#TravelTuesday – The Road to Ronda: Reverie and Snapshots of Southern Spain

“I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda. Nothing is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?

My brain is still in Spain… Not literally of course, my body is firmly back in Buckinghamshire; but I find my thoughts often drift back to the vast and passionate land of sangria and siestas that was our base for two weeks this summer.

View towards Gibraltar at sunset.

It was a special time to soak up some much need rest and relaxation, not to mention sunshine, and spend some quality time with my children. Happy childhood memories are so precious, and I’m grateful we had such a fabulous holiday after what has been a pretty gruelling year to-date.

Travel opens you up to new sights, different cultures, history, peoples and foods, so that the places you visit somehow embed themselves into your psyche, either positively or negatively – depending on your experiences.

So it makes sense to write about the land that has a piece of my head and my heart while I’m still on the periphery of my holiday Zen twilight zone.

I feel a strong affinity with Andalusia: it rejuvenated my mind, body and spirit.

I miss the shrill strumming of the cicadas, the dry, sweet scent of pine infused mountain air, majestic mountain ranges stretching beyond the horizon inland, and the breezy Mediterranean Sea with its vivid palette of blues on the other side.

I long for the stout Spanish lemons that dwarf your hand (compared to the puny ones in the UK), and the blazing sunsets that illuminate the sky and warm your retina.

Sunset over Bolonia Beach and sand dune. We walked briskly in the fading light.

Sun-kissed beaches soak up innumerable sandy footprints and picturesque white villages nestle into steep clefts in the surrounding sierras, as the dramatic landscape bakes under a relentless oven-like heat in the summer months.

We saw a few water laden helicopters flying overhead on some days, as forest fires hit the area in soaring temperatures. We drove past this one in Euro Weekly News on the AP7 heading to Malaga Airport.

On the days we weren’t having fun in the pool we did get out from our base near Estepona and visited some amazing places; in particular I thought I would share Ronda with you.

Ronda

The first sightseeing trip we did was a 4-wheel drive adventure to the famed city of Ronda. Oh my, that day will stay with me forever…

We travelled in style: in an open top four-wheel drive, with our driver, Danny, a friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide who let us stand up in the jeep on the small roads and really made our day special.

We headed off down the A7 towards Marbella and then turned left into the Red mountain range (past a new Russian enclave of luxury homes and golf courses said to be the most expensive place to live in Europe), up into the Sierra Ronda, geologically formed from a mixture of marble, clay and limestone.

With the wind in our hair we drove round precipitous mountain bends as we climbed in altitude, stopping to buy melon and wave at a gathering of errant mountain goats running amok; bells tinkling as they made their bid for freedom.

Danny showed us some of the local flora and fauna enroute, as we stopped to pick fresh wild thyme, lavender and fennel flowers. We rubbed the yellow leaves between our hands and sniffed the pleasant, natural odour they left behind.

Bright flowers grew along the roadside, which I was informed was Oleander – a lovely plant to look at but poisonous to ingest.

We came to our first stop, a quaint mountain village with a natural pool of spring water formed after filtration through the mountains. It was a pure and peaceful spot, at least until we arrived!

Jumping for joy at the mountain spring.

Danny was chatting to an elderly local and he kept glancing up to the sky, where mist was forming into low cloud. It hadn’t rained there for three months and they were praying for a shower.

We continued on to Juzcar, famous for its blue buildings that were painted for its role in a Smurf movie. The town quite liked their new look and decided to keep it.

After a traditional lunch we set out on the road to Ronda…having fun and anticipating the views that would greet us in Ronda. They did not disappoint.

The wall of rock on the Southern approach to Ronda.

As you drive down into the valley with the old Moorish city walls and the Church of the Espiritu Santo on your right, the ochre rocky escarpment is what first grabs your attention.

Ronda is a breathtaking and unique city sitting high on a mountain shelf, crowning geological sediments and layers of civilisation and cultures: Celts, Visigoths, Romans, Arab and Christian, fused together by centuries of human habitation.

A virtually sheer face of rock, over 200 meters high towers above the surrounding agricultural fields, and then you see the tall, arched Puente Nuevo, joining both sides of a deep chasm that appears to have been wielded by none less than the mighty hand of God; cleaving the city in two.

From beneath the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), at the end of the Tajo gorge, the new city (El Mercadillo) is on the left, the ancient Moorish (La Ciudad) on the right.

Danny regaled us with some local Spanish history: the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD, but the Catholic Spanish monarchs didn’t win back Ronda city from its Muslim inhabitants for another 700 years.

When you see the geography of the area around Ronda, the remote prized jewel of its eponymous Serrania, it’s easy to see how it would have been impregnable to sieges. The re-conquest was eventually achieved by cutting off the water supply to the Medina quarter. The city came back under Christian control on 24th May 1485.

My brood, posing with our guide, Danny from Monte Aventura.

Located in the province of Malaga, Ronda now has a population in the region of 40,000 people spread over the three districts: El Mercadillo, La Ciudad and San Francisco.

Writers such as George Eliot (Daniel Deronda), Rainer Maria Rilke, (who kept a permanent room at the Hotel Reina Victoria), Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway were visitors, incorporating Ronda’s influence and inspiration in their writings.

Hemingway was said to have based a scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls where Nationalist sympathisers are thrown from a cliff during the Spanish Civil War, on real historical events that took place in Ronda from the cliffs of El Tajo.

Other famous inhabitants include Don Pedro Romero, one of Spain’s best loved bullfighters, born in Ronda in 1754. Romero was credited with elevating bullfighting from a sport to an art, and was immortalised in the paintings of Goya.

Portrait of bullfighter Pedro Romero by Francisco de Goya

It is a magical place – almost mythical…

Ronda’s Bridges

Ronda actually has three bridges: The Moorish Bridge, (built with a single arch on top of the Roman bridge at the low opening of the gorge, close to the Moorish Baths), then further along is the Puente Viejo, (old bridge), built in 1616 and the impressive new bridge, Puente Nuevo.

They call it new, but it has been successfully spanning the gorge for 224 years!

I have a fascination for bridges, so this was a real visual treat. You can only marvel at the feat of engineering they achieved in constructing the Puente Nuevo: built between 1751 and 1793 to link La Ciudad district with the expanding Mercadillo Barrio.

The bridge was designed by José Martín de Aldehuela who was supported in the project by Diaz Machuca of Ronda. Fifty workers were killed during its 42 year construction.

The Puente Nuevo is strong and solid in construction as well as graceful and classical in appearance. Its stone arches are reminiscent of an aqueduct.

The chamber above the central arch was used for a variety of purposes, including as a prison. What a canny place to keep criminals – escape must have been a very un-appealing option!

A long way down!

During the 1936-1939 civil war both sides allegedly used the prison as a torture chamber for captured opponents, killing some by throwing them from the windows to the rocks at the bottom of the El Tajo gorge.

The chamber is entered through a square building that was once the guard-house. It now contains an exhibition describing the bridge’s history and construction.

Looking into the gorge from the top of the bridge almost gave me vertigo, and I’m usually fine with heights. The floor of the canyon sits some 120 meters below, where the Guadalevin River still flows beneath the city.

My munchkins on the seat at the top of Puente Nuevo in Ronda

From the bridge there are stunning views of the hanging houses that overlook the gorge (El Tajo) and across the Guadalevin Valley.

Danny dropped us off at the bridge on the Mercadillo side, where we bought a few souvenirs.

We didn’t have time to see the famed bullring. The Plaza del Toros de la Real Maestranza is one of the oldest and probably the most famous bull ring in Spain and the world, with classical architectural features and the largest diameter.

We walked across the bridge into La Ciudad (the old Moorish city), and crossed the road of Puente Nuevo to see the other side of the gorge and the older, smaller bridges further down.

View towards the Old Bridge, Puente Viejo

We then took a stroll through the cobbled, labyrinth like streets of La Ciudad, past the façade of the beautiful Palacio Mondragon (now the municipal museum), and came out alongside the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria la Mayor at one end of the Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcent.

Collegiate Church of St. Mary Ronda

The church was built on the site of the city’s main mosque, constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries. After the Catholic monarchs took back control of Ronda it was consecrated as a Christian Church devoted to Saint Mary of the Incarnation.

The plaza’s garden like square has stunning views out over the valley, and a bust of its most revered historical denizen, Vicente Espinel; poet, novelist, soldier, priest and musician.

Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcent

Born in Ronda in 1550, he was an authority on the Spanish language and is considered a key figure of the Siglo de Oro (Spanish Golden Age). He was also credited with adding the 5th string to the classical guitar, boosting its popularity.

View towards El Mercadillo from La Alameda on the Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcent

Panning across the valley

La Ciudad contains many Moorish features, as well as monuments from later periods, such as Renaissance and Gothic.

The heat was immense, and the girls were running out of steam, so we passed under the arches of the Puerta de Almocábar, which separates San Francisco district from La Ciudad.

Originally built in the 13th century, it has now been restored and consists of two semi-circular turrets flanking three horseshoe arches. Its name is derived from the Arab al-magabir, meaning cemetery. Just outside the gate is another small square, built over an ancient cemetery.

I was told the larger outer arch was the original Moorish construction, the slightly smaller middle arch the Christian one, and the smallest inner arch was French built from Napoleon’s era.

One day I will return and spend the whole day in Ronda to thoroughly explore this amazing city, incorporating the Paleolithic and Neolithic remains of the Cueva de la Pileta, some 23 km from the city, discovered in 1905, and the ruins of the nearby Roman city of Acinipo.

Gibraltar

We were lucky to have an interesting tour of the Rock of Gibraltar, replete with man-made and natural history. On the steep drive up we saw the large, wrought iron chain links hammered into the rock every hundred yards. They were driven into the rock to give support to the long chains that the British Military used to haul up their canons so that they could be secured at any point on the arduous ascent.

Gibraltar – view towards North Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar

Ruby was particularly excited to see the wild monkeys, who have grown used to the tourists and have a reputation for making a nuisance of themselves.  But when we are on their turf we must respect their habitat. Our guide gave us strict instructions about not interacting with them.

A huge alpha male walked up behind Max, my eldest, and seeing some colourful paper poking out of his shorts pocket nimbly whipped the sweet packet out, opened it, and threw it to the ground, evidently disgusted to find that it was empty.

They seemed to make a beeline for my sons, with two leaping onto William’s back after he crouched to get a photo.

William proved popular with the locals!

Max admiring St. Michael’s Cave – Gibraltar. Discovered by the Romans with impressive stalactites, due to a million years of dripping water.

Another day we drove along the coast past Tarifa to Punta Paloma and Bolonia beach, famous for their unspoilt, white sand and abundant dunes. We spent a windswept day at Bolonia, which reminded me a little of Cornish beaches: long stretches of pristine sand, clear water and decent waves for body surfing, only 20 times hotter!

Sadly the site of the museum and Roman ruins (Baelo Claudia) adjacent to Bolonia beach was closed for the day, so I had to be content with this video:

The kids and I walked along the beach and up to the top of the sand dune at sunset. Now I know how Laurence of Arabia must have felt!

They were equally enthusiastic about a giant water park in Algeciras, with runs like Niagara and Kamikaze.

My sons left Spain a few days earlier as my youngest had an adventure trip in the Alps, climbing the second highest peak, Monterosa, over two days with a mountain guide.

We managed to explore beautiful Casares and also Castellar de la Frontera, home to a wonderful animal rescue zoo and the only inhabited medieval fortress in Andalusia.

The fortress at Casares in twilight.

With my daughters at Castellar Zoo

Beautiful Ocelot cub at Castellar Zoo

Ruby getting acquainted with one of the young lemurs

This photo doesn’t do justice to the huge wingspan of the adult fruit bat. When it stretched it wings out they were massive, and looked like they were made of thin, shiny, rubbery material.

Hotel Castellar, previously the castle of the medieval fortress at Castellar de la Frontera.

Ruby doing her best to out stare the resident hawk at Castellar de la Frontera.

Also on my Spanish bucket list for next time is the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which was fully booked so we couldn’t get in; as well as Cadiz, Seville and (not for the faint-hearted), Caminito del Rey.

This hair-raising video (with swearing) by Brave Dave, shows just how scary Caminito del Rey was for hikers before it was re-vamped for non-climbing tourists. It was dubbed as the most dangerous walk in the world:

Stunning drone footage:

There are plenty of reasons to return, and hopefully find myself back on the road to Ronda…

Since we got back I’ve tried (with limited success) to maintain a less frenetic pace of life, but had the rush of kitting out the kids for school and tackling the chaos that children (especially mine), invariably create when they have long periods at home.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your summer and are feeling ready to face the autumn with gusto!

Hasta luego amigos!

Memories of Spain – Sun, Sea and the Sierra de las Nieves

Andalucia has many distinctive attributes in summer. First, there’s the heat; unrelenting, oven-like and intense.  Then there’s the sweet, dry scent; that wonderful evocative smell, carried on the breeze, a mingling of salty ocean droplets, lemon groves, pines and dusty mountain air. It’s fuller and headier at night. The Cicadas contribute a constant roar, as millions of wings rub instantaneously providing nature’s soundtrack to accompany the rugged mountain and coastal scenery of the Costa del Sol.

Forest HillsForest Hills, our home for the week, nestled into the foot of the Sierra de las Nieves at Estepona, and resembled a small Moorish Citadel clinging to the hillside. Our spacious apartment had a lovely large terrace that overlooked the coast on one side, and the mountains on the other. Most days the heat haze obscured the Rock of Gibraltar, but on our last day the wind freshened and changed direction, and we could clearly see the British enclave and the mountains of Morocco across the narrow stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

view of Gibraltar and Morocco from our balcony

The Spanish coast along the The Strait of Gibraltar often gets a battering from strong winds, and the day we visited Cristo Beach a hot dry wind from the Sahara whipped up the sand in our faces.  The two types of winds we experienced are known locally as the easterly Levante and its westerly counterpart, the Poniente.

Estepona marinaQuieter and less touristy than neighbouring Marbella, Estepona is a pretty coastal town that boasts a beautiful long beach with an immaculate esplanade and a smart marina with plenty of eateries. On the morning we went sailing it was cool and cloudy (much to our amazement), and as our yacht for the trip, Intrepido, left the harbour (the sails were up but we needed power as the sea was like a millpond), we embarked on our two hour mini-cruise in search of Flipper as we headed towards the hazy horizon.

After a bit of moaning about the cold air and lack of sightings my girls perked up as we were soon visited by a small pod. Imagine our delight as a mother and young one surfaced near the bow. The sound of their exhalations was exhilarating! We were soon joined by about three more inquisitive visitors. The sea was clear and still, we could see them darting under the front of the yacht, the light reflecting off their silvery skin just beneath the surface of the water.

Dolphins at the bow

I took hundreds of pictures, but they were so fast (even when jumping out of the water), that by the time my camera had clicked there was just a ruffled patch of water showing on my screen. Luckily I had two decent pictures to show for my efforts. Throughout the encounter Emily and Ruby were ecstatic. It was a very special environment in which to see these playful and lithe creatures. The skipper let the girls have a go at steering too, it was so sweet to see them showing him their right from left, but they didn’t quite progress onto port and starboard…

Langostine saland at La PintorescaAfterwards we had lunch at La Pintoresca. Located at Pantalan 5 on the Marina, just behind the Real Club Nautico building, it’s a delightful tapas restaurant run by the friendly and welcoming Jacob. Nothing was too much trouble, and he served us fresh, mouth-watering delights that made for a memorable meal. The small swallows in the palm tree by the balcony watched us intently and the occasional boat left the harbour. If you are ever in the area I can thoroughly recommend his establishment. Even my daughter Emily who has been known to be a tad fussy was raving about the food we ate!

Some days are special. Friday 1st August was one such day for us. We are normally game for an adventure, and Monte Aventura certainly made sure we had one in the stunning limestone mountain range of the Sierra de las Nieves. I wanted the girls to see the real Spain, and an ecotour seemed the best way to do it.

La Concha MarbellaWe were collected (along with another family also staying at the same complex) by 4×4 Land Rover driven by our eager and enthusiastic guide, Hugo. He established an instant rapport with the girls and his English was superb. He was very personable, and what he didn’t know about the ecology of the area wasn’t worth knowing. We drove to Marbella, and on our way into the mountains we passed the UAE Royal Family’s Spanish summer residence. Bougainvillea adorned walls and we looked up to the peak of La Concha above us.

view of the coast from the Sierra de Las Nieves biosphere

Once off-road we were able to stand and hold onto the roll bars whilst Hugo encouraged us all to push! As we entered the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of the Sierra de Las Nieves Hugo pulled out some local fauna for us to inspect and we discussed the attributes of these native plants. Fresh fennel, thyme, rosemary, mint, and other plants were examined and Hugo explained about the local grass, esparto. Think Espadrills! It has many uses and is known for its toughness and durability. Hugo showed us the esparto made slings that local shepherds used to herd their goats in the area, and we each had a go at flinging stones into a disused quarry. It was great fun; and once the technique is mastered the stones can travel for miles it seems. It was the only time I have let Emily and Ruby anywhere near such apparatus!

view of La Concepion reservoirWe looked down towards the Presa de la Concepcion, a 7km long dam and reservoir built in 1971.  Due to a drier than normal winter last year Hugo explained that it was only fifty percent full and thus causing concern for the remainder of their hot dry summer.  After a group photo we left the coast behind us and tackled the hairpin roads of the Nature Park. Hugo told us about the varied fauna of the area, we saw olive groves, pines, almond trees, cactus leaves and flowers, and the African originating carob Trees. Planted by the Arabs many centuries ago they have thrived, their fruit being a popular source of food for local animals and people alike. The Arabs developed a measurement system using the seeds, now known today as the same weight system for evaluating gems – the carat.

Soon we approached the medieval fortress of Istan (meaning high place). The ‘White Village’ was built by the Moors in the 15th Century due to its natural spring, and their original aqueduct is still in use to this day. Hugo parked the Land Rover at the source of the spring for us all to have a drink and cool off, and proceeded to show my girls giant tadpoles, butterflies and even dragonflies that were buzzing around us.

Emily Ruby and mum along the aqueductWe walked down by the concrete gullies (built around the ancient irrigation system) picking blackberries as we went. We saw oranges, avocados and pomegranates growing in the hill beside the path. Our first panoramic view of Istan greeted us along this pathway. We then met Juan, a 91 year old local resident (and quite a character), who greeted us with fresh tomatoes marinated in olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt, fresh bread and oranges and a mixture of local wines which we drank from the pouch in the appropriate manner: held at arm’s length squirting into ones mouth! He showed us his workmanship with esparto and then came with us to the town square fronted by the ancient mosque turned church, where we had a delicious lunch.

Istan (featuring Juan):

Afterwards we headed further into the mountains and through the indigenous Cork Tree forest, where mature trees (50 years plus) are harvested for their special bark. Hugo showed us a cross section of a sample, with the lines indicating the age of that piece of natural cork. The trees regenerate after about a year, but are not then harvested for at least another ten years. Cork has a porous quality that makes it perfect for letting wines breathe, and the many other uses that man has found for it in bathrooms and kitchens. We learnt that the Cork Tree is impervious to fire, and is well suited to the dry and arid summer landscape where frequent bush fires can occur. They will survive these blazes as long as they have not been recently harvested.

Sierra de las Nieves overview:

Twenty minutes of dusty off-road driving later, and we were rewarded with our final destination of the day: a fresh water pool replete with waterfall which was home to turtles and other small fish. For mum, me and the girls this was the highlight of our trip. We all clambered over the smooth rocks that lead to the pool listening to the sound of the water tumbling from the rocks high above. Our dip was totally refreshing and magical. The girls stayed in the shallows with mum as I swam down the deeper, narrow gorge to the waterfall, and leant against the rock behind its pristine effluent stream.  I’ll never forget the sensation of the droplets hitting my sun parched face.  We spent about twenty minutes enjoying the cooling effect of its clean, clear water and then climbed back out and into our Land Rover ready to travel back.

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Ruby was just about old enough to enjoy the trip we did, but it wouldn’t be suitable for kids under 5 years. Hugo has a passion for his country and the local ecology that really shines through. He often told us interesting facts about the wildlife of the mountains, especially the goats and wild boar; and was very adept at spotting eagles soaring and diving around us. He really made the day enjoyable for all of us, and I’m certain the family we were with had a great time also.

All in all a fabulous day and a fabulous holiday!

Small photo gallery: