Thursday, 14 May 2009

Ronda: “profunda y honda” (deep and profound), according to the popular saying, or “the town of your dreams,” in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ronda: the old town full of monuments that dazzled Hemingway, Orson Welles, and many others. Ronda: the city of bullfighting and glitz that is a must-attend in Málaga. Ronda: leaning onto the gorge that tears it apart leaving an indelible scar. Ronda: a cold town in the sierras, home to bandits, hunters, artists. Ronda: a city whose streets and winding alleys hide lots of historical secrets. Ronda: a town to walk around.

A Hearty Breakfast

Our journey begins along the winding road that links Ronda with San Pedro Alcántara. Lots of bends, feels like heaven for motorbikers, lots of traffic… Let’s slow down, let’s not fret about the crowd, let’s take in the landscape –mountains and peaks, limestone and karst. About 1km (0.62mi) before getting to our destination, we can stop at Venta La Parrilla, the Mecca of breakfasts. As a matter of fact, we’ll need a hearty breakfast, sierra-style, to enjoy the city. (A full belly is one of the keys to a trip’s success.) All manners of toast buttered with “manteca colorá” (red butter) or white butter, with “zurrapa de lomo“ (loin dregs), chorizo, spiced sausage, pâté, or oil and garlic. Not apt for veggies or sensitive stomachs. You can eat as much as you want, taking everything from a central table. Breakfast for two (coffee and toast with white butter and loin dregs): €4.50. Let’s move on.

Parking in Ronda - Calle de la Bola

The gorge-divided city features a high number of clearly signposted, affordable public parking places, but you can also park on the street. In the lower part of town and the district of San Francisco there’re fewer cars but also fewer parking spaces. Bear in mind that, after leaving your car here, you’ll need to climb a steep hill before reaching the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) area in the centre of town. You can also park in the area of Espinel Street, also known as Calle de La Bola. There’re more cars here, traffic is heavier, but you can still find a place to park quite easily. After giving the first choice a try, I decided to take the second one. I left my car on Calvo Asensio Street and accessed Carrera Espinel on foot. This street has been known as “Calle de la Bola” “since time immemorial.” It’s a crowded place with a nice ambience, full of stores selling everything from gifts and souvenirs to hardware, odd gadgets, and toys. About toys: El Pensamiento is the right place for those who refuse to leave childhood behind. It sells curiosities and handmade toys. If you need a break, go to Plaza del Socorro (outside the Church of El Socorro) and sit down, find your way around, plan your tour. Walking down “La Bola,” you’ll come to the Bullring and one of Ronda’s Tourist Offices.

The Tourist Office and the Tourist Card

At Ronda’s Tourist Offices you can get two different types of Tourist Cards for the town’s sights, centres, and museums. The cheaper one is €8 and means saving €6 compared to buying separate tickets. It gives admission to the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) Visitor Centre, the Casa del Gigante (Giant’s House), Palacio de Mondragón (Palace of Mondragón), the Baños Árabes (Arab Baths), and the Museo de Pintura de Joaquín Peinado (Painting Museum). The more expensive one is €14 and means a €10 discount. If you get this card, you can visit all the places mentioned above plus the Museo del Vino (Wine Museum), the Museo del Bandolero (Bandit Museum), and the Lara Museum. I chose the €8 card, since neither of them included the Bullring (€6) or the Mine (€4). Be careful with opening hours. On Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays, municipal museums and centres close as early as 3:00 p.m.! At the Tourist Office you can also find postcards, stamps, and letter boxes, in case you want to tell your family and friends how you’re doing. Be sure you keep your Tourist Card safe. They’re similar to Credibus and can get lost among maps, brochures, leaflets, the wallet, the camera… Now you’re ready to go: Ronda at your feet. The morning tour includes the New Bridge, the Palace of Mondragón, the Peinado Museum, the Giant’s House, and the Arab Baths. If you’re in town by 10:00 a.m., you’ll be able to visit the five of them before 3:00 p.m. No need to hurry.

The Impressive Puente Nuevo

Looking into the Gorge (“Tajo” in Spanish), some 30m (98.4ft) from the Tourist Office, makes you feel dizzy. It’s like looking into the abyss. A city split into two. Deep down, you can see the greenish water of the Guadalevín river, from an altitude of 100m (328ft). To the north, Ronda’s sierras. To the south, the multiple terraces of the Cuenca Gardens. How can you get the best panoramic view of the New Bridge? Read below. Now let’s use your Tourist Card. Climb down the stairs taking you to the heart of the New Bridge, which took twenty-nine years to build and was finally completed in 1793. There used to be a jail in its central area; now there’s a Visitor Centre, where you can learn about the bridge’s construction and reconstruction, the problems to connect both halves of Ronda, and the architectural structure used by Martín de Aldehuela to overcome the difference in floor level created by the Tajo (Gorge). The tour is highly educational, but the best thing is being there, knowing you’re in the heart of the town itself, inside an architectural masterpiece. You won’t stop taking photos: north, south, lots of curious details, deep into the Gorge…

The Palace of Mondragón and, Before, Puerta de los Molinos

Our second stop is the Palace of Mondragón, on the other side of the Gorge, in the older part of town, also known as La Ciudad (The City). You’ll get here after a 10’ walk. After crossing the New Bridge, take the first street, Tenorio, right. The Palace is at the far end. 10m (32.8ft) before coming across the Mondragón, you’ll pass by Plaza de María Auxiliadora, where you can take some beautiful pictures of the sierras. A dirt and stone trail (in very good condition) zigzags 80m (262.5ft) down through the Mill Door, taking you to a small terrace where you can view the New Bridge rising above the Gorge. It’ll take you 10’ to go down, and a little longer (15’-20’) to climb back up. But it’s worth it. However, you’re advised to spare this side trip if you’re coming with children or seniors, since it can take too long and there’s still a long way to go. From Plaza de María Auxiliadora it’s just a pebble’s throw to the Palace of Mondragón. Inside, the Palace holds the Museo de Ronda (Museum of the City), an ethnographic tour of Ronda’s history and landscape and a full illustrated map of the sierras, from the Neolithic Age (there’re huts recreated from this period) to Iberian and Roman times. The Palace’s patios are remarkable. In one of them, the red arcade stands in sharp contrast to the bright blue sky. One of the doors leads to the Chefchauen Gardens, which make a row of balconies overlooking the Gorge’s mouth. This place is ideal to take a break, wrapped by the alluring smell of jasmines and sheltered from winds. Turn up your jacket’s collar; it can be cold in the gardens.

Museo Peinado: One or Ronda’s Best Kept Secrets

Not far from the Palace of Mondragón (100m/ 328ft, 5’ walk along Ruedo de Gameros Street), there’s one of Ronda’s best kept secrets: Museo Peinado (Peinado Museum). It’s discreet yet elegant, and features one of the largest collections of the paintings by Joaquín Peinado, a friend and disciple of Picasso’s and an heir to Cezanne. Its rooms are large, delicate, and impossibly white. There’s also a video room placing Peinado’s work in its historical and artistic context. The tour of his work suggested at the museum is amazing: still lifes, watercolour landscapes, fake advertising posters, female body sketches, and daring erotic drawings depicting sex scenes. The building has a fine restored chapel in red and white, rising almost 10m (32.8ft), which holds the main collection, and Mozarabic coffered ceilings in some of the rooms (almost certainly made with red pine wood). The access to the patio –which, like many others in Ronda, is protected by high walls– is dominated by a picture of Peinado and Picasso during a break in their work. Take your time to visit this museum, which is to be the Palacio de Moctezuma (Palace of Moctezuma). Both the works and the building are worth seeing. But remember: all municipal buildings close at 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays.

Casa del Gigante

Opposite the Peinado Museum, across Plaza de San Juan Bosco or Plaza del Gigante, there’s the Casa del Gigante (Giant’s House). In a quick tour of the house you’ll get a glimpse of its best features: the inner yard and the walls featuring Nasrid traces like plasterwork and flower motifs. During the house’s rehabilitation, metaphysical inscriptions have been added: “If from dust (earth) we come, then the Earth is my country. And all the worlds are part of my family.” The successive works done to the house have spoiled it; in an attempt to keep the magic, they have stripped it of its significance.

Heading for the Arab Baths

Getting out of the Giant’s House to the right, across San Juan de Letrán Street, you’ll get to one of Ronda’s main streets, Armiñán, where most museums are located. Walking down Armiñán you’ll get to Plaza de Abul Beka, where you can get a glimpse of the Minaret of San Sebastián, and old tower that was part of the Ronda Mosque. It’s quite easy to imagine how the muezzin called the moors in the lower part of town to pray from there. Continue your stroll along Armiñán Street and turn on the alley leading to the Hunting Museum, which goes down to the last walled area in Ronda –an impressive wall that used to protect the city from foreign invaders, which now reminds us of swords and screams. Through the Puerta de Cijara (Archway of Cijara) you’ll be able to see the Arab Baths. Go to the lower part of town. (You’ll climb back up later.) From the outside, the Baths won’t catch your eye: a building carved out of the earth with a series of arches supporting three vaults. But inside the views are quite different. These are the genuine Arab Baths or Hammam, a water and natural light miracle. One of the rooms shows a well-documented video where you can learn about the cold-, warm- and hot-water rooms, and the hydraulic system used by Muslims to keep the steam stable in all rooms, even in winter. You can almost hear the murmur of the water being carried from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century. Shadows play a game of their own between the columns thanks to the numerous skylights bringing natural light in. According to travel guides, Ronda’s Arab Baths are the best kept in the Iberian Peninsula. There’s a larger landscaped space that is currently closed. Bath goers must have spent some time in it before and after entering their world of steam and talk.

Uptown: Puente Viejo and Jardines de Cuenca

Walking up on the left of the Church of San Miguel, you’ll get to one of the bridges across the Gorge, the Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), dating back to 1616 and standing close to the Gorge, in a place chosen for its suitability for building. 20m (65.6ft) to the left of the bridge there’s the Archway of Felipe V. Crossing the bridge, you’ll get to the Jardines de Cuenca (Gardens of Cuenca), whose layered terraces afford stunning views of the Casa del Rey Moro (Palace of the Arab King) (which you’ll visit in the afternoon), the glorious Gorge, and the New Bridge (the upper terraces command great panoramic views). Sitting on the stone benches in the shadow of wild olive trees, you can regain strength after the climb and have another look at your maps. The gardens’ balconies show zillions of construction details along the Gorge: stairs leading nowhere, lookouts hanging in the air, dozens of onlookers, bold reporters… It’s a popular yet quiet place. The highest terrace has a door to Los Remedios Street, where there’s one of your key tour stops.

Stop and Lunch: Bar Moreno “El Lechuguita” and Daver

After a busy morning walking up and down Ronda and filling your soul with art, you’ll need to replenish your energy reserves. A good friend of mine had told me to go to El Lechuguita, on Los Remedios Street. It’s not a Michelin-star restaurant, but it’s one of the most typical, popular and inexpensive Andalusian inns in Ronda. With a long history, El Lechuguita oozes the essence of Málaga. Few tourists can be seen around. The menu includes a wide range of tapas and small servings. You’ll have to underline your tapas numbers and wait until the waiters call your name. There’re fifty-seven tapas and nine dishes to choose from. The star tapa is lettuce seasoned with olive oil and vinegar (be careful: it drips!). Ronda’s traditional food is far from oxtail or game casseroles. We were two and took “mijita” (#23), meat balls (#1), “masita moruna” (#20), “lechuguita” (#14), “magreta” (#17), “toast with ham and blue cheese” (#43), “migas” (#22), and “pringá” (#33), washing them down with four glasses of beer (“cañas” in Spanish) and a bottle of water. The bill: eight tapas, four beers, water = €8. Cheap and delicious. It was 4:00 p.m. by then. From the outside, El Lechuguita seems to be closed, but it’s not. An odd detail: take a look at the 1970 wine list on the wall; how much was a bottle of wine then? One of the waiters told us where to get good coffee: at Daver, a bar and patisserie a few steps from El Lechuguita, on 6 Los Remedios Street. It’s another culinary Mecca in Ronda, only sweet. We had apple pie, French toast, coffee and tea for €7.94. Now we were ready for the rest of our tour: the Bullring, the Palace of the Arab King, and the Gorge’s Poplar Grove at dusk.

The Bullring

The Ronda Bullring is stained with bullfighter blood. This could be a sentence from a story by Ernest Hemingway, but it’s true. Ronda’s is one of the oldest bullrings in Spain, and its long history pervades its atmosphere from the sombre bull pens to the bright ring. You can take a tour of the whole building: the “tendidos” (sections) protected by columns, the “burladeros” (bullfighter shelters), the bull pens, the stables, the “picadero” (exercise ring), and the stockyards. Most visitors get their pictures taken imitating matadors –“Hey, bull!”–, as tourists can’t believe their eyes. Everything is red and white in the Bullring, an extremely beautiful, well-kept building. The €6 admission fee could sound expensive, but there’s a Museo de la Tauromaquia (Bullfighting Museum) inside, where you can learn about the origins and history of bullfighting, its apogee in the twentieth century, and the new interpretations by modern artists, while looking at bullfighter’s costumes that were once worn by Paquirri or Antonio Ordóñez. Besides the Bullfighting Museum, there’s the Collection of Old Firearms –where curiosity wins over interest in history– and the Royal Garrison. Finally, the gift shop sells every bullfighting memento you can think of: from bullfighter’s hats and capes to aprons with bullfighting motifs. Ronda’s Bullring is the second most visited landmark in Málaga Province, the first one being the Cave of Nerja.

The Casa del Rey Moro and La Mina

Out of the Bullring and across the New Bridge, take the first street left, Santo Domingo. You’ll find the Casa del Rey Moro (Palace of the Arab King) 40m (131.2ft) ahead. The Palace holds the Forastier Gardens and La Mina (The Mine) as well. Two tickets: €8. Entering the Mine, you enter a realm of legends. A narrow door leads to a 60m (197ft) descent made up of 200 uneven steps. The cave, carved into the rock of the Gorge, connects the town to the bed of the Guadalevín river, courtesy of the architectural ingenuity of the Arabs. The Mine is a strange and rather creepy place, somewhat like a prison rather than a water mine (which is what is actually was). Dark, damp, leaking… You’d better watch your step and clutch the iron rail (which isn’t very reliable either). With poor artificial lighting and dim rays of sunlight coming through the embrasures, the Mine takes you back to the times of Christian prisoners and beautiful princesses. Although the visit is far from a comfortable experience, being on the river bed, feeling the burden or the Gorge on your shoulders, is quite overwhelming. Moreover, you can hear the sound of wind blowing through, like a furious storm. After the excitement, you’ll have to climb up, and it’s wearisome work: too many steps and too uneven. Regain breath in the gardens designed by the French landscape architect Forestier, who’s the author of Seville’s María Luisa Park.

Santa María la Mayor Collegiate Church and Town Hall

Walking up Santo Domingo Street, turn left onto Armiñán Street –where you can find as many as four museums: Lara, (Museo de la Caza) Hunting, (Museo del Bandolero) Bandit, and Museo del Vino (Wine)– and head for Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, facing the Ronda Town Hall, the beautiful Santa María la Mayor (admission: €4), and the Shrine of María Auxiliadora, where Santo Dominguito Savio terrifies us with his greeting: “Better die than sin.”

Dusk in the Alameda and Santa Teresa’s Incorrupt Hand

The bells chime in the churches of Ronda announcing dusk. Walk along Armiñán Street back to the New Bridge, have yet another look at the Gorge, cut across the Jardines de Blas Infante and Paseo de Orson Welles, and you’ll reach Alameda del Tajo. Against the natural backdrop of the Serranía de Ronda, take a seat and watch the sun go down behind the mountains. Everything is in peace. When I was there, going over maps and brochures, I realised I’d forgotten something: Santa Teresa’s incorrupt hand! Leaving peace and quiet behind, we rushed to the Church of La Merced, only to find it was closed. The Church is adjacent to the Convent of La Merced, where you can see the saint’s hand and buy delicious confections like handmade egg-based sweets (“yemas”) or preserves. The Convent’s closing time is 6:45 p.m., so you’d better come here before your dusk ceremony. Back along “Calle de la Bola,” we started looking for the “yemas.” Many patisseries in Ronda sell these traditional confections in small and big boxes (€4-8). We went to our car and drove away from Ronda, “profunda y honda,” the city of our dreams, promising to come back and fill in the blanks of our tour.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to take: First of all, take some warm clothes, even in the summer. It can get pretty cold in the evening, and the gust from the sierras can bring along cold temperatures. Secondly, wear comfortable, thick-sole shoes. You’ll have to walk a lot in Ronda and there’re many cobblestone streets, so the right kind of shoes can prevent your feet from hurting too much.
What to get: The Tourist Card is a good choice. It’ll help you save and plan your tour. There’re discounts available for students, seniors, and groups too.
Where to eat: El Lechuguita is a typical quaint bar, but if you go for a good meal, you can have regional dishes at good prices, and even special weekend menus for as little as €10. There’re some gourmet and specialty stores as well, near the Bullring or the New Bridge. You can buy sandwiches in them with the best products from the sierras (cheese, ham, game).
Another way of seeing Ronda: You can hire a horse-drawn carriage for a 30’ ride for €25. The driver will tell you everything you need to know. “Good service, warmth, knowledge… Better than a tour guide and cheaper than in Seville.”
General links: The Turismo de Ronda (Ronda Tourist Board) website contains lots of information in Spanish, English, and German. You can find a lot of things about Ronda here, from street maps and Tourist Cards to restaurant and accommodation directories to leisure activities, active travel, etc. The Costa del Sol Tourist Board website includes articles on Ronda’s art and history and gives practical information, including how to get there from almost anywhere else in the province. Other websites you can visit are Ronda Net, Serranía de Ronda, and CIT Serranía de Ronda, or you can listen to the local radio shows of Radio Ronda.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.