Walking In Ronda, Andalusia's Cliffhanger City

Ronda is perched on the edge of a rocky outcrop and surrounded by cork forests and craggy mountains in southern Spain. Take a walk with traveller Kalpana Sunder through its old and new towns
A tour of Ronda in Andalusia, Spain
The white village perched on the El Tajo gorge Kalpana Sunder

It’s love at first sight.

Red-tiled roofs and whitewashed buildings, olive trees, and a 300ft deep craggy gorge—I am standing on the Puente Nuevo, the iconic 18th-century bridge of Ronda with triple arches and columns. It hangs over the El Tajo gorge and the Guadelevin River, which divides the town into two: the labyrinthine Moorish old town and the 15th-century new town. Despite its name, the latter was built in 1783 and took over 40 years to complete. Behind me are groups of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks and horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists around the town.

A Mesmerising Landscape

The view over El Tajo
The view over El TajoCopyright: Kalpana Sunder

Ronda, set on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by cork forests and craggy mountains, is the gateway to the Pueblos Blancos or “white towns”—a series of hill towns in the Sierra de Grazalema, named after their glowing whitewashed walls in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia. The colour was a way of preventing infection during the plague. They used to be painted with slaked lime in the past which was believed to kill the bacteria which caused the disease. It also kept houses cool in this part of Spain, which has high temperatures.

A large part of why Ronda is popular is its jaw-dropping topography: it has a deep ravine and three bridges at various heights which are silhouetted against the surrounding mountains. Our guide tells us that the valley beneath Ronda was once the bottom of the ocean, and the surrounding vertical cliffs have seashells encrusted in them.

Steeped In The Past

The Iglesia del Socorro de Ronda
The Iglesia del Socorro de RondaCopyright: Kalpana Sunder

History whispers from every corner of the town. It was settled by the Celts, the Romans and the Moors until Catholic Monarchs recaptured the town in 1485. In the 20th century, writers and artists from Ernest Hemingway to Alexandre Dumas were attracted to the photogenic town with its whitewashed buildings, orange trees, olive groves and rolling hills. It was here that actress Ava Gardner spent some time after her divorce from Frank Sinatra in 1957.

We arrive at Ronda near its 13th-century town gates. The Puerta de Almocábar’s name derives from the Moorish name for cemeteries, which were traditionally built outside the town walls. We then walk to the Church of the Holy Spirit which was the first church to be built after Ronda was retaken by the Catholic Monarchs. The church was actually built as a defensive structure to ward off attacks.

The Plaza de Toros
The Plaza de TorosCopyright: Kalpana Sunder

From here we drive up to the Plaza de Toros, named for one of the oldest bullfighting rings in Europe. Now, it is only used for three days in a year. It has a circular bullring built of soft sandstone and a circle of sand surrounded by spectator rows under a tiled roof. You might remember the bullring as the backdrop to Madonna’s “Take a Bow” video.

The main square of the town, called Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, was a focal point during the Spanish Civil War. You will find Ronda’s town hall there. Just across it is the Church of Santa María la Mayor which has an interesting mix of Moorish, Gothic and Baroque architecture. It used to function as Ronda’s main mosque but many ages ago the site was once a Roman temple to the goddess Diana.

The shopping street of Calle Espinel
The shopping street of Calle EspinelCopyright: Kalpana Sunder

I browse through souvenir shops on the pedestrian shopping street of Calle Espinel. It is a fiesta with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. At every corner street musicians are singing and playing a violin or guitar, creating a romantic ambience. Beautiful tiles with Moorish designs and colourful ceramics entice me from small shops. At the end of the street is the attractive old town that dates back to Moorish rule which lasted from the 8th to the 15th centuries. It has narrow, steep alleys and tightly packed houses decorated with tiles which are positioned around a central courtyard.  

A Beloved Town

Walking through the old city walls, charming squares, yellow-painted churches and tiled fountains feels like time travel. I sip a coffee at a café in Plaza del Socorro with a statue of Hercules to keep me company. This was where the flag of Andalusia was unfurled by Blas Infante in 1918. He was a writer, historian and political leader who was assassinated by dictator Francisco Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War. Infante's last words were, "Long live free Andalusia.”

Inside the Casa Museo Don Bosco
Inside the Casa Museo Don Bosco Copyright: Kalpana Sunder

Not far from the Puente Neuvo is a wall decorated with tiles where the centre panel depicts a panoramic view of the city. Around it are 11 plaques with quotes from famous visitors expressing their love and admiration for Ronda. A narrow cobblestone street takes me to the Casa Museo Don Bosco, a stately modernist mansion that was built around 1850 and remodelled at the beginning of the 20th century as a shelter for elderly and sick priests. Today it’s a museum furnished with tiles, ceramics tapestries and exquisite hand-carved walnut wood furniture. But the real star attraction is the balcony with a fountain that overlooks the gorge and the valley.

I start walking a steep cobblestone path which meanders past stone buildings and small cafés selling fresh orange juice. It will lead me to the 13th-century Arab Baths at the base of the hill. My first stop on this path is the Casa del Rey Moro. This House of the Moorish King was built in the 14th century on the site of an original Moorish wheel. It has a beautiful garden at three levels designed by a French landscape architect with palm, oleander, cedar and myrtle trees standing out among ceramic tiles and fountains. A set of 200 steep steps carved into the rock leads down to a subterranean cave at the base of the gorge, where you will find a “water mine"—a water mill with a wheel. I imagine slaves in the past who had to carry water from here to the town when it was under siege by invading Christian armies. Spending some time in the shaded garden where peacocks prance about and fountains and pools are decorated with flowers and tiles restores me.

The Arco de Felipe V gate, the only access between the old and new towns in the olden days
The Arco de Felipe V gate, the only access between the old and new towns in the olden daysCopyright: Kalpana Sunder

The next attraction on my path to the baths is the Arco de Felipe V gate—a historic gate with the royal coat of arms—which makes up part of the old city walls and was named after the King of Spain, Philip V, who reigned from 1700-1746. After I walk through it I finally reach the Arab Baths. It still retains its original horseshoe columns that were excavated at the bottom of the hill. It had three rooms with water at varying temperatures and the only source of natural light came from the star-shaped holes in the ceilings.

A Final Evening

All this walking has made me ravenously hungry so I sink into the comfortable chairs at the Sensur Gastrobar located near the Plaza del Socorro. It offers a contemporary take on tapas and Spanish food in a relaxing ambience. My meal is a fusion mix of mango salmorejo (a creamy cold soup), berenjenas (a crisp fried eggplant with molasses) and vegetable gyozas in miso soup.

The Alameda del Tajo gardens
The Alameda del Tajo gardensCopyright: Kalpana Sunder

Afterwards, I head back to the gorge for a different view. I take the route through the leafy and tranquil Alameda del Tajo gardens, a 19th-century park with five avenues, benches to relax on, and gargantuan mimosa, cedar, and pine trees. It leads to the edge of the cliff.

I finish the day with a sundowner cocktail on the rooftop bar of Hotel Catalonia. It has a bird’s-eye view of the Plaza de Toros as well as the surrounding mountains, which are now bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. I muse on Ronda’s tumultuous history and how it continues to cling—literally and figuratively—to the rocky outcrop, packed with stories from the past.

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