Test your head for heights during a stroll round the picturesque and historic streets of dramatically located Ronda, in southern Spain
We British love the idea that our language, ideas and culture have influenced the world; not just the empire, but every corner of the globe. At first glance you wouldn’t think Britishness had infiltrated much of southern Spain. Surely, it’s all Moorish influences, especially in the pueblos blancos, the white towns stretching across the northern half of Cádiz province and into neighbouring Málaga.
Well, yes, there are signs everywhere you look: the architecture, the street layout, the agricultural practices, the landscapes themselves with their thousands of olive groves. But there’s a little bit of Britain too in the unofficial capital of the area, Ronda. It might be hard to believe, but this quintessentially Spanish settlement boasts a very British establishment and the clue is in the name.
Perched on the edge of the jaw-dropping Tajo Gorge, the Reina Victoria hotel certainly looks out of place – more Swiss mountain hostelry than southern European retreat. That’s because it was built to cater for British officers and civil servants and their families whose postings in Gibraltar left them seeking cleaner, cooler mountain air during the summer months.
A railway was constructed early in the 20th century to link Algeciras on the coast with Ronda and, at journey’s end, a hotel was built to house all those holidaying Brits and named in honour of the recently-deceased queen. Those Edwardians chose their position well; the hotel sits near the town’s highest point and the views from balcony, terrace and garden are quite spectacular.
Any number of luminaries have stayed here but the most famous former guest was German. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke spend much time here in the hotel’s early years and his room has been preserved as a mini-museum; the receptionist will hand you the key for a mooch around even if you’re not staying.
Once outside the gardens of the Reina Victoria, you couldn’t be anywhere but Spain – and a quick stroll down the hill towards the old town brings you to one of the country’s most iconic buildings. Ronda’s plaza de toros – its bullring – is not just one of the oldest and most beautiful in the country, it also holds a special place in the heart of every aficionado of this very Spanish preoccupation. This is where, 250 years ago, Pedro Romero codified the rules of modern bullfighting.
Romero was the founder of one of Ronda’s great bullfighting dynasties. The other, the Ordoñez family, has been responsible for a breathtaking addition to the annual calendar. The Goyescas take place every autumn in the plaza de toros, as they have for more than 50 years. Antonio Ordoñez conceived the idea of a corrida (bullfight) with the participants dressed in the costumes shown in Goya’s great paintings from the early 19th century and the popularity of this feria is testament to his vision.
Close by sits the small miracle that is the Puente Nuevo – the new bridge (which is actually close to 400 years old). Spanning the Tajo gorge and closing the gap between new town and old, its buttresses stretch down hundreds of feet to the tiny stream that glistens among the rocks. This is the point at which picture-postcard Ronda really takes over, and what draws those hundreds of tourists who squeeze into the narrow streets every day.
The Moorish quarter is all cobbled streets, tumbling alleyways, leafy plazas, massive defensive walls and mansion houses. It’s as pretty as any town in Spain and stuffed full of history. The reconquering Christians didn’t manage to oust the Moors from here until 1485, hardly a surprise given that steepling cliff and those defences. Plenty of elegant stone buildings have been added since the 15th century, and today a fair number have been turned into cafes, restaurants or hotels.
If you only have time to look round one, head for the Palacio de Mondragón. Now a municipal museum, this grand house set around a typical patio is worth half an hour of anyone’s time. The gardens, which overlook the plain, far below, are quietly stunning in a not very tidy sort of way.
At the foot of the town lies the Puente Viejo, the old Roman bridge and, beyond, the old Moorish baths; it’s a bit of a trek down and more of a trek back up the hill but, again, you can take your time, wander undisturbed and soak up the atmosphere.
Ronda’s not just about ruins and centuries-old buildings. In fact it’s great for shopping: ceramics, prints, rugs and other artefacts, as well as more fashionable items.
Beyond the town and out beyond the plain you’ll find spectacular mountain ranges in every direction. Heading west, though, it’s hard not to spot signs for Ronda la Vieja, the Roman settlement of Acinipo. Set on a broad hillside facing the town, this is a stunning location. Not much of this vast site is extant, but the old amphitheatre has been exposed and as you stand on the stage, framed by a great arch, gazing out across the beautiful landscapes, it’s easy to slip back a couple of thousand years. You can almost smell the greasepaint – or maybe it’s just a couple of passing goats.