RONDA, Spain — The sounds of drum beats and chanting voices drew closer, stirring the crowd with anticipation. Candles flickered. Firecrackers exploded. Church bells announced the procession.
This was Ronda's romeria , the Pilgrimage of the Virgin of the Cabeza , a traditional religious festival celebrated in many Spanish towns and villages.
We were lucky to have arrived in time for the town's colorful celebration, during which an image of the Virgin Mary is decorated and carried on the shoulders of participants to a chapel in the countryside. It's held annually during the second Sunday in June.
The swaying, white-clad statue of the Virgin moved through a sea of shoulders, her weight carried by young women wearing colorful flamenco dresses.
"\o7 Viva la Virgen!\f7 " the crowd cheered. \o7 "Viva Ronda! Viva Andalucia y la Alegria \f7 (joy)!"
Ronda, famous cradle of bullfighting and the burial place of Orson Welles, is an ancient town in the mountains of the Andalusia region of southern Spain.
Legendary for its beauty, Ronda has for centuries attracted travelers and inspired such writers as Miguel de Cervantes, Ernest Hemingway, Federico Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Most recently, Ronda served as the location for the film version of Bizet's "Carmen," starring Placido Domingo.
Last year, having completed an assignment in Seville, my husband and I spent a week in Ronda, a town of 31,000 about 50 miles north of Gibraltar.
The three-hour bus ride from Seville was on precipitous, serpentine mountain roads. Nonetheless, our driver nonchalantly removed a hand from the steering wheel to light a cigarette. A violent Turkish action movie, "The Prize of a Life" (dubbed into Spanish), blasted from a television set in the front of the bus.
Though negotiating curves at high speed, the driver frequently took his eyes off the road to adjust the volume while flirting with the pretty girl selling tickets.
After driving through a landscape dotted with white villages perched on rocky summits, the bus came out of a curve and I caught my first glimpse of Ronda.
Dramatically situated on two high cliffs separated by a deep ravine, the white town emerged in the center of a green valley.
Clemente Bernad, a Spanish photographer who had invited us to join him in Ronda, met us at the bus stop. He was on assignment in town, and had found us a room in the pension where he was staying.
Shortly after settling down, we went to see the main attraction--the view from Puente Nuevo, one of three bridges joining La Ciudad (the Old City) with modern-day Ronda.
Legend has it that the construction of the 18th-Century bridge was so difficult that the architect, Juan Martin de Aldehuela, committed suicide by jumping into the 300-foot ravine.
The scenery evoked images of a romantic 19th-Century etching. Whitewashed houses hanging on the steep hillside glowed in the afternoon sun.
Falcons hovered over the river below. Beyond the olive groves, a shepherd was herding his sheep home. The serene, undulating fields stretched into the Serrania de Ronda mountain range in the distance.
Until this century, the area was notorious for poachers and bandits, making the lonely mountain roads unsafe for travelers.
Inhabited since prehistoric times and settled by the Romans, Ronda was a Moorish fortress for eight centuries. The invincible city walls finally yielded to a Christian siege in 1485, seven years before the Moorish dominance of Spain ended.
As with other Andalusian towns, Ronda retains an Arabic flavor. Whitewashed homes with enclosed patios and soothing fountains line narrow, winding streets.
On the edge of town are the Arab baths. Overgrown with weeds and surrounded by plots where chickens scavenge for food, the site was closed for restoration when we were there. But Manuel Bellido, a friendly workman, was easily persuaded by Clemente to let us in.
Bellido told us that the 13th-Century sunken baths were discovered only 50 years ago, when the site was used as a tennis court.
Side-stepping rubble and thorny bushes, we navigated down to three damp, cold chambers with brick columns supporting Moorish horseshoe arches.
Centuries of dampness and floods had removed great portions of the stucco and discolored the wall paintings. Bleak rays of light filtered down into the dark space through star-shaped openings in the ceiling.
Outside the baths, we were accosted by a Gypsy girl begging for money. Clemente gave her a coin. A moment later, she reappeared, asking for more.
"But I just gave you 25 pesetas," Clemente said.
"I lost it," she replied in a low voice. Clemente laughed.
"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?" he said. "You are too smart for that. You know it's not true, and that I'm not going to give you any more money."
The girl looked up in amazement and giggled as Clemente waved goodby.