The first thing I noticed in Ronda, even before exploring the town, was how friendly the locals are.
I had arrived from Seville for a two-night stay in this town that is considered the most spectacular of the nine Pueblos Blancos (white villages) of Andalusia. It was raining and there were no taxis at the small bus station. Observing that I was somewhat lost, a friendly lady in a convenience store suggested that I call to get one. Next to me, a young girl overheard the conversation and offered to the call on her phone. In a few minutes the taxi arrived. When I offered to pay her for the call, she declined politely.
I had heard enough about the Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia. I knew that they are small fortified hilltop towns and villages that date back to the Middle Ages, when people had to flee to the hills to protect themselves from bandits that roamed freely in the region’s plains. The ‘blanco’ of their names comes from the fact that they are all white-washed, in the Moorish tradition.
The pearl among them all is Ronda, not exactly a well-known international destination, but surprisingly full of tourists when I got into town, mostly Chinese. It was February of 2020, winter and – supposedly – low season in Spain.
On my way to the hotel, the first thing I noticed was the town’s dramatic location: on top of a rock, facing a deep gorge of the river Guadalevin, which cuts through the hills of Andalusia. When we crossed the Puente Novo (new bridge), separating modern and old Ronda, the view was unlike anything I had seen before.
A rich history
Today the many Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia are agricultural towns that depend heavily on tourism. But Ronda was once a prosperous town under the Moorish Nasrid dynasty, which ruled from the 13th to the 15th centuries from the nearby kingdom of Granada.
Hailing from the Berber tribes of northern Africa, the Moors were Muslims, and when they invaded the Iberian Peninsula, in 711 AD, they brought with them their culture and religion. By 1492, when the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando expelled them from Granada – their last stronghold on the Peninsula – the Moors had already left a clear mark on the culture of Andalusia for almost eight centuries, which explains why the province is uniquely distinct from the rest of Spain. In Ronda, this heritage is very present.
Part of Ronda’s relevance was to be in a strategic position, between the Christian kingdom of Castille and the Nasrids’ seat of power in Granada. The location made it the furthest western outpost of the Moorish domains in Andalusia. Ronda was also on the route between Granada and northern Africa, via the Strait of Gibraltar. The sultan of Granada was said to visit town often, and to be very fond of it. This attention is reflected today in the town’s rich architecture, with impressive palatial houses. Ronda also had many bathhouses at the Moorish time, an essential feature of Muslim towns. But the majority of its houses were small and built of baked clay, following Islamic tradition, all painted in white, to deflect the intense sun rays in Southern Spain.
But Ronda’s origins are older than its Moorish occupation. Like most things in Spain, the town was first heard of when the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Roman Empire (375 BC – 476 AD). Ronda started life as a Roman fortified fortress, during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), when Rome fought against the powerful city-state of Carthage, in present day Tunisia. The title of city was given to Ronda by none other than emperor Julius Caesar himself.
During the Middle Ages, Ronda was an important cultural and intellectual center, and some of Spain’s best-known writers, philosophers and scientists were born here. In 1485, the town was conquered by the troops of the Catholic Marquis of Cádiz, who defeated the ruling Moors, after a brief siege. Back under Christian rule, most of the city’s old houses were renewed or adapted to new styles, while numerous others were built in new quarters. But somehow, the old Moorish charm survived, especially in the Old Town.
The Spanish Inquisition, established by the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel in 1478, was a great blow to the Muslims living in Spain. Their situation got worse when a royal decree in 1492 – after they conquered Granada – urged all Muslims to either leave the Peninsula without their belongings, or convert to Catholicism. Many converted to keep their possessions, while secretly practicing their Islamic religion. Called Moriscos, they were required to wear caps and turbans with a blue crescent, in public. Even traveling without a permit meant a death sentence for them during that difficult time.
Things got even worse in 1566, when Spanish king Philip II decreed the use of the Arabic language illegal. The new law also decreed that all Moriscos’ houses should keep their front doors open on Fridays, to allow the authorities to verify that no Friday prayers – a ritual of Islam – were conducted. Taxes on their commerce were increased, which led to rebellions. One of them took place in Ronda:, where the Moors defeated the Spanish army that was sent to suppress them. The subsequent massacre of the Spaniards was a tipping point for Phillip II, and he ordered the expulsion of all Moriscos from town.
The town came under attack again in the early 19th century, when French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte – during the Peninsular War – caused its population to be reduced from 15,600 to 5,000 in three years. After that, the plains around Ronda became a base for guerrilla warriors and bandits, an outlaw culture made famous by the writings of such authors as American Washington Irving and French Prosper Mérimée and Gustave Doré.
Ronda was also heavily affected by the Spanish Civil War (1936 -1939), which led to massive emigration and depopulation of the town. There’s a chapter in the book of American writer Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls – that describes a 1936 execution of Fascist followers being thrown off a cliff in a fictional village. This passage is considered to be inspired by actual events of the time, in Ronda.
Bullfighting – a very Spanish art
Ronda is known as the spiritual home of bullfighting in Spain. The town’s Plaza de Toros (bull ring), opened in 1785, and is one of the oldest and most important in the country. One of Andalusia’s greatest festivities, the Corrida Goyesca, happens in town every month of September. It’s when the matadores (bull fighters) and locals dress in the fashion of the sketches of life in the region by the Spanish painter Goya, an event that attracts people from all over the country. Hemingway was a big fan of bullfighting, and was often seen in Ronda for the occasion. Iconic actor and movie director Orson Wells (Citizen Kane) was a regular presence; he became so close to the Romero family – the legendary dynasty of matadores in Ronda – that his ashes were buried on the family’s property, outside town.
A Spanish dynasty
The Romero family’s fame comes from legendary Ronda bullfighter Pedro Romero (1754 – 1839), credited with having created modern bullfighting. He broke away from the prevailing Jerez style of horseback bullfighting, and adopted one in which matadores stood their ground against the bull in a much more daring fashion – on foot. The Romero family tradition spans many centuries, and it’s still alive in Ronda.
Visitors curious about this fascinating family, or about the very Spanish – and controversial – art of bullfighting, can learn more about it in the well-organized and richly illustrated museum Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Ronda, located next to the Plaza de Toros. There’s also a riding school next to the bullring; it teaches and trains riders in classical dressage, and is often represented in the most prestigious international equestrian events. The world-famous thoroughbred Andalusian horses can be watched in action as part of the school’s daily events.
The origins of bullfighting
Pedro Romero may have invented modern bullfighting, but its origins can be traced to the Celts, the people who lived on the Iberian Peninsula centuries before the Romans conquered it.
After the fall of the Roman Empire came the Visigoths. It was in their era, around the 5th Century AD, that the first bullfightings began to assume the aspects of a public spectacle. Many of the elements created then are still alive today, mostly in the Portuguese style of bullfighting, which differs from the Spaniard’s by the fact that the bulls are not killed in view of the public. The Portuguese like to say that theirs is a more compassionate way towards the bull; the Spanish say it’s not the real thing.
The Moors that followed the Visigoths in Spain were also great horsemen, and added to bullfighting’s history. They are credited with having invented a style now known as rejoneando, where a rider, always a nobleman, would confront the bull using a lance called a rejón. This custom brought the need for larger bullfighting venues, and that eventually caused all Spanish towns to have its own plaza de toros.
Until the 18th century, bullfighting was a noble prerogative. That changed when king Philip V declared the sport a barbaric practice. Interestingly, the Catholic church was one of the largest breeders of fighting bulls in Spain, but the king succeeded in getting the Pope’s support in his campaign. The royal decree that followed said that any nobleman who persisted in bullfighting would be excommunicated from the church. That didn’t stop bullfighting, but it removed aristocrats from it. The practice was then left to a new breed of professionals from the lower classes.
A very quaint Old Town
My home in Ronda was a hotel-boutique in the center of the Old Town, a former residence transformed to receive guests that – fortunately – didn’t lose its homey ways. From there it was an easy walk to the romantic Plaza Duquesa Parcent, passing by handsome mansions, some of which are still occupied by Ronda’s titled families. Around the plaza, there’s a 16th-century convent that is now a museum. Of the two churches, one has the bell tower of an old mosque – Iglesia Santa Maria de Mayor. Near it is the arched town hall building, from where Armiñan street leads down to the traditional workers’ area, San Francisco, with plenty of good bars and restaurants. In nearby Plaza Mondragón, an old palace shows vestiges of an exquisite miniature water garden that dates back to Moorish times. From the palace, downward steps expose a dramatic view of the Puente Nuevo, which separates the old and the modern Ronda.
It was raining slightly at the end of the day. Suddenly, the lights of the plaza were turned on, covering everything with a mantle of gorgeous amber light. I walked around in awe of the romantic vibe of the place, totally empty but for me and a young couple tightly holding arms under a red umbrella. It was the right place for them, I thought, remembering Hemingway’s quote: “Ronda is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon, or if you ever bolt with anyone. The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is romantic background.” Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a towering figure in 20th-century literature, spent time in Ronda to treat a massive writers’ block. He found in town the inspiration for some of his best works, praising Ronda’s “strong and splendid air.”
A feature of Moorish life were the hammans, or bathhouses, and there were many of them in Ronda in their time. The hammans were used as steam baths, although some had small pools as well. The bathhouses were the hub for social life, a place for religious rituals and a mandatory first step for outsiders visiting the city.
The ruins of Ronda’s largest hamman are now on the outskirts of town. In the Middle Ages the area was a busy suburb with businesses, small shops and workshops, the reason why the streets around it are called Tanners Bridge, Weavers Gate and Potteries Road.
The large size of Ronda’s hamman suggests that it was perhaps the most important of the region. Its proximity to water sources, crucial to a bathhouse of its size, was made possible by the convergence of the Guadalevin river and the Culebras streamin Ronda, providing plenty of water to the town. The hamman ruins are impressive; it’s a pity that it’s no longer in service, like those in Cordoba and in Granada. I learned a lot about its former glory watching a video presentation that happens every 15 minutes in what once was the reception room. It was fascinating to see the sophisticated engineering that was required to make the baths work.
I was the only visitor there in the video room, until a young couple walked in, rushing to escape the rain outside. I recognized them first by the red umbrella – it was the same couple I had seen the day before, at the plaza. I noticed how attentive the young man was towards the woman, trying to shake the water from her coat with his hands. Watching them closely by now, it was clear they were in love. Maybe Hemingway was right, maybe Ronda is the place for romance. At the end of two days there, I was convinced of that.
This gorgeous small town was once a well-kept secret of seasoned travelers, but Ronda is gaining more fame worldwide. Perhaps because it’s a miraculous example of smart preservation and respect for the past, something it does without losing its present day, practical side.
The other reason, I believe, is the fact that its quiet and relaxing ways are somehow a tribute to the three cultures that made it – Roman, Islamic and Christian. And that’s not a small thing, in times of less religious tolerance, like ours.