Apr 13th, 2019, 07:28 PM


By Caleb Lemke
Puente Nuevo. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke
A sojourn in the City of Dreams.

Rainer Maria Rilke

“The spectacle of this city, sitting on the bulk of two rocks rent asunder by a pickaxe and separated by the narrow, deep gorge of the river, corresponds very well to the image of that city revealed in dreams. The spectacle of this city is indescribable and around it lies a spacious valley with cultivated plots of land, holly and olive groves. And there in the distance, as if it had recovered all its strength, the pure mountains rise, range after range, forming the most splendid background.”

Ronda lies high in the Andalusian hills of southern Spain, with the town sitting atop two grand cliffs which overlook the surrounding valleys. The buildings are whitewashed and sandstone, with terracotta tile roofs and black wrought iron bars decorating the windows. Much of the village is navigable only by foot, through tight, cobblestone alleyways, a characteristic which imbues Ronda with its unique intimacy and charm. These little alleys open into shady green parks and plazas, focal points in village life. Vantage points are all over Ronda, over olive groves, into hills of the Sierras in the distance. It it is not a large city by any means, but Ronda leaves an impression on all who visit. Throughout the years, it has attracted influential artists, like Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway, who visited the city frequently.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Outside the walled Old City, within view of Puerta de Almocábar gate, lies the lively square Plaza Rueda Alameda, home to several restaurants whose only seating is in the square. A canopy of thick, green trees shade the plaza, providing much needed relief from the oppressive heat. In the center of the square sits a quiet, weathered fountain which depicts a monk pouring water from a jug. A popular playground sits at the far corner of the plaza, full of children whose laughter and squeals echoed across the square. Their parents chatted with each other at restaurant tables, watching their children from over cups of espresso. The day was unfolding for these Rondans as any normal, leisurely Saturday would. More people began crowding into the restaurants around the square, coming for the late Spanish lunch. I chose a restaurant for myself, and ordered the oxtail stew, soaking in the ambiance of the enchanting little square.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

After my rather grizzly stew, I began the walk into the Old City, Ronda proper. To enter, I had to pass under the short, centuries old walls made from the brown sandstone found everywhere in the city, though much of it is discolored and worn from the years. Nestled just inside the walls are more outdoor cafes, with more people languid in the shade of the early afternoon. Stairways along the interior of the wall also allow access to the parapets on top. Short as the walls may be, they are just tall enough to offer views of the mountains in the distance, just beyond the trees of the previous plaza.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

The road eventually opened on the right for another impressive panoramic view of the valleys, but the sidewalk narrowed to allow room for vehicles. All that separated me from the sheer rock face of the cliff was “protective” rail. The sheer face distracted me enough that I almost missed the Plaza Duquesa de Parcent. Named for a minor noble who had once been active in Rondan life, this plaza serves as another social nexus, offering a few smaller cafes around the perimeter. It also boasts an artisan craft shop, an old convent, and a church which you can enter for a fee. The center of the square is home to a little park, shaded by a ring of trees, with benches situated around the fountain in the center. The greenery of the central park was eye catching in the dichromatic white and brown of the village. 

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

There are two museums in the Old City worthy of a stop, the Museo del Bandeoleros and the Mondragon Palace. The former is a small, interesting museum, dedicated to the history of the famed Andalusian bandits, and their activities in the area. The latter is a 14th century Moorish estate and municipal building, which now serves as a museum of local history. The main draw is the immaculate and meticulously maintained Moorish gardens, which offer views into the valleys surrounding Ronda. Both museums are inexpensive, only seven euros between them.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

I stopped to indulge my gluttony at a bakery before continuing my explorations. After a few delicious treats, namely a pecan cookie held together by a fudge, I continued on in search of the most famous attraction in Ronda, the reason I came here. Puente Nuevo, an old bridge dating from 1793, and the famous gorge of El Tajo. While narrow and seemingly short, Puente Nuevo measures in at just shy of one hundred meters.

Both sides offer impressive views, but the one forever burned into my memory is the view into the valley. An unimpeded view stretches over olive groves that gently rise into the Sierras, reaching into the horizon and the bright azure sky. The pure vacuum of space open before me was awe-inspiring and proved that I was much higher than I had realized. The sound of the steadily churning waters in El Tajo as they emptied into the valley underscored the scene, and I found it genuinely difficult to tear myself away from the sight, despite the gales whipping me around. The other side of the bridge looked back into the gorge, over heavily shaded waters. Buildings are constructed overlooking the gorge, with restaurant terraces sitting high above the waters.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

While the other side of the city is relatively newer, and more touristy, it is still worth the visit. Immediately beyond the bridge is Ronda’s old bullfighting ring, though it is no longer active. Now it serves as a museum and hosts the occasional equestrian event. My favorite draw on this side of the city, though, was the tiny park adjacent to the bullfighting ring. Here I found proof of Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway’s presence, two large plaques boasting their connections to Ronda. Both men traveled to Ronda often, staying for months on end and becoming fixtures of local life. Both adored the old Spanish traditions of bullfighting, with Hemingway actually writing Death in the Afternoon, a non-fiction book detailing the tradition of Spanish bullfighting. Welles loved the area so much that he chose to make it his final resting place, with his ashes buried at a dear friend's nearby ranch.

As luck would have it, I visited the park on market day. Local craftsmen were positioned around the park, selling hats, olives, and local honey, along with typical tourist stalls. My favorite stall was run by Chico, a magnanimous Spaniard. Through contacts with local friends in the public parks department and contacts with local farmers, Chico collects scraps of olive wood and deer antlers from the area, which he fashions into beautiful, polished pens. He tinkers with the varieties of pen and materials, making everything he can think of, like antler rolling ball pens and fountain pens from various woods. Chico told me how he loves his pen-making side hustle and likes selling his pens at markets such as this one. While olive wood pens are his top seller, I wanted something darker. I asked if he had one, and he produced a dark wood he called “Arbol del Amor,” and fashioned a new pen with his wood lathe while I watched. For my father, I bought a couple made from old olive wood, sourced from a local grove.

Image Credit: Herb Lemke

The northern section of Ronda, while still maintaining its village charm, slides towards catering to tourists, with both tourist shops and the hordes of tourists, something missing across the gorge. Aside from a few pedestrian boulevards, most of the streets now open to allow vehicles, raising the noise level and detracting from the ambiance across the gorge of the older and slower Ronda.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Following the roads downhill, I crossed the gorge again. This time though, I crossed at a lower point, where I was practically in the gorge, with the air chilled from the cool waters rushing just a few feet beneath me. I passed through an ancient, crumbling gateway, to ascend back into the Old City. After passing the Arab Bathhouse and a church built into the side of the hill, I came across La Casa del Rey Moro, a strategic hold built in the Moorish period, which later would be home to minor nobility. While its main mansion has been undergoing repairs, the property still boasts impressive Moorish gardens on a terrace overlooking El Tajo, and much more interestingly, an old water mine. Stairs, carved naturally into the gorge wall, lead to the base of the river, allowing vital access to the river water, which is what made this such a strategic piece of architecture. La Casa del Rey Moro offers the only access into the gorge that I could find. While they do stagger entrance times, often leading to waits, the descent into the old mines and the waters at its base are remarkable sights to see. 

I still wanted one last look at Puente Nuevo though, so I sought out one of the trails which led to El Tajo and the falls that I had seen earlier. Finding the trails fenced off, I did what any true tourist would do, and ignored the fencing and "do not enter" signs. Judging by the holes in the fence, I was not the first tourist to have ignored the signs. The trail was afflicted with mudslides, though it had been dry for the last few days, and none were very large, so I had no issues navigating the path. Further down, I reached the vantage point I had been looking for, crowded with other tourists having their own photo shoots. But that view... it was one of those images that I will remember when I am old and gray, thinking back to my days of traveling. The panorama was amazing, with the sun setting in the West, rolling green farms and olive groves, and the sharp rise of the cliffs of Ronda with Puente Nuevo between them.

Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Initially, Ronda was supposed to be a short day trip, a stopover between Gibraltar and Granada. I had not anticipated finding the most beautiful city I have seen in Spain, the highlight of my week in Andalusia. I can see why men like Hemingway and Welles were so attached to the idyllic city. Ronda is worth more than a simple stop, the spectacular city is worthy of a trip solely on its own merits. Whether you get to Ronda by train or by car, I urge you to be mindful of the beauty of the journey through the Sierras. At several points in my own drive to Ronda, I pulled over onto the shoulder of the winding road to sit and soak in the beautiful vistas.