would, a day trip to the Cueva de la Pileta less than 30 KMs away.
Ronda was clearly the highlight of our week in Andalusia.