Ronda is an extraordinary place. The epitome of traditional Spanish culture (bullfighting is a very, very big deal in Ronda), while simultaneously maintaining an identity that is unique and (slightly) aloof. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a town tracing its evolution from early Celtic tribes, to Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. The town is split in two by the dramatic El Tajo gorge, separating the old Moorish part of town to the south, La Ciudad, from the newer, El Mercadillo, area to the north, built following the Christian Reconquista in 1485.
In Ronda, ‘newer’ has different meaning, this is one of Spain’s most ancient towns. On the western side of town you can see why Ronda has been inhabited for millennia, and why it took so long for Christian forces to capture it: the town teeters on the edge of vertical cliffs that plunge over a hundred metres straight down, making it a near impregnable stronghold.
The two parts of the town are connected by it’s, and one of Spain’s, most emblematic sights: a towering triple-arched bridge that induces vertigo when stood on top of it, and a sense of awe when stood beneath it looking up, white water tumbling between its central arch. The bridge, known as the Puente Nuevo, is one of three, but is the most famous of all thanks to a particularly brutal incident in 1936. During the Spanish Civil War, Republican forces from Malaga arrived in Ronda, rounded up Nationalist and Fascist sympathisers, throwing them off the bridge to their deaths 120 metres below.
In a conflict that produced many acts of barbarity from both sides, the executions in Ronda have a particular notoriety. Much used for propaganda purposes at the time, it was probably Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which recounts a fictional version of events in Ronda, that made it internationally famous. Despite these terrible, and not particularly ancient, events, Ronda is a beautiful and tranquil place to spend a few days. It also makes a good base for exploring the mountainous surrounding countryside.
Hemingway wasn’t alone in being drawn to Ronda, many other artists sought inspiration here, including film maker Orson Welles and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke said of Ronda, “I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda. There is nothing that is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.” Stand on the Puente Nuevo and you get a sense of exactly what Rilke meant.
His last phrase, “wild and mountainous”, gives a hint of another side to Ronda and the surrounding region: for a couple of hundred years this was considered bandit country. The region was criss-crossed with trails used by smugglers from the coast, largely outside the control of the Spanish state. It gained a notorious reputation for banditry and contraband. This is, after all, the region that gave birth to one of Spain’s most famous literary characters, Carmen. Made famous by Bizet’s opera, Carmen was inspired by a visit to this region by French writer, Prosper Mérimée.
Ronda is considered to be the birthplace of modern Spanish bullfighting. The modern form, with all its rules and traditions, including the scarlet cape, started here in the 18th Century. Before that, and a little like Ronda’s reputation for lawlessness, bullfighting had two forms, one of which was just an out-and-out man versus bull free-for-all. I doubt this improved the bulls chances, but the modern form more or less ensures an unfair competition by weakening the neck muscles of the bull (with knives) before the matador takes to the ring.
To celebrate the founding of this new form of bullfight, Ronda built what many consider to be Spain’s finest bullring. Seating 5000 people, it hosts some of the biggest and most important fights in the country. When there is a big bullfight in Ronda the national media show up. There’s a museum attached which we skipped in favour of less bloodthirsty activities – wandering the streets sampling some of the delicious food that is on offer in the numerous tapas bars.