Europe

Close your eyes and pic­ture stereo­typ­i­cal Spain’s blue-tiled pa­tios, or­ange trees, fla­menco danc­ing and white­washed build­ings – and wel­come to Ronda writes Brian John­ston.

Travel Bulletin - - CONTENTS -

Some­times travel is about giv­ing in to your ex­pec­ta­tions rather than chal­leng­ing them. Ronda is Spain straight from a sto­ry­book, com­plete with clip-clop­ping horse-drawn car­riages, bull fights and bar­rels of sherry in dim tapas bars. Ly­ing just 60 kilo­me­tres in­land from Malaga on the coast – though quite a bit fur­ther by wind­ing road in this rugged re­gion – it pro­vides a gor­geous small-town al­ter­na­tive to An­dalu­sia’s big-name des­ti­na­tions, Granada and Seville. Stay for a night or two be­cause, when the tour groups depart, it en­velops you in the rhythms and all the de­light­ful stereo­types of small-town Spain. Lodged atop a rocky out­crop above An­dalu­sia’s hot plains, Ronda grew to promi­nence dur­ing Spain’s long, me­dieval Is­lamic oc­cu­pa­tion, fall­ing to the Span­ish re­con­quest only in 1485. The rem­nants of this glo­ri­ous pe­riod are ev­ery­where, from the restau­rant food to the style of its white­washed houses and or­ange and al­mond trees. Ev­ery church seems to have started life as a mosque, and some re­main looped with Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy. Fine man­sions fea­tur­ing Moor­ish arches, plas­ter­work and foun­tain-trick­led gar­dens will re­mind you of the Mid­dle East, though over­laid with later baroque em­bel­lish­ments. Casa Del Rey Moro and the Pala­cio Mon­dragón are open to the public, but you’ll get al­most as much Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture just by wan­der­ing the town’s tan­gled white­washed al­leys, where old men doze and black­clad grand­moth­ers hag­gle over egg­plants. The Catholics came later and added churches and con­vents to the mix, rich with swoon­ing saints and gold leaf. Step into the dim, tiled hall­way of Carmeli­tas Descalzas con­vent in Plaza Merced and you’ll find the nuns’ wares dis­played on a tres­tle ta­ble: quince paste, mac­a­roons, cakes ooz­ing cream. Ring the buzzer and a dis­em­bod­ied voice be­hind a hatch will ask what you want; your or­der ap­pears from the hatch on a re­volv­ing lazy Su­san. It isn’t un­com­mon in Spain for con­vents to op­er­ate bak­eries but, in Ronda, the nuns will also sell you a pa­per twist of sug­ared al­monds, a treat straight from Is­lamic times. Ronda’s con­vents and nar­row al­leys seem se­cre­tive and turned in­wards, but skirt the old town’s edges for mag­nif­i­cent views out­wards over the An­dalu­sian coun­try­side. The town’s rocky perch is split in two by a gorge spanned by an eigh­teenth-cen­tury stone bridge, Puente Nuevo. Walk the prom­e­nades along the cliff edges, where eu­ca­lyp­tus trees are a dis­con­cert­ing re­minder of home. White­washed houses cling to the rocks, while down be­low lies a panorama of sil­very olive groves and patch­work fields. As the sun slides down be­hind the sub­urbs and the sky turns mauve, it’s time to move across into the new part of town, which shakes off the day’s heat and comes alive. Lo­cals emerge in shoals, lick­ing pyra­mids of scar­let ice cream and watch­ing their chil­dren play in the foun­tains. Af­ter a long siesta, shut­ters rat­tle open along Calle Espinel, re­veal­ing shirts in bright colours, stylish kitchen uten­sils and the ruf­fled, polka-dot­ted skirts and dan­gling ear­rings of fi­esta at­tire. Later, it’s time to laze at an out­door café over some olives as a busker strums his gui­tar and sings

melan­choly songs in the fad­ing light. As dark­ness set­tles in, the new town re­veals its trump card: neigh­bour­hood tapas joints. Squeeze in past huge wooden bar­rels of sweet Malaga wine, bot­tled olives and great wheels of cheese, and take a stool at the bar. Tapas start off in cold dishes ar­ranged along the coun­ter­top: slices of oily egg­plant, potato salad, tiny pur­ple-shelled cock­les in gar­lic and pars­ley sauce. You can also or­der hot dishes from a waiter in a crisp white apron: tiny omelettes, juicy green pep­pers roasted over an open flame un­til the skin is charred, deep-fried squid sprin­kled with lime juice. Tuck in, be­cause you can hardly ex­pect a proper meal in Spain any time be­fore ten o’clock. There’s good rea­son, though, to be­have like a vam­pire while in Ronda and linger over both tapas and din­ner. It isn’t un­til af­ter mid­night, as the stone streets fi­nally give up the last of their heat, that you’ll hear dis­tinct, strangely ar­rhyth­mic clap­ping from in­side dim bars; then the rasp­ing tones of an old man sing­ing of treach­er­ous women, all over­laid by mum­bled con­ver­sa­tion and the rat­tle of dishes and cut­lery as if to re­mind you this is no Car­men opera stage. In­stead, it’s just Ron­dans en­joy­ing them­selves. Hap­pily, fla­menco in An­dalu­sia isn’t a quaint and dy­ing art, and the same trendy young­sters you see shop­ping in jeans dur­ing the day are just as likely to be clap­ping and danc­ing at night, silk roses in their hair and knot­ted shawls around their shoul­ders. Cas­tanets click, feet rat­tle floor­boards, a singer moans, and Ronda se­duces you once more. Watch a well-per­formed fla­menco dance and it will tear your heart out. Gaze at the baroque mag­nif­i­cence of Ronda’s man­sions and give a sigh. Wan­der about in the per­fumed gar­dens of its Is­lamic ter­races and dream of yes­ter­year. There’s po­etry and pas­sion ev­ery­where in Ronda – as in all An­dalu­sia – and your spirit will soar.

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