The final stop of our little side trip to the far south of Spain was the Andalusian hill town of Ronda. As we moved away from the windswept coast we found ourselves in a region of hills and mountains with extensive wind and solar power farms. We were struck by how incredibly green it was everywhere, and every so often as we drove along we saw little white villages perched perilously on the top of cliffs, cascading down steep hills or atop dramatic ravines. The combination of the green hills, the white houses and the deep blue sky was simply beautiful.
Ronda is one of the most dramatic of these white mountain towns. It is very well known, partly because of the writers who passed through it in the 19th and 20th centuries: writers like Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, who wrote about its beauty and its bullfighting traditions, did much to increase its popularity over time.
The town is perched in a rather spectacular fashion on the sheer cliffs on either side of the Tajo gorge in a mountainous area about 750m (2,460ft) above sea level. The gorge, which was carved out by the Guadalevin River, is over a hundred metres deep and is straddled by three bridges. The 18th century Puente Nuevo or ‘new’ bridge is the most dramatic and famous of all. From here you get dizzying views down into the gorge itself and out over the Serranía de Ronda mountains.
For Andy and M, the views from the top were sufficiently vertigo-inducing for them to elect to remain in the town, whilst E and I wanted to walk down into the gorge itself to get a view up at the bridge from below. From the top you could see the path snaking down towards a look-out point on the top of another spur of land, with seemingly no handrails or barriers, where people were congregating to take photographs.
The path down was actually quite wide, properly paved and not too steep for most of its length, but as it reached the lookout it did get steeper and more rugged (translation: unpaved, stony and treacherous!) so we picked our way carefully out onto the small patch of flat ground and were rewarded with a spectacular view. For a few moments the late afternoon sun peeked out from behind the clouds and made the bridge and the rocks glow. From this level, you could see the river cascading down like a waterfall from the base of the bridge into the bottom of the gorge below. There wasn’t a huge amount of water, but I’m guessing at certain times of year it is a torrent. As we looked up, we could just make out Andy and M standing waving from the side of the bridge and they seemed so tiny we really got a sense of how far down we were.
But not far enough. Yet. We could see another lookout point even further below us and decided to venture even further down into the gorge. Once again, the main path was pretty decent, but as soon as you branched off it towards the lookout, it was loose and stony and you really had to watch where you put your feet.
Having got our snaps of the bridge, we turned to head back up to where Andy and M were waiting. It was one heck of a climb back up. Somebody seemed to have increased the angle of the path since our journey down and our calf muscles were screaming and our hearts pounding by the time we reached the top. It was exhilarating though and the views all around were ample reward for our efforts.
Plaza de Toros (Bullring)
As well as its famous gorge and bridge, Ronda is also known as the birthplace of modern bullfighting. Its Plaza de Toros is one of the oldest and most revered bullrings in Spain. The circular sandstone building was opened in 1785 and the ring itself has a diameter of 66m (217ft), with two tiers of seating, 136 pillars and 68 arches. It is a stunning and intimate arena seating 5000 spectators.
It is now only used for bullfighting once a year, for the famous Feria Goyesca (see below). The rest of the time it is used for concerts and opera and is open as a tourist attraction and museum. Our visit allowed us to not only walk around the ring itself and sit in the stands but to visit the pens and stockyards at the back where the bulls are kept before the bullfight.
There is also a small bullfighting museum with information about the history of bullfighting and displays of costumes and posters from days gone by, which was very interesting.
The family name of Romero is synonymous with Ronda and with bullfighting. Francisco Romero (1698-1763), his son Juan and his grandson Pedro (1754-1839), played a significant role in the development of modern Spanish bullfighting. Originally bullfighting was done on horseback and was a sport reserved for the aristocracy. This changed in the early 18th century when Felipe V decided it was too barbaric a sport for the aristocracy and stopped nobles from taking part in it. But commoners wanted to continue with the activity and so they carried on, but fighting the bulls on foot. It was during this time that certain individuals became very influential and started to develop their own style and form of fighting. The Romero family are credited with being responsible for such innovations as the use of the cape (muleta) and sword (estoque) and for transforming bullfighting into what became seen as a both an art and a skill requiring fitness and balance.
The Feria Goysesca is held in Ronda each year in September. It celebrates not only the bullfighting tradition, but its connection with one of Spain’s greatest artists, Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Goya was a bullfighting aficionado and he painted many bullfighting scenes and matadors, including a famous portrait of Pedro Romano (see above) who was a personal friend of his. Goya is said to have designed some of the flamboyant costumes that Romero wore during his fights here in Ronda. During the Fiera Goyesca, the matadors, as well as some of the crowd, dress in costumes reminiscent of those worn by the characters in Goya’s paintings, in honour of Pedro Romano and in celebration of this whole romantic period of bullfighting.
Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda
Ronda is also the home of the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, Spain’s oldest and most noble order of horsemanship, that traces dates back to 1485. This was the year that the Catholic King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, defeated the Moors in Ronda, and the city reverted back to Christian rule after 773 years of Islamic rule. At the bullring there is a display about the origins of the Real Maestranza and you can also see the stables and stand in the viewing gallery of the paddock used by the current Equestrian School of the Real Maestranza where they still teach and train riders in classic horse riding. It is the only paddock I have ever seen with chandeliers!
After visiting the bullring and learning a bit about the history and origins of bullfighting, I was naturally interested to know more about the sport today. I read extensively and watched videos about the form a bullfight takes, about the different stages and the roles of the different participants. To me it was fascinating but also disturbing and thought provoking. In general whilst we have been travelling we have made efforts to see, experience and learn about as many cultural activities as possible in the countries we have visited. What I read and saw on this occasion however has made me certain that going to see a bullfight is not something I will be doing whilst we are here in Spain.