Tag Archives: “El Tajo”

A Garden Of Earthly Delights

 

It’s near, I can tell by the way the approaching hallway was quickly filling up with people as I walked through.  Hopefully, the crowds won’t be a distraction.  Knowing that I would be spending some days in Madrid in 2012, I made it a point to come to the Musee de Prado to view, among other pieces,  artist Hieronymous Bosch’s, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,”  the controversial 15th Century triptych that formed a college research project and began a lifetime passion for the arts and natural beauty in general.  As my eyes quickly brushed across the piece, left to right, I noticed an attractive, middle-aged woman, her brown eyes also fixated on Bosch’s bold images.

The left panel has been described as depicting Creation,  the serenity and beauty of its namesake forming a blissful scene while God introduces Eve to Adam.  In the large central panel, the artist begins to question our morality with scenes of increasing vice and unheeded warnings of future danger.  Chaos begins to emerge, presented theoretically with images, such as a man struggling to carry a large mussel shell partially encasing naked bodies, a curious metaphor.    Having done some research on the painting, I would have loved to spend an evening with Bosch, picking his fresh brain on details, after he completed the work in 1510.

The Garden of Eathly Delights

The Garden of Eathly Delights

The right panel is clearly Hell and Damnation, represented in an abstractly modern way, a fantasy of grotesque images, even by today’s standards.  We see musical instruments inflicting torture while a large rabbit carries a human corpse on the end of its spear.  Then, there he is, hiding behind some gnarled skeletal remains, Bosch, in self portrait, observing the carnage, looking unsurprised and expressionless.

As the crowd began to dissipate, my mysterious compatriot moved in for a closer look as did I.  Finally approaching her and, putting my hand on her shoulder, I whispered into her ear,  “This may sound corny, but I have observed this painting twice in my life, 43 years apart and, both times, the same woman was standing next to me.”   Smiling, my wife responded,  “I don’t think its corny, it’s kind of romantic.  Forty-three years doesn’t seem like much after looking at this.   And, before I forget,”  she continued,  We must see “Guernica” before we leave, it’s here in Madrid somewhere.”  “Guernica” is a famous Pablo Picasso abstract painting depicting the horror and aftermath of the bombing of a small village in northern Spain by Nazi and Italian planes.  Picasso had controversially submitted it as his contribution to the Spanish Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.  We had learned more about the painting at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and Karen had already labeled it a “must see.”

"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

Since that day in 1969, when we both, as undergraduate students, traveled to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and selected a piece of art to research for my final paper, our passion  began to grow into what has been has become a major part of our lives over the past 47 years.  Together, we have seen Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Musee’ de L’Orangerie in Paris,  Chagall’s stained glass “Windows” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cristo’s “Umbrellas,” Richard Serra’s 100 meter long “Snake” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, James Turrell’s evening exhibit at the Chichu Museum on Japan’s Naoshima Island and the Impressionists at the d’Orsey, always an aphrodisiac, enhanced during our last trip by a small room on Rue Clare and a cheap bottle of French wine.

The month of April 2012 in Spain was extraordinarily wet.  It was raining, days later when, after visiting “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia Museum, we boarded a train and left Madrid for parts south, Granada, Alhambra and Sevilla.  We were also bound for a cave that Karen had researched, located somewhere near the base of the Andalucia Mountains, containing art of a more primitive form.  She justified her desire to see the Pileta Cave by reminding me that we had a car reserved in Ronda and that we could visit the famous white hill towns nearby.

Karen had done most of the research for our 28-day journey, but the itinerary fluctuated as she immersed herself into each experience that generated new “must sees.”  Our normal paradigm is that I am initially reluctant to her changes and later, as men do, boast about them as if they were always my idea.  This experience was no different as we were about to discover more than Andalucia’s hill towns.

Most images of old Spain are based in Andalucia.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and, to our discovery, breathtakingly majestic landscapes and ancient history.  In Ronda, rain pushed us into a taxi from the train station to the hotel.  Curiosity and the need to walk sent us out in the rain, staring directly at Spain’s oldest bullring as we exited out into the street.  A hotel clerk directed us to turn left and keep walking until we came to Plaza de Espana and the new bridge. I am always entertained by the Old World’s  interpretation of time and this “Puente Nuevo”  project dated back to 1751, back when they made them like they used to.  As I asked for clarification, the clerk responded with very good, broken  English, “Don’t worry, you will know it when you see it.”

The walk down to the plaza was pleasant, but unremarkable.   Aside from the old bullfights and being the home of Ernest Hemingway, Ronda was a very charming city, but we anticipated that the true scenic drama would come from the white hill towns at hand.  Walking across the plain stone surface of the plaza, Karen, approached the railing first, looking out across at the bridge and softly muttered, “OK, this is pretty spectacular.”   I turned, responding to her and it appeared, a view so breathtaking, so unforeseen, that fresh words were not necessary. Continuing to stare in silence,  we could not have imagined that this unassuming bridge would span, bothRonda, Spain vertically and horizontally, the gorge locals called “El Tajo,” 400 feet deep, 200 feet wide, connecting us to La Cuidad, the old Moorish district, its ancient structures perched along the cliffs on the other side of the chasm.    As we continued to explore with a new adrenaline rush,  more staggering cliffs appeared and it was soon clear that Ronda was the most magical hill town in Andalucia.

Our month in Spain had left us with enduring memories but these cliffs, “El Tajo” with its bridge and the ancient structures were majestic, as awe-inspiring as the recent visual images by Picasso, Goya, Bosch and others.  Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao were magnificent, but did not overpower the striking natural beauty of Ronda.   Without much discussion, I realized that this was another “Garden of Earthly Delights” moment.  We had, again, "El Tajo"discovered something together that moved us, two very visual people, sharing a moment, locking in a memory.  This rainy afternoon in Ronda was mesmerizing, leaving us wanting more, but we had a “Ford something” reserved the next day and alluring places to be.  Both of us knew that we had not finished exploring Ronda.

The early morning rain made the white-knuckled drive over the steep and winding Cadiz Mountain pass the most quiet of our trip.  Healthy fear always trumps complaints of one’s driving or navigating.  More relaxed to be driving on the gently winding valley road, we soon approached the cozy village of Grazalema with its whitewashed buildings, red roofs and bright floral window boxes.  The extraordinary picturesque town,  Zahara, with white buildings spread out below an old fortified Moorish castle and the cliffs, simmering from the afternoon sun in Arcos were truly indelible images, a consistent theme of

Zahara, Spain

Zahara, Spain

Andalucia.   The evening return to Ronda on a two-lane highway was dry and flat, stimulating more conversation than the unnerving morning jaunt over the mountain.  We discussed our schedule for the next few days but it was difficult for me to think beyond wanting  to explore “El Tajo.”

We started early and the sun was shining.  Crossing the bridge and stealing yet another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad seeking trail access to descend its walls. Passing the old building entrances that innocently faced the street, it is difficult to imagine that they are resting directly upon the top of the cliffs.   “I think this is it,” Karen proclaimed as a small path dissecting two structures appeared.  We followed it and soon were descending down into “El Tajo” with a perspective that seemed to reshape itself with every step.  The surrounding flora changed, the deeper we plunged.  The gorge became a series of unique ecosystems complete with waterfalls, blue ponds and green foliage, rooted in the rocky cliffs.  Our desires to photograph kept us mostly to ourselves but the experience was and will be forever ours.

The walk back up the canyon was equally stupendous, ending with a late lunch in one of those buildings roosted atop the cliffs with a view of the bridge.  It began to rain again and, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I suggested that we

Panoramic of Ronda

Panoramic of Ronda

forgo the Pileta Cave.  With a challenge disguised as an option, Karen replied, “You can do what you want, but I’m going to see what’s in there.”   Soon, I was making the somewhat unpleasant, dark, damp and slippery descent into a cave to view prehistoric finger painting, depicting animals and fish, evidence that the artists were familiar with the sea.  The experience was beyond description and, once again, I was appreciative of the spousalIMG_0391 nudge.

We left Ronda by train, vowing to return.  Although our next few days would be spent in Sevilla, Karen had made arrangements to debark the train for a few hours in Cordoba so that we could visit the Mezquita, an ancient temple with both Moorish and

Karen at the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Karen at the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Christian influences.  Our time in Ronda and the Andalucia was still very much on my mind.  The experience, days after we revisited a significant piece of art in our lives, was a reminder that there are vast earthly delights to explore and, more significantly,  that we still had the passion to find them.

 


The White Hill Towns of the Andalucia

 

Photographed By:  Karen and Lyle Norton

 

While visits to Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla are a must when traveling in southern Spain, our decision to spend three days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucía Mountains left us with a memorable experience that exceeded expectations at all levels.

Our image of old Spain is, in many regards, based in Andalucía.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and unbelievable landscapes.  With the larger cities of southern Spain on the horizon, our focus for the next few days was Ronda and the other pure, picturesque whitewashed hill towns, each sustaining their own unique village lifestyle.

Learning a few days earlier that the Ronda Avis office had closed, thus terminating our reservation, we were able, through the help of a hotel clerk in Madrid, to secure an early 21st Century “Ford something” from a local entrepreneur.

Ronda, Spain

Ronda, Spain

We arrived by train in Ronda, which was intended just to be our headquarters for daily excursions to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab straight to our hotel, but our desire to walk and to see some of the town before dusk led us back out, requiring an umbrella and rain coats.  While on this walk we soon discovered that Ronda was not only our base, but also the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

"El Tajo"

“El Tajo”

Directed to Plaza se Espana and the New Bridge, built in 1751, which leads to the entrance of Old Town, we first passed by Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century.  Then, as we approached the “Puente Nuevo,”  the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  A ravine, nearly 400 feet deep and 200 feet wide that divides the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, from the new town (cir. 1485) “El Tajo” is spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, natural landscapes and buildings perched at the base of its cliffs, but the view of the bridge, reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls was as spectacular as any span I had ever seen.

This first visit was a stunning preview to Ronda and sparked our desire to hike down the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail for the best views.  However, we had a car reserved for the next morning and the hike would have to wait until we had explored the other white hill towns.

GRAZALEMA

DSC00973

Grazalema, Spain

Amid a steady rain, we received our car and were soon driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the winding incline that assured us we were on our way to Grazalema, the first white hill town. Grazalema, Zahara and the Pileta Cave, three stops on our visit, are all located within the park.

Grazalema is a cozy little village, nestled into the hills, surrounded by large, spectacular rock

Rooftops of Grazalema

Rooftops of Grazalema

outcroppings.  Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window flower boxes spilling over with bright flowers line the narrow streets that all lead to a small public square, which was fairly empty on a rainy Sunday morning. With quaint shops and remarkable views, Grazalema is a popular base for Spaniards who hike in the natural park.

Driving over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass to Zahara was my most “white-knuckled” in 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 my heart rate. We did find respite at the summit with the large mountainous saddle rendering views of the Zahara Reservoir.  More winding roads lie ahead as we began DSC00978our dissent down the mountain toward the second village.

ZAHARA

Zahara spreads out below an old fortified Moorish castle that once constituted its boundaries.  Once a stronghold for the Moors, Zahara played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  The hike from the village up to the castle is good exercise and renders some impressive views of the region.

Zahara, Spain

Zahara, Spain

Our brief time in Zahara was spent exploring the cobble-stoned streets between more whitewashed

View of Zahara Resevior

View of Zahara Resevior

buildings, finding interesting shops and numerous vista points.  In a small church off the town square sits the Virgin of Dolores, an iconic statute that is celebrated throughout the year.

The quiet solitude of Zahara reflects a simpler lifestyle, the locals going calmly about their business in a friendly manner.  If arriving or leaving Zahara via route A-374, a stop at the Zahara

Flowers in Zahara

Flowers in Zahara

Reservoir turnout is recommended for great panoramic views of the town.

Route A-374 soon turns into A-384 and we are on our way to Arcos de la Frontera, our final white hill town stop of the day.

ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA

The old town of Arcos narrowly spreads itself across the hillside cliffs, seemingly a totally different place than the lower village.  For me, the best part of Arcos is the views of old town shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Arcos

Arcos

Plaza del Cabildo, the center of old town is bookended by the Church of Santa Maria and the parador, a former governor’s palace. After a surprisingly nice dinner in old town, we drove back to Ronda, anxious to explore our local environs more thoroughly.

BACK TO RONDA

Our base, the Hotel Maestranza, is located on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, directly across the street from the bullring. Aside from the experience of standing in the middle of the ring, smaller than imagined, there was a wonderful museum including centuries old costumes and, more recent

Ronda Bullring cir. 16th Century

Ronda Bullring cir. 16th Century

photos of Ernest Hemmingway who was a part-time resident here. The picturesque arena, perched on the cliffs was intriguing, but the canyon spoke to us.

Crossing the bridge, stealing another glance at the gorge, we are soon in old town with more narrow streets and whitewashed buildings.  The building entrances innocently face the street.  Only once inside do you realize they are built directly on the cliffs of “El Tajo.”

Panoramic of Ronda

Panoramic of Ronda

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of the bridge, cliff-top buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora continued to change the deeper we descended. Dozens of photographs later, we ascended the trail back to old town and began to explore the ancient La Cuidad area, including the remnants of early Arab cultures.

View of Arab Bridge

View of Arab Bridge

Up from the gorge, we traversed through the Moorish Quarter and its amazing history, walking toward “El Tajo,” moving down past the Old Bridge, which was built around 1616, and an old city wall to the Arab Bridge, marking the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance past the Arab Bridge lies the remains of the Arab Baths whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the necessary place to cleans one’s body before prayer.

Arab Baths

Arab Baths

Our ascension back up the opposite side of the canyon to Plaza de Espana left us with many scenic views and an appetite.  We found a restaurant perched on the canyon wall and settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. During lunch my wife informed me that we had to be at the entrance of Pileta Cave by 4pm.  What and where, I inquired.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that Pileta Cave is

Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back 25,000 years.  Soon, we were back in our car, driving past cork and olives toward the small town of Benaojan, a benchmark on the way to the cave.

Entrance to Pileta Cave

Entrance to Pileta Cave

Descending into a cave is never really pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp, and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I felt responsible for the six people between the next lantern and me. However, the rewards were astonishing and sometimes hard to comprehend. This is prehistoric finger-painting at its best with many definitive drawings of horses, cattle and, uniquely, a large fish.

Touring the Pileta Cave was an amazing end to an amazing three days. Ronda and the White Hill Towns

"El Tajo"

“El Tajo”

of the Andalucía surpassed all of our expectations and became one of the most memorable stops during our month in Spain.  The next morning we were on a train headed to Cordoba and Sevilla with the conviction that we would one day return to Ronda to further explore the area and relax in the atmosphere of true Spanish hospitality.