Pine trees gripped onto the orange boulder-strewn sides as we curled up the mountain. The sea, once a hazy ribbon, became a memory hidden behind the peaks. As we snaked around the valleys into the Serranía Ronda the trees thinned to be replaced by shrubs amongst which could be seen the odd sheep grazing. The rocks took on a greyer hue as we neared the town of Ronda in the Andalucían province of Málaga, with areas of flat land dressed with weathered rocks. Life became more evident with a few small hotels and restaurants grouped at crossroads as we approached the outcrop of rock on which Ronda sits.
A billy goat chewed nonchalantly on a shrub next to a shrine, impassive as the bus sailed past him. Then in front of us the sprawling white town of Ronda, larger than I remembered from previous visits, sat perched as if a spaceship had landed and remained. On the outskirts a huge hospital is being built, or at least the shell is there but no workmen were evident and I wonder whether there is money enough to finish it, and housing estates have sprung up like mushrooms. The other side of the road remained farmland with farmsteads dotted about the land.
Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with origins in Prehistory. The caves of Pileta are one of the most significant monuments from prehistory with its Stone Age art whilst other megalithic monuments are scattered about. Closer in history are the Roman remains which can be found dotted around the area including the town of Acinipo. There was not time enough, restricted as we were by bus timetables, to hire a taxi to take us to the town but there are the remains of the theatre that make it a worthwhile excursion if already in the Ronda area. It was under the Moorish influence that Ronda attained its status and some of its most impressive architecture. Ronda became one of the capitals of the five coras of Al-Andalus.
The walk from the bus station took us through the new part of the town past the seventeenth century Church of La Merced which is said to house the 'incorrupt hand' of St. Theresa de Jesus and to the 19th century Alameda del Tajo Park. Consisting of tree-lined avenues the views from the balconies are worth a look. Along one avenue there is a celebration of 75 years of the Sur newspaper. It was interesting to see the front page coverages of the end of the Second World War, man landing on the moon and Franco's funeral. From there it was only a few yards to one of the greatest symbols of the romantic era of Ronda – the Plaza de Toros.
The bullring has been recognised as the first purpose-built spaces for the fighting of bulls in the world. The first bullfight took place in 1785 in the ring that is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of Tuscan columns. The bullring also hosts museums of Antique firearms, harness and livery collections as well as to bullfighting and the riding school and stables of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda. The bull is not forgotten. A sculpture of the magnificent beast stands outside one of the puertas. Next to the bull was a chap with his horse (which looked bored beyond belief) ready to take money from tourists willing to shell out €2 to sit on his horse, waving his hat in the air, whilst their travelling companions took a photo. He did a relatively good trade during the early hours but when we returned in the early afternoon sun, when most sensible people were sat in the shade or taking lunch, both he and the horse looked as if they would rather be anywhere else.
The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most recognisable of the Ronda monuments as it spans the depth of the gorge. It is quite an extraordinary feat of engineering. The first attempt at a crossing at this part of the gorge, there were already two earlier bridges one from Arab times and the second from the seventeenth century (the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge), was begun in 1735. It consisted of one large arch and took eight months to build but only lasted for six years. The second and remaining attempt was started in 1758 and was finally completed in 1787. The opening of the bridge changed the nature of the city with the Muslim medina being replaced by the modern Mercadillo with life revolving around the Plaza de España which sits next to the Puente Nuevo. For €2 you enter the bridge where there are displays on the history of the bridge and the birds that live in and around it. It is also good to get another view from the bridge though understandably one is not allowed to open the windows to take a picture.
Over the Puente Nuevo and a cobbled street leads down towards the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King), the Arab Baths, and the Old and Arab bridges. The Casa del Rey Moro was described on our tourist map as containing "Impressive Islamic work" which I took to be tiles, arches and decoration as well as the stylish gardens that one can see at palaces like the Alhambra in Granada and Alcazaba in Málaga. I was disappointed. The casa has fallen into serious disrepair with foliage growing out of the roof, the majority of the windows smashed and broken and little sign of anything remotely Islamic from the outside. This is because it is a fraud. It had never been the home to a Moorish king having been constructed in the eighteenth century when the time of the Moorish kings was but a distant memory. The gardens are even more modern having been designed by the Frenchman Forestier in 1912 along Moorish lines. They are quiet gardens offering shade in which it is pleasant to take a rest from the hot sun but the whole affair is tired and crumbling. The part of the gardens which is truly Moorish is La Mina Secreta but it requires lungs and legs that do not mind descending and then ascending a steep winding staircase of uneven steps that is poorly lit. One lady who was catching her breath at the top informed us that there were 194 steps to the bottom. I took her word for it as I concentrated on not breaking my neck as I made my descent (I am not goat-like in surety of foot).
At the bottom of the steps is part of the river Guadelevin which barely flows but resembles a small lagoon from the bent and rickety metal platform upon which you stand. The water has a green turquoise hue to it with fish and crayfish living in its shallows and only the calls of the birds nesting in the gorge's walls to disturb a time of quiet contemplation. Here you dream of a Moorish harem enjoying the cool waters or a princess enjoying time away from the court but the reality would have been something different. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Ronda was caught in the crossfire between the Christians of Sevilla and the Moors of Granada and was frequently besieged. In the hot mountains of Andalucía the first target would have been the water supply. It is rumoured that the Moorish king Abolmelic used Christian slaves to cut the original steps down to the gorge in order that water could be brought up. The name La Mina Secreta, Secret Mine, would intimate that the stairway was a secret but as the Christians were known to say that "In Ronda you die carrying water skins" it must have been a very open secret.
We passed by a number of chambers built adjacent to the stairway including the Sala de Secretos (Room of Secrets), Terraza de la Conquista (Terrace of the Conquest) and Sala de las Armas (Armoury Room). Sadly I did not know at the time that the Sala de Secretos, which had formerly been another well, is a room in which a whisper made in one corner can be heard in the opposite corner but not by anybody stood in the middle; I like to try these things out for myself! The reason for not knowing: the only leaflets available were those in French and German and as between the two of us we can speak four languages we were rather unfortunate to be stuck with the only leaflets we could not understand.
Down the hill to the arch of Philipe V and the Arab Baths we walked on a cobbled street so worn that the stones shone. Cars sped up the hill which they had no option to do as stopping would not be a wise move on a hill so steep, beeping at the corners to give tourists time to move out of the way. Incredibly a Learner driver was being initiated in the 'driving with foot to the floor' style of motoring, and unfortunately for her when she failed on the lower part of the hill to maintain momentum, on hill-start motoring as well. The learner smiled broadly as her instructor encouraged more power and an abandonment that would send UK instructors to the nearest asylum.
The Arab Baths were not worth their €3 entrance fee. 90% of the baths could be photographed from the road, informative signs were almost non-existent and the garden area that I assume was meant to resemble a Moorish garden was a forlorn example of horticulture with a couple of sad young almond trees, a few thriving rosemary bushes and plethora of dried and dying weeds filling the spaces between the pathways. A screen was playing a history lesson on bathing culture in one the rooms. The couple who stayed to watch it for a second time must have determined that they were going to get their money's worth as well as take respite from the now beating sun.
Climbing the gorge, having crossed over the Puente Viejo, we were able to see the full extent of the dilapidation of the Moorish King's house. I find it sad to see once elegant buildings fall into disrepair especially when money is coming into the coffers in some form or another. Having reached the Puente Nuevo once again we crossed over but this time made a right turn towards the Mondragón Palace past the Casa de Don Bosco. Our luck was in as it was a free entrance day into the palace which houses the headquarters of the Museum of Ronda.
The building is an example of the Mudéjar style of architecture. Mudéjar is a symbiosis of Muslim and Christian cultures that is shown in architectural ways. The buildings were mainly of brick and interpreted Christian styles with an Islamic influence. The courtyards with their arches and galleries link the different areas of the palace and lead out into the gardens which also offer views across the plains and the gorge. The museum has displays on the history of the area, funeral rites and the Roman town of Ancipio. It is an informative and attractive palace to visit.
As the time drew near for us to start our walk back to the bus station we took the scenic route via Saint Mary's Church. Dating from the fifteenth century it had been the principal mosque before being converted into a church by Fernando 'El Catolico'. The only remaining element of that time is the arch of Mirhab and part of its walls which is hidden behind the tabernacle's altar. Part of the Gothic style of the original church is retained through the columns and arches (part of the church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1580). We did not feel inclined to pay €4 each to enter the church and so missed the ostentatious altar of the Virgin that I remember from previous visits as being blindingly golden.
My thirst from walking up and down the sides of Ronda was suitably quenched as we neared the bus station and dipped into 'El Purto' bar. Clean, with good service and free from tourist prices (only €1 for a bottle of beer) with tapas available, I would highly recommend it to the weary day tripper.
Ronda has a lot to offer and we did not see many of the places open to us, so if you are tied down by the number of visiting hours available to you, select wisely and be aware that most sites charge at least €2 and you may not get to see very much for your money. A good pair of shoes is essential especially if descending into the gorge or walking up and down the cobbled streets that line its side.