Monday, March 12, 2012

Ronda & the White Towns - an article by Robert Bovington

Ronda is interesting. Apart from being one of the most attractive towns in southern Spain, it is famous for smuggling, banditry, hunting and bullfighting.

view from the Puente Nuevo
Tajo Gorge and Puente Nuevo

view from the Alameda Gardens
The town is located in one of the most dramatic locations in Europe -perched 750 metres above sea level, on an inland plateau, sliced in half by the 100-metre deep Tajo gorge. The Puente Nuevo spans the gorge and connects El Mercadillo, the new part of the town with La Ciudad, the old part.

The views from the bridge and the nearby Alameda Gardens are breathtaking. In fact, the whole town is a photographer's dream - or a nightmare if there is insufficient film or lack of space on the digital camera's memory card. Throughout Ronda there are delightful buildings like the 'Palacio de Mondragón' and the Casa del Marqués de Salvatierra'.

Like many Andalucian towns, Ronda has quite a bit of history. It occupies the site of an ancient Iberian settlement and was known in Roman times as Acinipo. Between the 8th and 15th centuries it was occupied by the Moors and the Roman Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella reconquered it in 1485. Ronda has also been the stronghold of various other peoples - like bandits! Highwaymen roamed the nearby mountains in the 19th century, robbing wealthy tourists headed for Ronda on their 'Grand Tour of Europe'. Smugglers too, frequented the town and some believe that Ronda may have been the supposed location of the third act of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Whether that is true is open to question but one undisputable fact is that Ronda is the cradle of bullfighting.

Puente Nuevo

Enough of the history lesson - let's explore Ronda! There is so much to see it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps it is best to begin at the Puente Nuevo. The bridge is hardly as new as its name implies - it was built over 200 years ago! It is the focal point of the town. It is a masterpiece of architecture and engineering but it took 42 years to build and special machines had to be invented to raise the huge solid stone blocks from the bottom of the gorge. Various vantage points on the bridge provide spectacular views of the gorge far below.

The northern side of the Tajo gorge is the new part of the town, the area known as El Mercadillo. It comprises a warren of streets with bars, restaurants and shops. The Plaza de Toros and the Alameda Gardens are also located there - only a few yards from the bridge. Ronda's bullring, in the Plaza de Toros, is the oldest in Spain. It is quite splendid. The neo-classical interior comprises two storeys with Tuscan columns. There is also a bull-fighting museum and, every September, the Goyesque bullfights take place in the bullring. The three-day feria y fiestas de Pedro Romero were inspired by the great friendship that existed between Francisco de Goya and Pedro Romero, the great bullfighter - if one can call someone who slaughtered over 6000 bulls great! Nonetheless, he is regarded as the father of modern bullfighting. A little further on, there are the Alameda Gardens which are not only delightful but which also provide further breathtaking views of the countryside far below.

On the southern side of the Puente Nuevo is La Ciudad. Its cobbled streets contain a mix of whitewashed houses and grand Renaissance mansions. It was the old Moorish market area and, historically, the most important part of Ronda. There are numerous historical buildings and fine museums here, so let's start with the Convent of Santo Domingo since it is next to the bridge. The Catholic Monarchs founded the building following their reconquest of the city on May 20, 1485. Not far away is 'La Casa del Rey Moro' - allegedly the house of a Moorish King - hence its name. However, the current building is an 18th century palace with beautiful gardens designed by Forestier, the famous French garden designer. Perhaps the palace has been built on the site of a former building because, according to legend, this place was the residence of King Al-Mutadid who allegedly drank his wine from the skulls of his enemies. Inside there are steps down to the foot of the gorge. Now these are Arabic. The 14th century Mina stairs was built by the Moors to prevent water blockades in times of war. The steps were sculpted out of the rock and, according to various guidebooks, there are meant to be 365 of them. Well, on my visit, I counted only 299! That was enough! Returning to the top quite exhausted, it was with relief that I rested - in the delightful gardens of the mansion.
Mina Stairs
Arco de Felipe V
A little further on, is the Arco de Felipe V - King Philip V's Arch - that leads to the Puente Viejo or old bridge. Why is it called that? The new bridge is over 200 years old and admittedly the Puente Viejo is older still but the third bridge that crosses the Río Guadalevín is even older - the Puente Arabe was built in the time of the Moors. Alongside the Arco de Felipe V, there is an attached stone chair known as the Sillón del Moro - the Moor's Chair.

Baños Arabes
Not far from the arch is the Arab bridge and also the Baños Arabes. These Arabic baths date from the 13th century and are the best preserved in Spain.

In Calle Marqués de Salvatierran are a number of notable buildings. Capilla de la Santa Cruz stands at one end of the street and next door is one of the finest houses in Ronda, the Palacio de Salvatierra. It was built in 1784 and boasts an exquisite wrought iron balustrade, which is almost as decorative as the façade of the house. The old Marqués must have been important to have both the house and the street named after him! 
Palacio de Salvatierra
At the other end of this street is the Minarete de San Sebastián. It is the only remnant of the old 14th-century Nasrid mosque that stood on this site. There are many religious buildings in the city and quite a few in this area - like the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor which was built on the ruins of Ronda's main mosque. The church is a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. There are also Arabic features - the minaret that has been converted into a bell-tower and the remains of the original mihrab. 
Minarete de San Sebastián

Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor
There are many religious buildings in Ronda. In fact, there is so much to see that visitors will need several days in the town to do it justice. However, there are still plenty of fine monuments within easy walking distance of the Church of Santa María. Opposite, on the opposite side of the Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcent, are a group of religious buildings - the Convento de las Clarisas, the Iglesia y Convento de la de Santa Isabel de los Angeles and the Iglesia y Convento de la Caridad. In the same square is the Casa Consistorial, which was a military headquarters in the 18th century.
Mondragón Palace

By far the most attractive building in Ronda is the Mondragón Palace. It has Gothic and Renaissance features as well as some of the original Moorish mosaics. Built in the 14th century, it was formerly a Moorish residence. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, also lived there for a while. Nowadays, it houses the 'Museum of Ronda and the Serrania'.

There are several interesting museums in the town. Not far away, in Calle Armiñan, is the Museo Historico-Popular del Bandolera - the Bandit Museum. In this same street are two other museums the Lara Museum and the Museum of Hunting. Calle Armiñan leads down to the barrio of San Francisco - another old part of town. This street has lots of shops, which would normally be bad news for me if I am with my wife. However, I particularly enjoy exploring the dark recesses of some of the shops containing as they do old furniture, bric-a-brac and many items to do with hunting - old weapons and heads of wild boar!

I have only covered a small area within reasonable walking distance from the Puente Nuevo. There are many other interesting churches, palaces, museums as well as breathtaking views within Ronda. There is even an old hostel, the Posada de las Animas where Cervantes allegedly stayed.

Ronda is one of my favourite places and whenever I visit the Costa del Sol, I always head for the town perched above the Tajo Gorge. However it is not just for the spectacular views, or the beautiful architecture that I regularly visit. I sometimes drive straight through the town towards one of a number of natural parks that surround Ronda. The Serrania de Ronda is the mountainous area to the southwest of the town. It is a national hunting region. Also southwest is the delightful Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park - an area of great limestone mountains. The highest peak in these mountains is the Torrecilla, which is the highest in the province of Málaga at nearly 2000 metres above sea level. There are also some of the deepest chasms on Earth here. The royal eagle, hawk and mountain goat make their home amidst this dramatic landscape, which also features the Spanish Fir. This area, too, is a National Hunting Reserve and is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Sierra de las Nieves
To the east, is the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, which has also been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. Opened in 1984, it was the first natural park in Andalucía. When I first encountered its scenic beauty, I was so captivated by the beautiful countryside of that region that, whenever I visit the Costa del Sol, I spend several days driving around this area. There are deep gorges, rugged mountains where goats forage, caves and large expanses of cork and holm oaks as well as the pinsapo fir. Griffen vultures can often be seen soaring overhead. One of the reasons that the area is so green is that it has the highest rainfall in Europe - a quirk of nature caused by warm clouds, full of moisture from the Atlantic, penetrating inland areas and encountering the barrier of successive mountain ranges which causes the clouds to rise and cool down. The result is condensation and rainfall. In Grazalema and its surrounding area the rain can allegedly reach 45 gallons per square foot!

Serrania de Ronda
Further south, towards Gibraltar and Algeciras, is the Los Alcornocales Natural Park. The largest cork oak forest in Europe is situated here but there are also holm oak, gall oak, wild olive trees and holly. Deer and wild goat are just some of the inhabitants of the park.

Amidst the fantastic countryside that surrounds Ronda are the Pueblos Blancos de Andalucía. This is the name that tourist guides give to the White Villages in the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga and, in particular to those villages to the west of Ronda. They are delightful - narrow maze-like streets and alleyways lined with whitewashed houses bedecked with floral arrangements - the villages tumbling down the slopes of the mountains. Grazalema, Olvera, Ubrique and Zahara de la Sierra are just a few of the charming villages that dot this fascinating region.

White Towns of Andalusia

Robert Bovington
March 2012 (updated Nov 2013)

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