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Ronda, Spain’s Magnificent Mountain Retreat

So beautiful but so nasty

By John ThomsonPublished 5 months ago 4 min read
Ronda, Spain. Photo by the author

Ronda is a white village, so called because of its whitewashed houses, in the Andalusian mountains 56 miles north of Malaga and the Costa del Sol. Thousands of tourists visit it every year drawn by the magnificent scenery, the architecture and the quaint cobbled streets.

I was drawn by the violence. I’m a history buff and I knew that Ronda had always been a battleground. I figured that if the Phoenicians and the Visigoths, not to mention the Romans and the Moors, all passed through these parts, then Ronda’s turbulent past couldn’t be too far behind. Idyllic Ronda. Oh, so beautiful but oh, so nasty

Puente Nuevo. Photo by the author

After a spin through the mountains, the bus dropped me off near Puente Nuevo, a magnificent 18th century stone bridge that crosses El Tajo, a 300 foot deep gorge, and into La Ciudad, the historic part of town. I saw someone tossing pennies over the side. Is this some sort of good luck thing I thought to myself? Back in the 1930’s during the Spanish Civil War, people threw bodies not pennies off the bridge. First it was the republicans who threw fascists into the gorge. Then when the fascists won the War, they returned the favor. Hmm, it looked like my premise of a violent past was going to hold true.

Next up, the Moorish palace La Casa Del Rey. A 300-step subterranean stairway led from the palace to its water supply, the Guadalevin River. Back in the day when the Moors ran the place, 300 Christian slaves formed a bucket brigade to carry water from the river below to their Moorish masters above. “They lived, worked and died in these stone passageways,” a German tourist told his kids. The kids couldn’t have cared less; they scampered ahead like sure-footed mountain goats, oblivious to the steep decline. I was not as fearless. Tiny rivulets seeped from the wall and pooled at my feet as I slowly made my way down the slippery slope. I was simply another Christian who didn’t want to die in the passageway.

Santa Maria La Mayor. Photo by the author

I walked deeper into Ronda’s historic center and entered Santa Maria La Mayor and its sumptuous interior. It used to be a mosque, a Roman temple too, the archeologists say. I noticed Arab inscriptions in the opening archway. Tearing mosques down to the foundations and rebuilding them was typical when Catholic forces retook Ronda in the mid 1400’s. The Minarete de San Sebastian, one of the more visible remnants of Moorish rule is, in fact, a Christian bell tower built on top of a Moorish base. Ronda is full of these architectural hybrids. Muslims had a choice after the Reconquest, convert to Christianity or be sent to North Africa. Those who stayed and practiced their religion in secret were hunted down and tortured by the Inquisition. Ouch.

Looking into the valley from Ronda's high elevation. Photo by the author

Perched 2,400 feet above sea level, Ronda’s been called “the eagle’s nest” because of its high elevation. Peering over the edge into the valley below, I tried to picture what it was like when Napoleon stationed 3,000 men here in the Peninsular War of 1810. Ronda would have been a difficult place to get to without some form of motorized transport which of course wasn’t invented yet, hardly worth the effort unless you intended to stay awhile which they did. Two years in fact. This royally ticked off the locals and they started picking off French soldiers, ambushing them on the narrow mountain trails. They were so good at it that after the French left, some of the guerillas became bandits and subsequent generations took up a life of crime.

A typical scene in the Museo del Bandolero. Photo by the author

I found out more about this uh…unique lifestyle at the Museo del Bandolero, the bandit museum. Ronda was a bandolero stronghold, a Spanish Dodge City, from the mid 1800’s to the mid 1930’s. Outlaws held up stagecoaches and robbed wealthy tourists who dared to travel through their turf. When they retreated to Ronda to escape the law they became folk heroes and like American folk heroes with criminal pasts, they were romanticized and popularized in films and comic books.

El Tempranillo whose real name was Jose Maria Hinojosa Cabacho was perhaps the most famous bandit of them all, a Spanish Robin Hood who distributed his ill-gotten gains among the poor. Others were not so generous but simply thieves and murderers who played cat and mouse games with the lawmen who were chasing them through the mountains. It’s all documented in the Museo - paintings, photographs and weaponry, lots of weaponry. Heroes or villains? I can’t decide.

Retreating over the Puente Nuevo and into New Town, the commercial part of Ronda, I ruminated over a fresh plate of paella. Today’s conflict seems to be over bullfighting, those who like it and those who don’t. It’s big deal in Andalusia, especially in Ronda, the birthplace of the sport. Spain’s animal rights people want to ban bullfighting - they say it’s an archaic relic of the past - but the traditionalists are resistant. I didn’t see any bullfighting myself, Ronda’s bullfights are mainly in September and are held sporadically throughout the rest of the year but I did see Stop Bullfighting posters plastered on the walls of the Plaza de Toros de Ronda, Ronda’s famous bullring. To be fair, I also saw Roman ruins, a partially intact Arabic bath house, medieval battlements, luxurious gardens, and stunning vistas. Ronda is a beautiful place to visit, to be sure, but its bloody past lies just beneath the surface.


About the Creator

John Thomson

Former television news and current affairs producer now turned writer. Thanks Spell Check. Visit my web page at https://woodfall.journoportfolio.com

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