Sometimes, you know in an instant that you are going to really like a place.
That’s how my wife and I feel as we gaze over the Andalusian plains up toward a towering plateau and, for the first time, feast our eyes upon the small Spanish town of Ronda.
We don’t remember ever hearing of Ronda before the day we noticed that our tour would stop here between visits to the Costa del Sol and Seville. None of the others we ask in our tour group are familiar with it either.
But from now on, we shall rave about this little gem (only 35,000 inhabitants) and rank it among our favorite sights in Spain.
Ronda seems to have the same effect on just about everyone else.
A Dazzling Setting
It’s a dazzling setting.
Perched at an isolated point in the sierra upon a lofty shelf 2,460 feet above sea level—with a commanding vista of the wide, barren plains below and the circle of dark, jagged mountains in the distance—Ronda is cut into two unequal parts by a spectacular gorge formed by the Guadalevin River.
The town is a natural, almost impregnable, fortress. First, the Celts, then the Romans, held it, but it was the Moors who did the most masterful job of fortifying it. They ruled here until just a few years before the fall of Granada. It finally fell to the Christian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1485 after a strenuous siege that required 25,000 infantrymen and 13,000 cavalry, and marked the Spanish army’s first recorded use of iron cannonballs.
The gorge, El Tajo de Ronda, is breathtaking—around 400 feet deep, more than 1,600 feet long, and 220 feet wide at its widest point. Picturesque whitewashed homes cling to its cliffs. Some of them have narrow steps that trail down the sheer edges to the river far below. A bunch of birds—rock doves, choughs, and crag martins—whirl around it.
The old town, known as Ciudad, stands on the south side of the deep gorge and clings atop precipitous cliffs on its other three sides as well. It’s joined to the newer (post-1485) part of town at the narrowest point of the gorge by the spectacular 18th-century Puente Nuevo arched bridge.
Besides the Puente Nuevo (“New Bridge”) that was built in 1761—the only bridge that spans the gorge—two other, even older, bridges are landmarks of old Ronda. One is a 17th-century work, which, like the Puente Nuevo, still carries vehicular traffic. The lowest and oldest bridge, which the Moors built in the 14th century, is used only for pedestrian traffic.
During the Spanish Civil War, both sides took a fancy to throwing enemy supporters off the Puente Nuevo alive into the gorge. Hemingway wrote of that in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” but without mentioning Ronda by name.
A Moorish Maze
Old town Ronda is small—only about a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide—and yet one could easily get lost here.
That’s because its streets still follow their original Moorish design. They are a maze—a labyrinth of winding narrow cobbled alleyways, often steep, usually following an irregular path and only now and then widening onto small courtyards.
Moorish homes and buildings still stand, including old mosques that long ago were converted into churches. Interspersed among the Moorish structures are striking Renaissance mansions with their characteristic wrought-iron balconies, and whitewashed small homes that glisten in the sunshine.
The gates to the city have been magnificently restored, as have its southern walls. At the entrance to old Ronda stand the ruins of Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress destroyed by a French attack against Spanish defenders in 1809 during the Peninsular War.
Almost at the center of old Ronda, looking out on Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, the town’s most beautiful square, lies the Catholic cathedral of Santa Maria la Mayor, which was originally the town’s 13th-century Friday mosque. A minaret and a Muslim prayer niche remain from that great mosque that once stood on this spot. The cathedral features an attractive combination of Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance architectural styles.
Nearby is the Minarete de San Sebastián, a Nasrid-style tower that is the only remaining part of a 14th-century mosque.
Another sight we enjoy visiting in old Ronda is the Palacio del Marques de Salvatierra, an 18th-century Renaissance mansion that is still used as a second home by the aristocratic family that owns it. It’s known for its odd façade that includes rather weird images of Adam and Eve. It has a pretty little garden that features stunning vistas.
Other Ronda attractions include Palacio de Mondragon, its most important palace, the place Ferdinand and Isabella stayed when they visited; Casa del Rey Moro, which legend says was the palace of the Moorish emir Badis; and the Alameda del Tajo, a particularly pleasant park with wonderful views.
In Ronda, as in most Spanish towns, one of the delights is walking about and constantly catching glimpses of window boxes and balconies teeming with flowers—images that, to us, always look like objects posing for fine paintings.
And, of course, there’s the shopping. Ronda is full of lovely little shops well stocked with fine-quality ceramics, pottery, wickerwork, leather goods—it’s known for its fine footwear—and all sorts of other gift items.
A Famous Monument and Fascinating Museum
Ronda’s best-known monument lies in the more modern part of town known as the Mercadillo. Opened in 1785, the Plaza de Toros is Spain’s second-oldest (after Seville), largest (in ring diameter, not seating capacity), and probably most revered bullring.
It’s an impressive structure—an elegant neoclassic design with double arches supported by 176 Tuscan columns—that can hold 5,000 spectators. You may have seen it; it was the setting for the film “Carmen.”
It was here during its early years that Ronda native son Pedro Romero achieved Spanish immortality by establishing the techniques for fighting bulls on foot using a sword and a red cape, as opposed to the prior practice of fighting them from horseback. This father of modern bullfighting lived until age 85 and killed more than 5,000 bulls in his lifetime, without ever being gored.
Romero and Ronda’s Plaza de Toros were the inspiration for a number of the artist Goya’s paintings.
For the first two weeks every September, it’s the site of a great festival that draws bullfighting aficionados from all over the world and is watched by millions on Spanish television. The highlight of the festivities is a series of bullfights in which the matadors wear colorful costumes of designs recalling those painted by Goya, a fellow aficionado.
A museum dedicated to bullfighting lies next to the bullring. This wasn’t something we would expect to find appealing, but it’s highly acclaimed and we decided to check it out.
It’s fascinating. Looking at the richly adorned costumes of noted bullfighters, we note how small most of them were, perhaps so as not to give the bulls a good target. The mounted heads of bulls that line the walls are a bit startling, but overall, the little museum provides an interesting explanation of bullfighting.
Included in the museum are little exhibits about two American aficionados, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway. Welles liked Ronda and bullfighting so much that one of his last wishes was to have his ashes buried at a bull farm just outside town. Hemingway wrote the most famous book ever written about bullfighting,
Death in the Afternoon
Hemingway was right about Ronda. Much as I admire Hemingway’s writing, I had always taken a pass on “Death in the Afternoon.” Now, I decide to read it.
In it, he says of Ronda: “The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is romantic background.”
Ronda, writes Hemingway, “is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone.”
If You Go
When to Go: Spring and fall are generally considered the best times to visit Ronda. Attending a Ronda festival is a special experience. These include Feria Goyesca de Pedro Romero in early September, when there is a horse and carriage procession through town by people dressed in Goya-inspired costumes and when bullfighters dress in clothes of Goya’s period; Holy Week, when Ronda and other Andalusian towns put on spectacular Easter season processions; Feria de la Reconquista in mid-May, a festival celebrating the Christian conquest of Ronda from the Moors; and Fiesta de la Virgen de la Paz, a late January feast celebrating the town’s patron saint.
Safety: It is wise to take the usual common-sense precautions that you would take in any European destination that draws tourists, but other than that Ronda seems a very safe destination.
Getting There: Fly to Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where you can rent a car or take a one-hour train trip to Ronda.
Accommodations: The Parador of Ronda is an excellent modern hotel behind the facade of Ronda’s 18th-century City Hall. Its views of the gorge and countryside are incredible. Its restaurant is also outstanding.
Side Trips: Ronda is a good base for touring the “white towns” of Andalusia, those lovely small picturesque small places that rival it in beauty and ambiance. An interesting day trip is a visit to Jerez de la Frontera, famous for its sherry wineries and equestrian ballet performances at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Ronda is only one hour from the beaches of the Costa del Sol and two hours from Seville. From Ronda, you can even do day trips to Gibraltar (not particularly worth visiting) or Tangier, Morocco, which is worth visiting if you have never been to Africa or the Middle East and want to briefly experience a whole different world, while pleasantly based in Spain.
Guidebooks: There are no good guidebooks limited to Ronda. “Seville and Andalusia” from DK Eyewitness Travel Guides is a good choice covering the region. It’s excellent and takes an innovative, user-friendly approach that lays out highlights at a glance and provides easy-to-follow small maps.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents. See his work at EckertGallery.com