Let Ronda surprise you

To only include the famous bridge, the bullring and some antique shops in a visit to Ronda means missing a trip of impressive beauty around almost unchanging scenery of a glorious page in history. Stay with us. The story begins in April 1485.

The Arab town of Madinat Runda, spearhead and last western stronghold of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, wakes up on a cool spring morning. Hamet el Zegr’, the governor, relishes the break of day in his palace, which some years later will be called the Casa de Mondragón and still retains several original Arab parts. A few moments ago the muezzin has called the faithful to prayer from the nearby minaret and, after complying, he is beginning the day in the garden and watching how the rising sun gradually tints the summits of the sierra de Libar a deep purple.

However, he knows that this tranquility is bound to be short-lived. Ever since Sevilla fell more than two hundred years ago, the Christians have tried to conquer Madinat Runda on several occasions. With no success. Times are changing, though. In fact, thirty leagues from here, in Córdoba, King Ferdinand of Aragón is leaving the city with an army of eleven thousand horses and twenty five thousand foot soldiers. Three years ago, he and his wife Isabella of Castile decided to launch a crusade against Muslim Spain. Madinat Runda is their first objective. But Ferdinand has heard about the Ronda Arabs’ reputation for unflagging courage. He knows that the only way to triumph over them will be by trickery.

A few days later, spies inform Hamet el Zegrí that the Christians are marching towards his city, but that this is only a ruse to distract the attention of his troops and that another army is going to attack Málaga. His decision is immediate. He marches to the defense of the large port, essential to the survival of the Nasrid kingdom. The stratagem has worked. The next day, the Christians besiege the town.

From now on, let us follow King Ferdinand. Logically, the Christian troops camp in the only flat space outside the walls and the only natural access to the city. This was the Muslim cemetery, called the San Francisco district today . To understand Ronda you have to reach the city from this point, which is where the roads to the Costa del Sol and Algeciras meet. In front of the Christians is the huge Puerta de Almocábar. Behind it is a large octogonal tower defending this very vulnerable side of the medina, and further up is the alcazaba, the citadel. Fernando orders part of his artillery to aim at these two points. Now he wants to reconnoitre the rest of the area, moving eastwards around the city. Let us follow him, taking the path on the right which goes down to the Baños Arabes, the Arab baths, before reaching the petrol station on the road to the Costa del Sol.

Despite the descriptions he has received, Ferdinand is impressed by so much beauty and ingenuity. Built on an isolated karstic ridge, Madinat Runda is a natural fortress, strengthened by an impressive combination of walls. Everything that the king saw then is still as if on the alert.

Following the walls, he reaches the baths. Today, amongst the best preserved in the whole of Spain, they are unfortunately closed for restoration. From there, Ferdinand, like ourselves, has in front of him one of the best views of Ronda. Down below is an old Roman bridge. Above, the Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), a Moorish bridge rebuilt in 1616, is the main access to the medina. Behind is the most surprising sight. The Tajo gorge, very characteristic of karstic landscapes, has been carved out the limestone by the river. It is a sheer drop of ninety metres. But Fernando is there to conquer. He immediately sees how he can take advantage of this gorge, which is barely twenty metres wide in some places. Although it makes the medina inaccessible to his troops, it can be reached by his artillery perfectly.

The siege lasts a mere seven days. We should not forget that only an interim governor, Abraham al Haquim, is left to defend the town and that the Christian machinery is the most modern of the time. When the octagonal tower, the main defensive bulwark of the city, falls, al Haquim isn’t long in surrendering. Hamet el Zegr’, who had understood too late and tried without success to break the siege, curses himself : 'Oh my beloved Ronda! Oh unhappy one! Why did I thoughtlessly leave through your Almocábar gate?'

On 24th May 1485, through this same gate, King Ferdinand went in triumph into the conquered city accompanied by the flower of Castillan nobility. Just behind the citadel that other invaders, Napoleon’s troops , will completely destroy three centuries later, is the small Friday mosque with its splendid mirhab. Hastily dedicated to the Virgen Mary as in all recently conquered towns, it is the scene of a solemn Te Deum. Reshaped on several occasions, the mosque has unfortunately traded the discreet charm of mountain Islam for Renaissance splendours. Before going back to Córdoba and in place of the octagonal tower, Fernando orders the construction of a church which looks very much like a military fort and is dedicated to the Holy Ghost (el Espiritu Santo) because the city was conquered on Whit Sunday.

All the Muslim population has had to leave the medina and go into exile. The way is clear to initiate the distribution of houses between the knights who took part in the conquest. This is going to give the old Ronda, known today as la Ciudad (the City) its present appearance. Its narrow streets wind their way between beautiful mansions often built on the site of various Arab houses. A very interesting house which can be visited is the palace of the MarquŽs de Salvatierra which has belonged to the same family since 1485. The faade, with a clearly colonial influence, was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, but the interior remains largely as it was designed just after the Reconquest. It also enjoys a very charming garden and fantastic views.

The distribution of Moorish houses was followed by so much construction work that all types of merchants were coming to Ronda. As space was at a premium within the walls, they started to gather in front of the main gates, forming new districts, San Francisco in front of the Almocábar gate and el Mercadillo (the Small Market) in front of the Puente Viejo. The main street of this last neighbourhood, named calle Real, was until recently the comercial centre of the whole of the region of Ronda and has been the starting point for the modern Ronda, which gradually came to occupy the whole of the right bank of the Tajo.

This growth of the Mercadillo reached its peak in the eighteenth century when Ronda developed into an important centre for cattle and cottage industries. The pressure of traffic on the only Puente Viejo was so heavy that the need for a new bridge to be built over the Tajo became evident. The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is a monumental achievement which became the symbol of Ronda the very moment it was inaugurated in 1793. Eight years earlier, the Real Maestranza, a group of noblemen established by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and responsible for the military education of the nobility, had inaugurated the bullring with a corrida by the legendary Ronda bullfighter, Pedro Romero, who initiated the modern form of corrida on foot.

Clearly, a town with such a rich past deserves more than a day visit. And all the more so when one knows that a new parador was opened two years ago. Very contemporary in its conception, it occupies a towering position with breathtaking views near the Puente Nuevo, enabling visitors to enjoy a view of Ronda which remains unchanged century after century: its magnificent sunrises and sunsets against a background of hills.

This article was first published in the Andalucia, Costa del Sol Magazine.