Close your eyes and picture stereotypical Spain’s blue-tiled patios, orange trees, flamenco dancing and whitewashed buildings – and welcome to Ronda writes Brian Johnston.
Sometimes travel is about giving in to your expectations rather than challenging them. Ronda is Spain straight from a storybook, complete with clip-clopping horse-drawn carriages, bull fights and barrels of sherry in dim tapas bars. Lying just 60 kilometres inland from Malaga on the coast – though quite a bit further by winding road in this rugged region – it provides a gorgeous small-town alternative to Andalusia’s big-name destinations, Granada and Seville. Stay for a night or two because, when the tour groups depart, it envelops you in the rhythms and all the delightful stereotypes of small-town Spain.
Lodged atop a rocky outcrop above Andalusia’s hot plains, Ronda grew to prominence during Spain’s long, medieval Islamic occupation, falling to the Spanish reconquest only in 1485. The remnants of this glorious period are everywhere, from the restaurant food to the style of its whitewashed houses and orange and almond trees.
Every church seems to have started life as a mosque, and some remain looped with Arabic calligraphy. Fine mansions featuring Moorish arches, plasterwork and fountain-trickled gardens will remind you of the Middle East, though overlaid with later baroque embellishments. Casa Del Rey Moro and the Palacio Mondragn are open to the public, but you’ll get almost as much Islamic architecture just by wandering the town’s tangled whitewashed alleys, where old men doze and black-clad grandmothers haggle over eggplants.
The Catholics came later and added churches and convents to the mix, rich with swooning saints and gold leaf. Step into the dim, tiled hallway of Carmelitas Descalzas convent in Plaza Merced and you’ll find the nuns’ wares displayed on a trestle table: quince paste, macaroons, cakes oozing cream. Ring the buzzer and a disembodied voice behind a hatch will ask what you want; your order appears from the hatch on a revolving lazy Susan. It isn’t uncommon in Spain for convents to operate bakeries but, in Ronda, the nuns will also sell you a paper twist of sugared almonds, a treat straight from Islamic times.
Ronda’s convents and narrow alleys seem secretive and turned inwards, but skirt the old town’s edges for magnificent views outwards over the Andalusian countryside. The town’s rocky perch is split in two by a gorge spanned by an eighteenth-century stone bridge, Puente Nuevo. Walk the promenades along the cliff edges, where eucalyptus trees are a disconcerting reminder of home. Whitewashed houses cling to the rocks, while down below lies a panorama of silvery olive groves and patchwork fields.
As the sun slides down behind the suburbs and the sky turns mauve, it’s time to move across into the new part of town, which shakes off the day’s heat and comes alive. Locals emerge in shoals, licking pyramids of scarlet ice cream and watching their children play in the fountains. After a long siesta, shutters rattle open along Calle Espinel, revealing shirts in bright colours, stylish kitchen utensils and the ruffled, polka-dotted skirts and dangling earrings of fiesta attire. Later, it’s time to laze at an outdoor caf over some olives as a busker strums his guitar and sings melancholy songs in the fading light.
As darkness settles in, the new town reveals its trump card: neighbourhood tapas joints. Squeeze in past huge wooden barrels of sweet Malaga wine, bottled olives and great wheels of cheese, and take a stool at the bar. Tapas start off in cold dishes arranged along the countertop: slices of oily eggplant, potato salad, tiny purple-shelled cockles in garlic and parsley sauce. You can also order hot dishes from a waiter in a crisp white apron: tiny omelettes, juicy green peppers roasted over an open flame until the skin is charred, deep-fried squid sprinkled with lime juice. Tuck in, because you can hardly expect a proper meal in Spain any time before ten o’clock.
There’s good reason, though, to behave like a vampire while in Ronda and linger over both tapas and dinner. It isn’t until after midnight, as the stone streets finally give up the last of their heat, that you’ll hear distinct, strangely arrhythmic clapping from inside dim bars; then the rasping tones of an old man singing of treacherous women, all overlaid by mumbled conversation and the rattle of dishes and cutlery as if to remind you this is no Carmen opera stage.
Instead, it’s just Rondans enjoying themselves. Happily, flamenco in Andalusia isn’t a quaint and dying art, and the same trendy youngsters you see shopping in jeans during the day are just as likely to be clapping and dancing at night, silk roses in their hair and knotted shawls around their shoulders. Castanets click, feet rattle floorboards, a singer moans, and Ronda seduces you once more.
Watch a well-performed flamenco dance and it will tear your heart out. Gaze at the baroque magnificence of Ronda’s mansions and give a sigh. Wander about in the perfumed gardens of its Islamic terraces and dream of yesteryear. There’s poetry and passion everywhere in Ronda — as in all Andalusia — and your spirit will soar.