RONDA, Spain — We came to this bizarre Spanish town from Cadiz on a steep, winding road. It is a glorious drive, first through flat, dry, brown lands sprinkled, in the springtime, with wild red poppies among the scrubby brush.
Then at the crest of the first mountain range, the cliffs are barren and rugged and the drop into the second valley is frightening. But that meadowland is green and fertile and laid out in neat squares of planting, with many orange and olive trees.
The ascent continues and, on the mountains, suddenly an ornamentation of Siberian pines and cedar appears. My husband and I saw three small deer dash away into the great stand of trees.
About eight miles before Ronda is a turnoff to the village of Benaojan and the Caves of Pileta. It is a dreadful road; where it comes abruptly to an end an equally forbidding path winds up a cliff. A shepherd was there with his small, black-and-white dog, which went off at the shepherd's high whistle to round up some stray goats on the rocks above.
Suddenly, sounds of whistling came from all over the valley, from other shepherds' whistles, and the echoes followed us to the top of the path, where a locked gate prevents the passage of anyone into the caves.
Driver Must Honk
It is necessary to have the driver of your car honk his horn, so that the "keeper of the keys" can bring you the key to open the lock. These prehistoric caves are beautifully painted with colors that are still fresh and bright. On one wall, up high, is an extraordinary red fish. The climb and walk through the caves is difficult and tiring, but the rewards are great.
There is another green valley to cross, and then Ronda is before you, one of the most ancient towns in Spain. We took a tree-shaded road down to a white building with a roof of gleaming green tile. It is the Reina Victoria Hotel, and they cared for us for a happy, comfortable week.
If possible, reserve a room with a balcony that overlooks the verdant valley far below. Here the first glow of the morning sun touches the mountains, the Sierra Nevada. In the evening, far beyond the mountains, again gleams the last light, golden in the valley and fading to blackness in the shadows of the great rocks.
The hotel clings to the edge of the mighty gorge, El Tajo. The red rocks are sparsely covered with wild mustard flowers, topped by the manicured gardens of the hotel. These, in the early spring, are filled with bright red tulips and soft blue nemophila.
A handsome bronze sculpture of the German poet Ranier Maria Rilke stands staring toward the valley. The hotel has carefully preserved his room, with his photographs, letters and furnishings, as a museum; Rilke was a visitor who came often to stay for long holidays of walking and writing.
Coins Suggest Greeks
The first callers at the town appear to have been Greeks. Numerous coins found in the area bear designs drawn from Greek mythology. The history of Ronda was punctuated by invasions of Celts, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Vandals.
Shortly after AD 305 the Romans established a small settlement. Nearby are many ruins, including a theater in a place known as Acinipo Viejo. Also, there are stones from the days of the Romans in the foundations of the Puente Viejo, a bridge built in AD 1616, 100 feet above the River Guadalevin.
Ronda became a part of the early trade routes and a resting place on the way to Africa or north to Cordoba. During the occupation by the Moors in AD 711 a bridge was built, Puente Arabe, 40 feet above the river and it was used heavily. Later it was completely rebuilt.
The Spanish retook Ronda in 1485 and the town began another bridge, the Puente Nuevo, completed in 1793, still in use along with the other two. This span stretches across the 600-foot-deep gorge. At three heights, Ronda's three bridges form an impressive three-tier aspect.
It's an easy stroll from the hotel to the new town or El Mercadilla, passing along by the tiny shops. One, in particular, has medals of all the Spanish military orders and a charming old gentleman who will show them with pride.
The elegant cathedral, Iglesia de la Merced, 1577, is nearby, next to a fine park, the Alameda de Jose Antonio. The day we walked through the park, babies were being pushed about in their prams or having the carriage held in place by a nanny's sturdy shoe on the brake, while she sat to admire bright pink blooming trees.
From the wall at the edge of the park there is quite a different panorama of the great gorge and valley. We walked to the renowned Plaza de Toros. While some early smugglers and bandits were occupying the town, a select group of citizens built the great ring in 1748, not for bulls and fighting but for the practice of fine horsemanship.
They called themselves Real Maestranza dos Caballeria. The breeding and fighting of the bulls began later. Pedro Romero, the most famous of the great 18th-Century toreadors, was born in Ronda and fought his first bulls here. His birthday is still honored.