The drive from Málaga to Ronda is one of the pleasantest in Spain. The countryside is exquisitely rustic, with sun-baked fields and tiny towns full of white houses. We took a Blablacar with a nice young woman, on her way to her pueblo nearby. Ronda is about 100 km west of Málaga, and the drive takes about an hour and a half.
(It is a common thing, by the way, for Spaniards to have a “pueblo.” This is the town, not necessarily where they were born or where they grew up, but where their family is from. Work is scarce in these small towns, however, and so many people move to cities to find jobs; yet family ties remain strong and weekend trips to visit parents and relatives in “the pueblo” are ubiquitous.)
We were dropped off in the center of Ronda, and began making our way to Ronda’s most famous landmark: El Puente Nuevo, or the New Bridge.
This bridge is eye-poppingly massive—a stone structure standing almost 400 feet (98 m) above the Guadalevín River. Indeed, the huge effort necessary to create a bridge of this size struck me as out of all proportion to the city of Ronda itself, which now is home to about 35,000 people. And I am doubly astounded when I consider that, as the name “New Bridge” suggests, there was already a bridge in Ronda: the Puente Romano—which, despite its name, was probably built by the Moors.
Looking down from the cliff at the towering structure, I wondered: How on earth was it built? Indeed it almost wasn’t. The bridge that stands today, built between 1751 and 1793, was the second attempt to span this chasm. The first attempt, constructed from 1735 to 1741 with a single arch, was built hastily and poorly, and soon collapsed—resulting in the deaths of 50 people. The bridge which stands now, designed by José Martín de Aldehuela, is not only strong but beautiful—its graceful form tying the whole landscape together.
After we had taken our fill of photos, we began to walk around the promenade overlooking the cliff. The view of the countryside was, if possible, even lovelier than the bridge itself. A vast green field was divided into neat patches, some brown, some with rows of bushy plants. Here and there was a farm, looking like doll houses from so far away. And beyond was a patch of forest, which led to the sierra in the distance, the morning fog still sitting on the peaks. On a dirt road a pickup truck was making its way to who-knows-where, throwing up a tiny cloud of dust.
To our left we could see a path leading down into the gorge below. It looked like too much fun to resist. We crossed the bridge, found the path, and soon were carefully edging our way down. The path forked several times, and each time we chose the one that led towards the bridge. At times it was quite steep and slippery, so we proceeded slowly for fear of falling.
We were getting close to the bridge now; it loomed overhead like a skyscraper. The white noise of the waterfall below turned into a steady roar.
After walking down a hazardous rocky path, made slippery by the atmospheric spray of water, we came upon a little shack. It was visibly run-down, obviously hadn’t been used in years. We took a peek inside. It wasn’t terribly interesting: full of old leaves, beer cans, and other garbage. On the walls, above a little hole in the floor, was spray-painted the ominous message: “It’s easy to descend into hell.”
“Wanna go down there?” I asked GF.
We turned around and began again to approach to the bridge. In fact, the path went right under it. A staircase that bounced too much to inspire confidence led down to a concrete pathway with a wobbly iron railing that went straight through to the other side. We passed underneath the bridge, and then under some impressively huge boulders sitting at the base of the bridge. Now we were standing between the two cliffs, which stretched hundreds of feet up above. Everything was quiet here.
Though it was broad daylight, and though we were following a public path, we felt like we were sneaking into a place we shouldn’t be. This impression of trespassing was reinforced after we found ourselves in a small working area. There was a concrete hut, empty on the inside, with plants growing on the roof; clearly it hadn’t been used in years. Nearby were all sorts of metal devices—a trough, a wheel used to raise and lower a barrier, and other things I didn’t understand—laying apparently unused and rusted. The place had that sort of eerie, post-apocalyptic feel that all abandoned places have.
After taking in the scene we started trekking back up. The steep ascent didn’t feel good on my knees, I can tell you.
By now we’d had our fill of the bridge. I knew of only one other thing to see in Ronda: the Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. Built from 1779 to 1785, and designed by the same architect who designed the New Bridge, this is the oldest bull ring in Spain. Every year the Corrida goyesca takes place here—a traditional bullfight performed in historical costumes. For most of the year, however, it is a museum—of bullfighting and more.
I had never seen a bullring before, so I had nothing to compare it with. But it was quite pretty. Martín de Aldehuela designed the ring in a harmonious neo-classical style. Two floors of seats, four rows each, surround a circular area filled with sand. I stood in the center and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be a matador, how absolutely terrified I would be if I was facing a bull, only armed with a cape and a little sword.
The little museum on the inside is about the history of bullfighting and other violent European pursuits, such as hunting and dueling. Most memorable for me were several pairs of ornate dueling pistols, in lush velvet cases, alongside plaques that explained which famous persons had used these weapons on one another. For my part, I cannot imagine any situation in which I would let somebody fire a loaded pistol at me purely for the sake of honor. As the honorable Falstaff said:
Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honour”? Air.
I can’t help feeling that bullfighters would disagree.
After we spent enough time in the museum to get our money’s worth—staring at the rifles and pistols, the elaborate costumes for men and horses on display, and perusing the old bullfighting posters advertising bygone shows—we made our way to the gift shop, where I found a copy of Death in the Afternoon. This is Hemingway’s book on bullfighting, which I would recommend to anyone at all curious about the bloody art.
Hemingway, for his part, was very fond of Ronda. In that book, he says:
[Ronda] is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with any one. The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is romantic background and there is an hotel there that is so comfortable, so well run and where you eat so well and usually have a cool breeze at night that, with the romantic background and the modern comfort, if a honeymoon or elopement is not a success in Ronda it would be as well to start for Paris and both commence making your own friends.
Ronda has repaid the compliment by naming a street after Hemingway.
When we left the bullring, it was already time to go back to Málaga. We began to make our way up narrow cobblestone streets, back towards the train station where we would meet our ride. My shoes—cheap sneakers I bought here—have thin soles, so I could feel every stone sticking out from the pavement. Our footsteps made that distinctive thud that footsteps make in quiet, narrow, stone-paved Spanish streets.
Eventually we reached the main road, got to the station, and were again driving through the Spanish countryside. We had only one day left before our trip was over.