One of Spain's oldest, most romantic cities, Ronda has grown up around the plunging gorge of El Tajo. Look down if you dare - then check out these ideas for what else to do and where to eat and stay
Nobody mentions Ronda without raving about El Tajo. But nothing quite prepares you for the 100m (300ft) plunges of sheer rock, facing each other like petrified waterfalls, that cleave apart the old town, or La Ciudad, and its 16th-century “new town” expansion, El Mercadillo.
From each vantage point, your gaze is drawn back into El Tajo’s mysterious depths, to trace the glittering black ribbon of the Guadalevin River far below. And you’re not alone: mediaeval Christians and Moors, Byzantine Greeks, Visigoths and Romans, and Iberian Celts have all stood there before you, not to mention Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. The town’s Moorish conquerors presided over its major expansion and restoration from around 713 to 1485, when Ferdinand and Isabella’s armies took Ronda in their invincible stride.
The original walled citadel became known as La Ciudad, while the new town of El Mercadillo expanded north of the gorge. Today, this development translates into a neat division: historic sights are mostly concentrated in La Ciudad, with shopping, eating, public transport points and hotels mostly found in El Mercadillo. Three bridges, including the imposing 18th-century Puente Nuevo, unite the two quarters and are monuments in their own right.
Where to stay
If informal elegance is your style, the Hotel San Gabriel in La Ciudad should be your destination. Antique wood, china bowls of flowers and piles of books in the cosy sitting room give the whole place a country house feel. Both charming and quirky is the tiny 10-seat cinema, with Art Deco ruby velvet seats rescued from a local theatre, and a selection of golden oldies for your own private night out at the movies.
On the central Plaza España, Ronda’s original town hall (the scene of dark crimes during the Civil War) is now the Parador de Ronda, a government-run luxury hotel. The squashy sofas in the modern hangar-sized foyer are a luxurious if rather anonymous place for drinks, and the terrace, overlooking the gorge, is pefect for morning coffee.
What to do
While the sun shines, and before it gets too hot, go exploring. You could start on a high by crossing the El Tajo gorge at Puente Nuevo. The bright morning sun throws the muscular pillars of rock into sharp relief, and the quaint iron fences set at regular intervals provide almost too realistic a sense of hanging in the air above that terrible drop.
A good way to earn your lunch is to visit the 18th-century Casa Del Rey Moro. The house is also the entry point for La Mina, the town’s ancient water mines. A covered staircase of 300 slippery stone steps descends the gorge to the river. Here, the Moors held their fresh water supplies in huge wells while under siege, though it was also where the Catholic invaders managed to gain entry to Ronda in 1485. The view of the gorge from its depths is as awesome as the more usual view from the top, and worth the climb back up.
Your reward is to re-emerge in bright sunshine and discover the romantic Hanging Gardens in the grounds of the Casa, designed in 1912 by a famous French landscape gardener, Jean Claude Forestier. Each flight of steps brings you to a different garden room, with water, splashing or still as glass, a central feature. Hanging vines, oleander and myrtle trees and sweet-smelling herbs evoke the Islamic idea of the garden as paradise.
Ronda’s other claim to fame is the celebration of all things taurine. One of the city’s most important tourist sites is set in bustling El Mercadillo: the Plaza de Toro, one of Spain’s biggest, oldest and most perilous bullrings, and one of the birthplaces of the modern corrida or bullfight. Today, as well as viewing the impressive bullring, you can visit the Bullfighting Museum and marvel at the ornate, bloodstained costumes of bygone stars.
Having played host to visitors for so long, Ronda is blessed with a wide choice of great places to eat and drink. Opposite the Plaza de Toros, bullfight-themed Pedro Romero pays homage to its heroes in classically meaty Rondeño and Andalucian dishes. Rabo de toro, a rich oxtail stew, could be the ultimate man food.
At the modern end of the restaurant scene, Michelin-starred Tragabuches and its satellite establishments are playing with fresh new flavours and combinations for a more cosmopolitan crowd. At sister restaurant Tragatapas, whimsical tapas include a skewer of chicken satay in coconut and lime sauce, served in a champagne flute.
In fact, modern or traditional, bar-hopping for drinks and tapas is the native Rondeños preferred dinner option, especially on warm spring and summer evenings. Ronda is such a handsome, walkable city, that you’ll find yourself doing as the natives do, before crossing that incredible gorge by moonlight to return to your hotel.