Ronda has had many names throughout its lengthy history. Called Arunda by the Celts, Acipino by the Romans and Isn-Rand Onda by the Moors, all invaders and settlers agreed that it was to be named for its grand setting upon a rocky plateau with a vertical drop of 541 feet above the deep canyon of El Tajo.
Walking to it from our aire on the outskirts of town we came through the modern residential and commercial quarter which has expanded several miles’ back from the edge of the gorge, chosen as an impenetrable defensive wall by the Romans.
It was a hot day and crowds of people were streaming into the centre along the main Avenida de Malaga.
A constant hum of tour coaches passed, and each was packed with international visitors, seeming mostly from Asia. We steeled ourselves for the inevitable encounters with selfie-sticks, sun parasols, gigantic zoom lenses and mass stampedes as experience of tour groups from Korea, Japan and China has taught us.
Our first stop, at the New Town’s most beautiful square was inauspicious. Plaza del Socorro, lined with public and private buildings in different architectural styles, was barely visible and hidden under scaffold and packed with construction machinery. Signs advised of works to be carried out for the next few months, however it seemed to have ground to a halt.
We entered the narrowing streets heading downhill and packed with people to the heart of the New Town, heading towards its bullring.
Dating from 1785, Corrida Goyesca is the oldest bullring in Spain and the only one where the two-tiered rows of seating are completely roofed over. Ardent bullfight fans included Ernest Hemmingway and Orson Welles, two giants of twentieth century culture and both infamous alpha males.
Hemmingway set the plot for his novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, in Ronda and based his tale on the murders of fascist sympathizers in the town’s gorge. Welles is buried nearby, in the grounds of his matador friend’s home.
The New Town was built in the 1500s whilst the Old Town stood separately on the opposite side of the gorge. Old Ronda was originally a Roman fortress, which was extended by the occupying Moors from 700AD onwards.
A series of high defensive walls, punctuated by picturesque horseshoe gates gave access to the Moorish town, for those able to clamber or ride their way up the steep rocky paths of the precipitous limestone cleft to reach it.
Ronda’s impregnable position meant it was one of the last Moorish bastions, captured by the Christians just seven years before the fall of Granada in 1492.
We hoped to walk the old walls, to get a sense of Ronda’s defences and for views across the countryside and surrounding ring of Sierras. At the southernmost, and lowest point, a high fence and abandoned digger blocked the way. Another sign advised of works to be carried out. It did all seem rather odd.
We got onto the walls, further around and higher up for a short section and had terrific views of the houses clinging onto the edge of the limestone ravine.
The two settlements were linked, even in Roman times, by a bridge. The oldest bridge is called both the Arab Bridge and the Bridge of San Miguel, which seems to reference it being both of Roman and Moorish origin. It crosses the Rio Guadalevin at a low section of the ravine. Around it the remnants of the old Arab Quarter run along the sides of the town walls and out to the impressive public baths.
The Banos Arabes from the 1300s are the best preserved in Spain and we wandered down past the original steps into the enclosed halls of domed ceilings and brick columns. Built along Roman bathing principles, the Moors apparently preferred steaming to swimming in water so a key component was the stove and hypercaust system that created billowing clouds of skin-scorching mists.
Light filters dimly from star shaped (now glazed) portholes as the baths were built partly underground, in order to better control the heating system. Outside, an ingenious water mill operated by the turning of a central clock mechanism and powered by the plodding of a heroic burro (or mule) supplied the gallons of necessary water channelled from the river nearby.
Heading back along the riverbank we crossed the Puenta Vieja, higher up than the Arab Bridge but younger despite the name. Built in the 16th century it linked the old Moorish town with the later Padre Jesus quarter, itself part of the New Town.
We wandered around the quiet residential district slopes of old whitewashed houses. Their black-painted iron balconies swung with the cascading hot pinks and fuschia colours of bougainvillea flowers.
Stone fountains splashed cool waters. Locals were gossiping on their doorsteps. This area romantically calls itself the ‘casa maro’ which refers nostalgically to the notion of the good, honest townspeople who worked and played hard in the 18th century.
In the 1700s a remarkable feat of engineering was completed. The massive brick ‘Puenta Nuevo’ was built to replace an earlier construction across the ravine at its highest point. ‘New Bridge’ in this case refers to the year of its’ opening, in 1793 after more than 40 years of building. It is truly spectacular.
We set out to traverse down the steep Arco del Cristo walkway for views below the bridge and up to both sides of the ravine. We were hardly on our way when a ratty rope, tied between two cones, held a sign telling us that the path was closed in advance of works to be carried out…in 2017.
We set off to find an alternative route, down a single track and steeply cobbled lane, the Camino al fonde de Trajo (gorge).
We wound our way down on the slippery surface past surprisingly rustic homes just outside the town walls. Screeching wheels alerted us to a procession of small hire cars, also using the lane to get to a viewpoint at the bottom of the plain.
It was worth the trek. To see the ambition and the enormity of the New Bridge from below was breath-taking. So too, the daring of the earlier communities who perched their homes precariously, but safely from invaders, along the rocky crests of the ravine.
Not relishing the climb back up, but thrilled by the views, we retraced our steps on the slippery cobbles, as a couple of small cars kicked up dust and revved up the lower climb.
Very quickly the situation descended into chaos as the cars speeding up, met those coming down. Wheels spun, engines stalled, and tempers frayed under the searing hot sky. For a few minutes we found ourselves unlikely traffic marshals but decided it was up to each driver to make their own decisions about how to get out of the predicament.
Panting our way back up to join the selfie-taking crowds at the Puenta Nuevo we both reflected that Ronda is an exceptional place to visit to appreciate civil engineering and ingenious defences.
Strange then that the works currently, in all cases, are simply renovation and repairs that have all ground to a halt. It was not in keeping with the ambition of the earlier engineers and gritty determination of the townspeople throughout the ages.
It was an interesting thought.