Breathtaking Memories of the Alhambra – A Rare Jewel of the World

“Though the shadows of these walls have long since gone, the memory of them will live on as the final refuge of dreams and art. And then the last nightingale to breath on this earth will build its nest and sing its farewell song among the glorious ruins of the Alhambra.” ~ F. Villaespesa (plaque beside the Gate of the Pomegranates).

Lately I have been tearing around preparing three of my kids (two for new schools), like something of a Mad Hatter on caffeine overload. The moment we arrived back from holiday I had an extra guest in the form of my eldest prodigal son, and various activities all requiring mum’s taxi service. GCSE results day was soon upon us, followed by a grammar school sixth form interview, as well as making sure our kittens weren’t able to produce more kittens…

It turns out my worries were unfounded. An embarrassed phone call from the vets confirmed that the one we thought was a she (including an earlier vet inspection), is actually a he, so I hastily renamed Saffron Samson!! Fortunately he seems to have recovered from the early gender confusion.

Amid the recent chaos I have tried to eek out, here and there, some precious time to reflect on a holiday that wasn’t particularly restful, but certainly had its highlights – one of which was a visit to the Alhambra.

The Mirador of Lindaraja – Palace of the Lions

Alongside numerous other tourists from all over the world, in a state of high anticipation, we entered the ancient city walls of the Alhambra Palace in Granada; nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Southern Spain.

Our arrival was marred by the fact that Iberia had lost three of our cases due to a delayed outbound flight from Heathrow and a rushed connection through Madrid.

Our brief time spent visiting the Palacios Nazarias (palaces of the Nasrid dynasty), will stay with me forever. I enjoyed it despite a petulant youngest who made it clear she didn’t want to look around and was determined to moan and do her best to make us leave as soon as possible, (which included getting herself lost).

Cultural sightseeing with a reluctant child is enough to test the patience of saint, let alone an overheated parent’s patience!

I got the ‘why are you making me do this?’ stare from my youngest at the start of the tour in the Golden Courtyard of the Mexuar Palace.

Now that I have seen the historical, architectural and cultural gem that is the Alhambra with my own eyes, I can fully reminisce and revel in the music ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’ performed by John Williams and composed by Francisco de Asís Tárrega:

The Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra took my breath away. The Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty certainly knew how to express their power, as well as utilise nature to their full advantage and pay homage to the divine hand of creation.

I was bowled over by the intricate stucco decorations and sublime geometric patterns carved and tiled by long dead hands onto the floors, walls, arches and ceilings. There is a sheer timeless effulgence to the Alhambra – it dazzles in every respect!

It is quite simply jaw-dropping.

“The only conqueror is God.” ~ Nasrid motto inscribed in numerous epigraphs at the Alhambra.

The fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces is in perfect harmony with the landscape, designed to incorporate nature and paradise into a man made masterpiece.

Somehow it transcends the searing Andalusian summer heat.

The clever design of the palace and the orientation of the columns means that they can be effectively used as sun dials, being aligned from north to south to within tenths of degrees.

Shade in the Courtyard of the Lions

Apparently the rooms receive much more light during the winter months than in summer, mainly because of the wide, overhanging eaves and cornices. Certain secluded corners are said to be warmed by the slanting winter sun but sheltered from the wind.

During the summer the sun is so high that its rays rarely penetrate the sheltered corridors to warm the marble walls and floors. The places that receive most sun in winter stay in the shade in summer so many of the south-facing rooms remain as cool as they would if they were air-conditioned.

The name Alhambra has evolved from the original Madinat al-Hamra, meaning ‘the red one’, thought to be a reference to the colour of the soil of the hill itself and the red clay used in the building materials.  It could also allude to part of the name of the founder of the Nasrid dynasty: Muhammed ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr.

The Hill of the Alhambra Granada by Samuel Colman

I noticed the pervading redness of the ground inside the walls of the Alhambra, apparently due to oxidisation of the soil. The plateau on which the fortress and palace complex sits is aptly named ‘The Red Hill’.

The Fortress of the Alhambra by David Roberts

Our timed entry was mid-morning. In order to preserve this very special and unique UNESCO World Heritage site, a limited number of people are allowed in to the Nasrid Palaces at any one time on any given day.  Even the Alhambra’s existing quotas felt like too much. It’s crowded on and off as new groups are admitted, which makes decent photography limited. It didn’t help that we visited during peak season.

Having said that, it’s still a magical experience.

Apart from the middle-age fort of the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces are the earliest buildings of the Alhambra, (consisting of the Mexuar, Comares and Leones), which were inhabited and expanded through the centuries by each subsequent Nasrid generation.

They were eventually altered in places and added to by the conquering catholic monarchs, to encompass the sprawling fortress complex that commands the hill top today.

Luckily the technology of the present enables audio recordings to help visitors understand the aims and achievements of the palaces and their previous royal inhabitants.

The Mexuar

The Hall of the Mexuar is one of the oldest surviving parts of the royal palaces. The council met within the square formed by the four columns to decide upon important judicial matters, being the royal court of justice originally.

Elaborate wooden coffered ceilings in the Hall of the Mexuar

Facade of the Comares Palace in the Courtyard of the Mexuar

Comares Palace – The Courtyard of the Myrtles

Substantial amounts of water are harnessed throughout the gardens, palaces and especially in the Courtyard of the Myrtles; which is both stunning and serene.

Courtyard of the Myrtles – view towards the North Gallery and Comares Tower.

“Water forms the mysterious life of the Alhambra: it allows the gardens to grow exuberantly green, it gives birth to the splendour of flowering shrubs and bushes, it rests in the pools reflecting the elegantly arcaded halls, it dances in the fountains and murmurs in rivulets through the very heart of the royal residence.
Just as the Koran describes paradise, ‘An orchard flowing with streams.'” ~ Titus Burckhardt

The Courtyard of the Myrtles has inspired quite a few artists in recent centuries…

The Court of Myrtles Alhambra by David Roberts

A more detailed view of the North Gallery by the American Orientalist Edwin Lord Weeks:

A Court in the Alhambra in the time of the Moors by Edwin Lord Weeks c. 1876

The Courtyard of the Myrtles and Comares Tower by Impressionist painter Childe Hassam c. 1883

The tower and archways of the North Gallery are reflected from the water at the entrance to the majestic Sultan’s throne room in the Comares Tower, magnifying the sultan’s power as well as symbolising abundance. It may have also served to amplify the elusiveness of ‘reality’. The use of water to mirror the structure above it was also employed centuries later to great effect by the builders of the Taj Mahal.

The combination of natural and man-made elements mingle in ethereal movements of space, air and light in the Alhambra like nothing I have ever seen.

The Alhambra feels like an eternal Moorish Elysium: a sanctuary made up of gardens, fountains, pools, halls, towers and courtyards; perched high above fertile plains, yet with a view of lofty, mountainous terrain.

View towards the South Gallery from the Hall of the Boat

Perfect and secluded, yet an intrinsic part of the rugged and ruddy landscape, the Alhambra is now a well restored and preserved physical window into Spain’s Moorish past.

Comares Tower – The Hall of the Ambassadors

The Comares Palace was built between 1333 – 1354 during the reign of sultan Yusuf I, during which time Europe was beset by the Plague and the 100 Years War began. His son Mohammad V, decorated the Comares Tower in some style between 1362 – 1391.

The Hall of the Ambassadors was the symbolic centre of Nasrid power, and contains the faded but still magnificent vestiges of the last Muslim court in Europe.

Windows and ceiling of the Throne Room – Comares Tower

The ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors (or Throne Room), in the Comares Tower is a sight to behold. The mosaic roof contains 8,017 separate pieces of wood in seven concentric circles with cedar wood adornments and a mocarabe boss in the centre.

During repair work a wooden peg was found protruding which had written on it the original colour scheme, that surely would have appeared even more stunning with whites, reds, ochres and greens a few centuries back…

The sultan would have had a psychological advantage over his subjects and visiting dignitaries when seated resplendent in the hall, surrounded by glowing, golden walls and vivid colours streaming in from the stained windows behind him.

The centuries have taken their toll. The windows are still impressive, even without their once colourful stained glass.

The explosion of a gunpowder factory in the valley below in 1590 destroyed the stained glass, which was geometric in design to complement the surrounding tiled dados.

The Hall of the Two Sisters

The cupola of mocárabes contains an astounding 5,416 alabaster pieces.  As the square walls meet the base of the ceiling they become octagonal in shape, with two windows placed in each plane of the octagon. These windows were said to be of stained glass until the late 16th century, giving the effect of movement on the ceiling, imparted by the light according to its angle at any given moment.

There is a poem inscribed in the walls of the Hall of the Two Sisters which extends around the room above the dado, written by Ibn Zamrak, comparing the beauty of the room with a garden.

Here is an excerpt that relates to the cupola of mocárabes, (honeycombed gesso):

“How much pleasure there is here for the eyes! In this place the soul will find idyllic reveries. The dreamer will be accompanied by the five Pleiades and will wake to the gentle morning breeze. An incomparable cupola shines with beauties both hidden and open to the gaze. “

My photograph does not do justice to the incredible cupola of mocárabes in the Hall of the Two Sisters

My gaze floated up over the exquisite honeycombed arches, as if being drawn into shimmering celestial realms. There is so much beauty and symmetry throughout the Nasrid Palaces it’s hard to take in.

My brain was on aesthetic overload!

The Hall of the Abencerrages

The hall is accessed through the Courtyard of the Lions, but the lore of its violent history does not detract from its magnificence.

It is said that in Granada legend and history are so so closely intertwined it is impossible to distinguish between the two. The name of the hall is derived from the Abencerrage family who played an important part in the politics of their day.

A conspiracy was engineered by a rival family, the Zenete, involving the Sultana in an amorous affair. In a fit of jealousy and rage against the offending Abencerrages, the sultan invited 36 men from the Abencerrage family to celebrate in the hall and then had them slaughtered in it.

Portrayal of the slaughter of the Abencerrages in the Alhambra by romantic painter Mariano Fortunay c. 1871

The russet veins in the bottom of the marble fountain are cited as the bloodstains of the murdered courtiers in such perfidious circumstances and manner. Others believe it is the oxidisation in the marble itself.

Ceiling of the Hall of the Abencerrages

The Courtyard of the Lions

This would have been the focal point of the sultan’s private dwellings, (including his nearest and dearest), and possibly also used for some aspects of the sultan’s political and diplomatic affairs.

My eyes absorbed the timeless radiance shining forth from every facet of this cloistered style courtyard, and its seven hundred year old energy filled my whole being.

As I passed through the entrance to the Courtyard of the Lions I was rendered speechless. I could see it was having a similar effect on other tourists too. We were  wandering around in awe, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, taking photos from every possible angle as we spotted new, alluring vistas of shadows and light against the pearl like marble and fine filigree arches.

Courtyard of the Lions by Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis, resident at the Alhambra between 1833-34.

It’s interesting to see how much more foliage was growing in the Nasrid Palaces (as depicted in various Romantic art works), compared to now.

The 19th century literary guest of the Alhambra, Washington Irving, wasn’t a fan of the gardens: “The court is laid out in flower-beds, instead of its ancient and, appropriate pavement of tiles or marble; the alteration, an instance of bad taste was made by the French when in possession of Granada.”

The Courtyard of the Lions by Leon Auguste Asselineau c. 1853

“Space in the Alhambra is as open as in the desert, where intimacy itself is to be found beneath the stars. The Courtyard of the Lions isn’t a house with a garden but a garden containing a house, which should be looked at from its corners at floor height…”

The shaded central chamber, (east pavilion) the privileged area for the sultan and his retinue.

Symmetry and perfection adorn the exterior of the eastern pavilion of the Courtyard of the Lions.

View from west to east in the Courtyard of the Lions

The Palace of Charles V looms in the background over the Courtyard of the Lions.

I can but try, but in reality the Alhambra defies description. You have to trace over centuries of vanished footsteps to properly experience and appreciate first-hand the artistic brilliance and reverence of the craftsmanship embedded in the fabric of its architecture.

The elegantly cloistered entrance has been described as ‘walking through a forest of gilded pillars, which little by little began to appear like “gold fringes of lace hanging from the sky”’.

Heavenly archways crown a pavilion of the Courtyard of the Lions

“The architecture, like that in most parts of the interior of the palace, is characterised by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste, and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When one looks upon the fairy traces of the peristyles, and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of the centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war, and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller: it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition, that the whole is protected by a magic charm.”
~ Washington Irving (Tales of the Alhambra)

I later passed through the governor’s rooms in the Lindaraja wing of the Palace of the Lions, famously inhabited for several months in 1829 by American writer Washington Irving. He duly fell under the spell of the Alhambra and revealed her legends and secrets in his book: Tales of the Alhambra.

The Hall of the Kings

The Hall of the Kings runs along the whole of the east side of the Courtyard of the Lions and is divided into five separate areas. This design creates a wonderful interplay of light and shade among the richly decorated three larger chambers that open out onto the court, bordered by the two smaller closed porticos.

Light, shade and decoration in the Hall of the Kings.

Al-Andalus by Wilhem Meyer (The Hall of the Kings)

The Hall of the Kings Alhamba by Leon Auguste Asselineau

Alhambra – Hall of the Kings by David Roberts

Isaac Albeniz – En la Alhambra, with Juan Carlos Garvayo on the piano:

The history of the Alhambra

The Alcazaba (old citadel), was first constructed in 889 by Sawar ben Handum, at the same time Alfred the Great was King of Wessex. The founder of the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada, Muhammad I, (1238 – 1273), rebuilt and extended the Alcazaba as his feudal residence, and his ancestors each built and consolidated the three Nasrid Palaces.

The Alhambra covers an area of around thirteen hectares enclosed by more than two kilometres of walls reinforced by thirty towers, of which twenty or so are still standing.

The 14th century witnessed the zenith of the great Muslim builders: the sultans Yusef I and his son Moahmmad V, during whose time the Palace of Comares, the Comares Tower and the Palace of the Lions were constructed.

Muslim rule in al-Andalus lasted for seven centuries, and the Alhambra is an outstanding example of medieval Islamic art that has its roots in Persia and North Africa.

Entrance to the Alhambra on foot can be made through the Justice Gate

Gate of Justice Alhambra by David Roberts

The last Arab monarch to rule in Granada was Abu-Abd-illiah Muhammad XII. To the Castilians he was known as Boabdil, and his retreat from Granada ended Muslim rule in southern Spain during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in January 1492.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were originally laid to rest in the monastery, and I saw the alcove where they had lain for a time before their remains were transferred to the Royal Chapel at el Escorial, the final resting place of Spanish monarchs.

It was Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who eventually married King Henry VIII of England. She was the aunt of King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.

The Departure of Boabdil’s Family from the Alhambra by Manuel Gomez-Moreno c. 1880

The Capitulation of Granada by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz

Palace of Charles V

The Nasrid Palaces became dilapidated and left to ruin in the wake of the Reconquista. The neglect would last until the 19th century, when the stories, poems and art that was produced by the romantics helped to instigate renewed interest and restoration to its former Moorish glory.

The importance of Granada as a royal site ultimately proved beneficial in its preservation.

The undisputed queen of Celtic music, Loreena Mckennit performs her evocative and lilting songs inspired by the Alhambra, and of course her Celtic roots, in a special concert inside the Palace of Charles V :

The New Royal House, the Palacio Carlos V, was conceived as a grand new monument by Charles I of Spain 1500 – 1558 (also Charles V Holy Roman Emperor 1519 – 1558), built to consolidate the powerful role of Granada in political and royal life without destroying the existing Muslim architecture.

It was thus differentiated from the Nasrid Palaces, which were referred to as the Old Royal House.

The Marquis of Mondejar, (governor of the Alhambra), was in charge of the new palace’s construction, but the actual building of it was entrusted to Pedro Machua, who had trained in Rome with both Michelangelo and Rafael. His legacy was to create a monument in the Italian Renaissance style that was popular at the time, but never fully completed.

The Palace of Charles V stands on an old Christian quarter in the lower annex to the Nasrid city.

Washington Irving also had an opinion on that era’s architecture too:

“In front of the esplanade is the splendid pile commenced by Charles V., and intended, it is said, to eclipse the residence of the Moorish kings. Much of the Oriental edifice intended for the winter season was demolished to make way for this massive pile. The grand entrance was blocked up so that the present entrance to the Moorish palace is through a simple and almost humble portal in a corner. With all the massive grandeur and architectural merit of the Palace of Charles V., we regarded it as an arrogant intruder, and passing by it with a feeling of almost of scorn, rang at the Moslem portal.”


We were fortunate to stay in a small boutique establishment, Hotel America, (one of only two hotels inside the Alhambra’s walls), close to the Parador de Granada (once the Friary of San Francisco).

Hotel America Alhambra

Hotel America is a far cry from the elaborate Moorish Islamic art that attracts millions of visitors every year to the Alhambra. However, I loved its authentic colonial style and the cosy vine covered courtyard for dining.

Its simplicity was refreshing. Some rooms had small balconies that opened up over the courtyard. Sparrows made their home there and were not afraid of guests as they darted from floor to table in a bid to grab morsels of food.

The night we arrived we had a traditional meal at the café of the Parador, overlooking the valley and the Generalife. For a while we could hear the voices, guitars and castanets from a nearby flamenco evening. We were able to walk among the gardens of the old monastery which were lovingly landscaped with exotic plants and flowers from all over the world.

View towards the Generalife from the Gardens of the Parador (Monastery)

You can’t help but be filled with a sense of tranquility and peace. The setting sun was casting a warm glow over the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the sacredness of this site filled my being.

The 1926 live performance of Sviatoslav Richter performing “Soirée dans Grenade” from Debussy’s Estampes (composed 1903):

I wished I’d had more time (and willing offspring), to explore every amazing nook and cranny of the Alhambra, but the portion I was fortunate enough to see was an unforgettable experience.

If you haven’t yet been to the Alhambra I’d recommend putting it near the top of your bucket list.

As Washington Irving so eloquently stated in his book of tales:

“My object is merely to give the reader a general introduction into an abode where, if so disposed, he may linger and loiter with me…”

Alhambra Photo Gallery

#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.


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.


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.


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: