We had explored most of Spain during May 2012, the last few weeks in the south visiting Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla, but Karen had a plan for more. She said, “It will take some time, but I really want to see the white hill towns.”
Our commitment to spend a few days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucia Mountains took us to a place far beyond our expectations.
We arrived in Ronda by train, seeking a place to sleep between our daily treks to the hill towns. Rain required a taxicab to the hotel, but our desire to walk and see some of the town before dusk led us back out again with umbrellas and raincoats.
First, we stopped by the front desk for some local knowledge.
“What can we see in the next thirty minutes”? I asked the clerk.
“Go to the plaza. You take a left at the door and walk straight down the street,” he said, “You can’t miss it,”
In many regards, our image of old Spain is based on the Andalucia region. It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and stunning mountain cliffs. Exiting through the hotel door, we were face-to-face with Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century and still hosting bullfights today. When Ernest Hemingway wrote of Spain and bullfights, he was living in Ronda.
At first glance, the Plaza de Espana was plain and unassuming until I stepped up to a railing. Managing to close my mouth and speak, I uttered, “My god, you’ve got to see this.”
“See what?” Karen asked as she walked toward me.
“This,” I said, pointing off toward the distance.
As she approached the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge)circa 1751, the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view. The ravine was nearly four hundred feet deep and two hundred feet wide, dividing the newer town with the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, established around 1485. El Tajo was spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, stunning natural landscapes and buildings perched on its cliffs, but the view of the bridge, with huge piers reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls, translucent through the rain, was as wondrous as any I had seen.
Our short walk revealed that Ronda was not just a place to sleep, but the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.
Our first glance was a stunning preview and sparked my desire to rise early the next morning and hike down the canyon along the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail to view the span from below.
Pulling me from newfound inspiration back to reality, Karen said, “We can’t do it tomorrow, we’ve got a car waiting.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. My mind had latched on to those first impressions and was not letting go.
“Remember, we’re here to visit hill towns. Besides, we’ll be here for a few days.”
I had to quickly refocus. A few hours in Ronda and I was already trying to figure out if I could live here part-time.
Amid a steady rain, we received our rental car that seemed like the undersized love child of a Ford and a Fiat, with more dents than hub caps. The local Hertz office closed and consolidated with the one in Malaga, eighty miles away. Our only option was a friendly, local dealer who acquired his fleet, one by one, as funding was available. He delivered the car and soon we were driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the steep incline of the road reassured us that we would soon be in Grazalema, the first white hill town of the day.
Nestled into the foothills and surrounded by spectacular
rock outcroppings, Grazalema was a cozy, little village. Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window boxes overflowing with bright flowers lined the narrow streets that all led to a small public square that, aside from a few hikers passing through, was empty on this Sunday morning.
We stopped into s small pub to warm up with some vegetable soup, understanding and now accepting that the Spanish always add some jamon (ham) to the vegetables. I ordered a small glass of local red wine and was reminded that alcohol
cannot be served until 1:00 PM on Sundays. The morning belonged to God which explained the seemingly deserted square.
Riding in the passenger seat over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass, in a rain storm, was the most “white-knuckled” journey in my recent memory. Twisting, slick roads at high altitude with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in our heart rates.
Karen revealed what was on her mind.
“Don’t say a word about my driving,” she said.
She was the one that first proposed that the least stressful road trip option for us was her behind the wheel and me navigating. With one slick, winding road up the mountain
and down, my role changed from navigator to comforter.
“You’re doing great”, I said. “we’re definitely not in a hurry.”
We did find respite at the summit, stopping along the large mountainous saddle rendering views of a distant lake through the lifting fog. The rain stopped and the sun appeared as we began our dissent down the mountain to the next hill town.
The white buildings of Zahara seemed to spread and flow down the hills below an old fortified Moorish castle. Once a Moorish stronghold, it played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482. Today, the quiet solitude reflected a much
simpler lifestyle with friendly locals going about their Sunday afternoon, leaving the small church where the Virgin of Dolores statute sits or viewing the dramatic panorama from one of the vista points.
The forty-minute drive to our third hill town was easy, flat and dry. The views of Arcos de la Frontera, shimmering in the afternoon sun, made the extra drive worthwhile. The perched old town, separated by a sheer cliff, was detached from the lower village, physically and culturally.
Hungry, we took a chance on a small restaurant near the Plaza del Cabildo and were rewarded with fresh sea bass and a glass of local wine. While driving home on a full stomach and a topped-off gas tank, images of Ronda and El Tajo still danced through my head. I anticipated that tomorrow would be a special day.
Our hotel in Ronda was built on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, its facade seemed to stare
at the bullring and long for past brilliance.Typical of many local buildings, the arena entrance lies innocently along the street while the rear exit reminded us that the entire town is perched atop cliffs with riveting vistas. The allure of the cliffs was overpowering and we soon left the bullring and began walking in thedirection of the old city.
Crossing the bridge and stealing another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad, finding more narrowed streets and whitewashed buildings that, like most others, innocently faced the street. Once inside, we realized that they are built directly on the cliffs of El Tajo.
As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of clifftop buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora changed the deeper we descended. Dozens of photographs later, we walked back up the trail and began to explore La Cuidad and remnants of early Arab culture.
Engulfed in history, we traversed the Moorish Quarter, moving back toward El Tajo, passed the Old Bridge, built in 1616 and
an aged wall to the Arab Bridge that marked the ancient entrance to Ronda.
A short distance from the bridge we found the remains of the Arab baths, whose location was not an accident. After a long journey, the baths provided the essential place to cleanse one’s body before prayer.
The climb back up the opposite side of El Tajo to Plaza de Espana, in a light rain, left us with more memorable views and an appetite. Finding a restaurant perched on the canyon wall, we settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. I could have enjoyed the rest of the day in my chair, with a glass of wine, stealing beauty with my eyes.
Karen spoke. “Don’t forget, we have to be at entrance to the Pileta Cave by 4 p.m.
“Your’e kidding, I said. “Do you really want to go back out in the rain.” “Ya know, we can’t do everything.”
“Well, I’m leaving at 3:30 and you can come if you want,” she said.
A history buff, Karen had discovered that the Pileta Cave is Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back twenty-five thousand years. Curse you, Rick Steves.
At 3:30 p.m., we were both in the car, again passing through olives and cork on the way to the small town of Benaojan, the last benchmark on the way to the cave entrance.
Descending into a cave is never pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I shouldered the responsibility for the six people between me and the next lantern. However, the rewards were astonishing and, at times, difficult to comprehend. It was prehistoric finger painting that helped us visualize what their world may have looked like.
Ronda and surroundings created many moments that jelled into one very special memory. Exploring the Andalucia region surpassed expectations and re-energized two weary travelers to keep going and to always look forward.