If you’re like most Americans, your image of Spain is actually the region of Andalucía, famous for windswept landscapes, whitewashed hill towns, flamenco, and gazpacho. While visitors gravitate to the region’s big cities of Granada, Sevilla, and Córdoba, Andalucía’s “Route of the White Hill Towns” (Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos) – a charm bracelet of cute villages perched in the sierras – offers a taste of wonderfully untouched Spanish culture.
Ronda, 80 miles southeast of Sevilla, is one of the largest of these whitewashed hill towns. It’s also one of the most spectacular, thanks to its gorge-straddling setting. Ronda is easy to visit because it’s one of the few hill towns with a train station. The real joy for travelers lies in exploring the winding back streets and taking in the panoramic views, gleaming white houses, and exuberant flowerpots.
Ronda’s stunning ravine divides the town’s labyrinthine Moorish quarter and its newer, noisier, and sprawling Mercadillo quarter. The New Bridge, massive yet graceful, has mightily spanned the gorge since the 18th century. Look down (carefully) into the ravine – it’s 300 feet deep and 200 feet wide.
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To Spaniards, Ronda is most famous for being the birthplace of modern bullfighting. In the 16th century, two kinds of bullfighting existed: the type with noble knights on horseback, and the coarser, man-versus-beast entertainment for the commoners (with no rules…much like when WWE wrestlers bring out the folding chairs). In the 1700s, Francisco Romero melded these two forms, injected some rules, and created bullfighting as we know it today, complete with scarlet cape (though bulls are actually colorblind – the red was to disguise the blood).
Ronda’s bullring (and accompanying museum) rivals Sevilla’s as Spain’s best. Built in 1785, the two-tiered arena is surrounded by 5,000 seats and 136 classy columns to create a kind of 18th-century theater feel. In Ronda, bullfighting is considered an art, not a sport; newspapers cover fights in the culture section, not on the sports pages. Lovers of the “art” of bullfighting will explain that the event is about much more than the actual killing of the bull – it’s about celebrating the noble heritage and the Andalusian horse culture.
Ronda is not only about bullfighting. Drop by the Santa Maria church, built on the site of a former mosque and an earlier temple to Julius Caesar, for its interesting mix of Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque fusion (or confusion). For a look at Ronda’s Moorish past, tour the ruins of the Arab Baths, which come to life with a video. The Bandolero museum features bandit lore and paraphernalia from the time Ronda was the romantic home of 19th-century bandoleros – the Jesse Jameses and Billy el Niños of Andalucía. To learn more about the history and prehistory of Ronda, tour the Mondragón Palace.
And to travel back 30,000 years, day-trip to the Pileta Cave, the best and most intimate look a tourist can get at prehistoric cave paintings in Spain. The farmer who owns the cave, and whose grandfather discovered it in 1905, still lives down the hill. As you walk the cool half-mile, a guide will point out the faint remains of paintings which are five times as old as the Egyptian pyramids. (Because the number of visitors is strictly limited, the paintings are among the best preserved in the world.) The Neolithic and Paleolithic drawings of black, ochre, and red are mostly just lines or patterns, but there are also horses, goats, cattle, and a rare giant fish, made from a mixture of clay and fat by finger-painting prehistoric hombres.
Ronda is fun after dark. While day-trippers from the touristy Costa del Sol clog Ronda’s streets during the day, locals retake the town in the early evening. I enjoy the fine tapas scene. Instead of picking one place, I do a tapa pub crawl, going from bar to bar sampling signature dishes such as lechuguita (a wedge of lettuce with vinegar, garlic, and a secret ingredient), huevo de codorniz (a tiny piece of oily toast with a slice of ham and a fried quail egg), and asparagus on a stick sprinkled with Manchego cheese grated coconut-style. If a bar has a cardboard sign, “Hay caracoles” in its window, it’s advertising it has fresh snails, a special treat served from late spring through early fall. At tapas bars, you’ll eat standing up, just like the locals.
The paseo (early evening stroll) happens in the new town, on Ronda’s major pedestrian and shopping street, Carrera Espinel. Join in. Walking the streets, you feel a strong local pride and a community where everyone seems to know everyone. And you feel thankful that, in your Spanish itinerary, you included Rhonda.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)