Here I felt the “Night on Bald Mountain” enormity of what was purportedly the Disney family’s original hometown, best described by the Hitchcockian noun “vertigo” and soon reduced by familiarity into the adjective “vertiginous.” With an extreme fear of heights, I looked out over hilltop Ronda's three impressive bridges like a challenger on “Fear Factor.” I then gazed down upon a deep gorgeous gorge which made me literally swoon. “Help me, Ronda! Help help me, Ronda!”
Situated amidst craggy mountains resembling a cubist mutilated hand by Picasso, Ronda is in the El Tajo de Ronda canyon among Spanish Fir trees, senoritas with olive eyes, and swine running wild—all living about 750 meters above sea level. Ronda (population: 35,000) is divided by the scenic cleft of the Guadalevin River. After checking into the historic Parador de Ronda near the former town hall next to the Puente Nuevo with a view over the canyon, I set about to sightsee. Around here, that means braving the bridges for precarious spontaneous picnics.
The Puente Romano (Roman Bridge), Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), and Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) span the canyon like architectural aberrations of a disordered mind, very Braque. The term "nuevo" is a bit off, since the building of the New Bridge commenced in 1751 and continued until 1793. The Puente Nuevo became my pilgrimage spot for daily lunches, where I ate ham, cheese, and tomato bocadillos acquired from a nearby tapas bar called La Giraldo. It is the tallest of the bridges, towering 120 metres above the canyon floor.
Founded by dizzy Sixth-Century-Before-Christ Iberian Celts and Visigoths, the recklessly perched city was originally called Arunda. Rebuilt during the Second Punic War by Roman Scipio Africanus then later by the conquering Moors responsible for Arabic-style architecture such as the Casa del Rey Moro (House of Moorish Kings), the city was the last in Iberia to be reclaimed by Christians in 1485, thus completing the Spanish re-conquest.
After a short hike down the Calle Espinel (a main pedestrian shopping street full of unemployed fashionistas much like anywhere in the ATM-rich EuroZone), I wandered aimlessly among the narrow sidestreets dodging “street arabs” playing and “caravan gypsies” begging, until I stopped dead in my tracks. There in front of me, an old cackling widow in black was slitting the throat of a sacrificial goat, whose painful garbled bleating sounded almost human amid the flurry of fluff and blood.
Passing by the eye candy of Marie de la Encarnacion, a Catholic church built inside a distinctive former mosque, I genuflected (just in case) before tackling the steep stone staircase descending to the bottom of the gorge, 365 steps plus—I lost count.
Since Ronda is, according to many, where the “Corrida Goyesca” was invented, I sought out the NeoClassical-style Plaza de Toros, built in 1784 by the plans of architect José Martin de Aldehuela. In one of the oldest bullfighting rings in Spain, I felt a little superior if not downright PC about not going to see one of the world’s cruelest spectator sports. Bullfighting aficionado Ernest Hemingway set some of his narrative here.
Often associated with frequent visitors Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, who set up camp in Ronda’s old quarter and hung out at the partially intact 13th-century Banos Arabes (Arab Baths), Ronda was also a haunt of famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived in a room at the Hotel Reina Victoria (built in 1906 then kept as is for a mini-museum). Included in the collection is a framed copy of Rilke’s hotel bill.
Rilke once wrote, "I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda." Then also, "There is nothing that is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city." Without a doubt, Ronda is sheer paradise.
John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly, Salon.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.