Many years ago I spent a year backpacking in southern Europe. I yearned to go again, and presenting a paper at a literary conference in Benalmadena, Spain gave me a reason to pack – but not a backpack, this time I took a small suitcase on wheels.
I decided to stay awhile on my own after the conference, but I wanted a change from the overdeveloped, busy, souvenir-ridden, Costa del Sol. I needed a place to unwind, let go of the conference and adjust to traveling alone. The conference organizers had suggested the traditional Andalusian town of Ronda as a day trip, along with Granada and Nerja, and a few other within-driving-distance places. Ronda piqued my curiosity because I knew it had been a favorite of writers like Ernest Hemingway who used the setting in some of his novels. Author, actor, film producer Orson Welles spent a year there in his youth and is buried locally on the Ordonez (famed bullfighting family) estate near Ronda. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke also spent some time there. Being a literary/film type myself, I wondered what had attracted them, so simple curiosity as well as the ease of getting there, made Ronda the destination of choice to begin my solo trip.
I took the train from Malaga on a Sunday – not the best choice in a country that honors the Sabbath as a day of rest by greatly reducing services. I had to change trains in Bobadilla and had barely enough time to zip from one platform to another. Aside from that bit of excitement, my journey passed uneventfully through the suburbs of Malaga to a countryside of seemingly ubiquitous olive groves then tunneled upwards into the rugged hills of Spain's southern Serrania. I reached Ronda, a town of about 35,000 inhabitants, in just under two hours.
The train and bus stations are a comfortable, 15-minute walk from town center and Plaza de España where I found the local Tourismo (tourist office) as well as many nearby, distinctively Spanish lodgings. I was on a tight budget, so Pensión Purisimo worked well for me. Located on Calle Sevilla, only two blocks from Plaza de España, this pensión was handy for sightseeing. Rooms with baths down the hall were clean. The Spanish and French speaking owners were happy to accommodate me even though I arrived in late afternoon when all the single rooms were taken. They gave me a triple and charged only C$20 per night.
I could walk to Ronda's scenic, historic and architectural attractions. The Tourismo was helpful with free maps and advice on local sights and walking routes. Perched on a rocky outcropping, Ronda's early history began as an Arab stronghold. Protected by El Tajo, a 90 meter deep gorge, it was virtually impenetrable until 1485 when Christian invaders triumphed. The town still retains its Moorish style with whitewashed houses, tiled foyers and heavy wooden doors.
Some say this gorge is the setting for the scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls where Hemingway tells of Franco loyalists being beaten and thrown over the cliff during the Spanish civil war. Spanning the gorge, Puente Nuevo (new bridge), is an 18th century, arched stone bridge that links the Mercadillo (new town) with the historical palaces and mansions of La Ciudad (old town). Beneath is a mysterious, not presently accessible, chamber said to have been occupied by bandits and prisoners sometime in the past. The path descends to the remarkable, recently restored Arab Baths (C$4), the most complete such baths in all of Spain.
Following the path alongside the ancient Moorish walls, I climbed stone stairways, without handrails, to gain a lovely view of the Guadalévin valley and the craggy Serrania rising in the distance. The lavishly tiled and decorated Palacio do San Juan Bosco (C$4) had views of El Tajo, distant market towns and the Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcenat. This plaza was the place for bullfights until the late 18th century. Lanes radiating from the plaza were closed off and a balcony was even added to the Plaza's Santa Maria la Mayor so that church members could watch.
Since 1785, bullfights have been held in the Plaza de Toros. Built totally of stone, the bullring is the oldest in Spain. Disinclined, myself, to watch a bullfight, I nevertheless wandered around the cold, stone circle of seats absorbing its atmosphere. Later I visited the attached museum (C$3), which satisfied my interest in a spectacle so central to Spanish culture.
Only a block away, in Plaza del Socorro, children play soccer and locals relax on iron-worked benches. Here, and on the nearby shopping street, Calle Nueva, I found convenient spots to lunch. Usually including rolls, drink, main dish, and dessert, menús del dia averaged about C$10. For variety, I ordered bocadillos y queso (C$3.50), huge rolls with slabs of mountain goat cheese – plain but delicious.
Most of Ronda's tourists are day-trippers from the Costa del Sol, but I'm glad I gave myself three days to settle in like a local, and have time for wandering the town's maze-like streets, relaxing in its friendly cafés, and walking in the peaceful and scenic Guadalévin valley.