A magnificently preserved old town with a maze of lanes, convents, museums, churches, palaces and monuments, all of it a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a major part of Ronda’s visually gorgeous appeal, its gargantuan El Tajo gorge is another.
It’s impossible to remain unmoved as you drink in the astounding views from the walkway that skirts the gorge and the 18th century El Puente Nuevo bridge that links the historic centre with the ’new’ town, below it a yawning chasm.
Gaze over 100metres of cliff sides which fall in dizzying descent to the river, Rio Guadalevín; it was here many are reputed to have met their deaths during Spain’s Civil War, despatched over the ramparts. Hemingway’s fictional account in For Whom the Bell Tolls may well have been based on factual accounts.Look out across the Serranía de Ronda mountains for views that will leave you reeling with wonder (and as eager as every other visitor to capture these moments with your smartphone or camera). The poet Rainer Maria Rilke described Ronda as a ‘town of dreams’, and while man may have made it also the scene of nightmares during its history, it continues to be as captivating today – he also wrote ´there is nothing that is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city’!
Rilke is considered one of the most important poets of the German language. He is among numerous figures from literature and arts to have been bewitched by Ronda, some commemorated in street names. Rilke had his own permanent room set aside at the Hotel Reina Victoria, preserved just as he had it so do ask to take a peek. Writer Ernest Hemingway and film director Orson Welles, both fans of the bullfight, revered Ronda, which also inspired another famous American, Washington Irving.
Perched hilltop, Ronda was the scene of ferocious fighting for its capture, holding out during the Spanish reconquest and becoming a refuge for fleeing Muslims after the fall of Granada in 1492. Al Fihrey’s insurgent army in 1566 annihilated attacking Spanish soldiers and in return Philip II ordered the revenge killing of all Ronda’s ‘Moriscos’.
A rich and bloody history – and an appetite for the more gruesome aspects of the Spanish Inquisition – are compelling subject matter for the town’s museums, with one also dedicated to banditry as bandits and highwaymen were rife here in the 1800s. Lara’s Museum, next to El Tajo, is an eclectic series of galleries of fascinating historical and scientific artefacts. The basement is dedicated to instruments of torture used on ‘heretics’ and those accused of witchcraft, ghoulishly fascinating but not for the prudish or squeamish.
Spain’s oldest bullringThe spilling of blood in the Plaza de Toros continues, and Spain’s modern day bullfighting owes much to Ronda. As a feat of architecture the bullring is worthy of attention; even if you abhor its existence la corrida remains deeply ingrained in the culture of Spain. An accompanying museum goes some way to explaining its place here, and the influential role played by the Romero dynasty that developed the form of bullfighting still practised today.
If you prefer your blood red to be swirling in a glass and to be spilled rather from the grape, then Ronda will certainly not disappoint; neither if you prefer whites. La Sangre de Ronda (blood of Ronda) wine cellar and museum is housed in a building that was an Arab palace and dates back a thousand years. Here you can taste Ronda wines, produced even in ancient times due to the excellence of the climate and terrain, accompanied by a selection of Andalucian tapas (light bites). Tapas in the town rightly enjoy an enthusiastic following; there are many places to try them, including fashionable Traga Tapas, La Leyenda and Faustino.
Other sights worthy of investigation, if you have the time in a place with so much to see and do, include the Cathedral of Santa Maria on the site of a former mosque, which comes into its own during Ronda’s renowned Holy Week processions. Most visitors also wend their way to the Palace of Mondragon, one of several impressive mansions in the old town. Built in 1314, it has been extensively renovated and houses a local history museum on the first floor, but there are Mudejar ceilings and original tiles, with inner courtyards and a water garden that reaches to the cliff edge.
When you have had your fill of Ronda’s historic centre, recross the bridge for retail therapy in the town’s lively La Calle Espinel where you can buy locally produced foods, wine and leather accessories from Ubrique including beautiful handbags, with plenty of stopping places for the obligatory coffee and sweet treat