Semana Santa in Ronda

We arrived in Ronda in time to catch more Semana Santa festivities, and after the massive celebrations of Malaga it was interesting to see what happens in a small town. Not that Semana Santa in Ronda isn’t a big affair. Most of the town seems to turn out for the numerous parades that wind their way from outlying barrios to Plaza Socorro, and back again. We made our way towards Barrio San Cristobal where one procession started around 8pm, just after darkness had fallen.

It was a chilly evening – at an altitude of 744m, Ronda can get cold at this time of year – and we had to hang around for a while waiting for things to get going. Eventually people started to gather, food vendors passed up and down the lines, and the sense of anticipation grew. Despite the cold night air, seeing a procession at night is an atmospheric experience, particularly as many people in the procession carry big candles, including small children. The main float of the Virgin was brilliantly illuminated with dozens of candles.

Semana Santa in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Semana Santa in Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Following the Reconquista, when Spain was united under Ferdinand and Isabella, forging a Catholic, Christian identity for a nation that had been largely Islamic for 700 years was a major undertaking. Semana Santa became a tool for doing just that, and the origins of the celebration as it now exists dates back to just after the end of Moorish rule in 1492. In Ronda, the first written records of the Semana Santa celebrations date from 1538, although it probably started earlier, giving the city 500 years of tradition to draw upon.

There were definitely some differences between Ronda and Malaga. There were still plenty of long pointy hats, but there were also a number of different types of headdress, including one that looks uncannily like those you see in any film or documentary about ancient Egypt. In the procession in Barrio San Cristobal there were also a lot of women elegantly dressed in black lace, something else we’d not seen in Malaga

The mixture of young and old, of fun-filled festival and sombre religious parade, makes the night processions well worth going to. The good thing, for the casual observer, is that the floats weigh so much that it impossible for the procession to move at much more than a snails pace. We watched the procession file past and then wandered off with the crowd to find a tapas bar, for a bit of warmth and sustenance.

Some food and a couple of glasses of vino tinto later, we caught up with the procession still some way from the centre of Ronda. It literally takes hours for a procession to complete its course, which tells you a lot about the dedication and devotion of the people who participate, especially those carrying the floats. It also allows the less devoted to visit a few tapas bars and not miss any of the spectacle.

Ancient Ronda, Spain’s wild and startling town

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.

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalusia, Spain

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.