Monday 26th September 2011, Ronda, Andalucia
We are back in the delightful, fascinating town of Ronda high in the mountains of the Serrania de Ronda that forms the hinterland to the tourist resorts strung out along the Mediterranean coast between Malaga and Algeciras. On our last visit it was late January 2006 and the route up from the coast had been icy, the landscape covered in snow and no more than a few goats along the route for company. Today, even up here it has been really hot and the city has been packed with coachloads of tourists who have travelled up for the day. The atmosphere is not as special as in winter and we've heard more English and French spoken than Spanish. Nevertheless, the charm of Ronda and its unique position make it an unforgettable experience and we have greatly enjoyed the day.
I described Ronda on our last visit. The link is below. I will avoid too much repetition though Ian has forgotten what photos he took then so you may find similar ones repeated here.
Our journey this morning was really easy. We had the roads pretty much to ourselves. It was though still very hot with nowhere to stop in shade for a break. The landscape was impressive, the lower slopes planted with olives while the huge bare mass of the mountains loomed around.
Passing a stunning reservoir lying in this parched landscape we paused long enough to discover that the mountains were thrown up 145 million years ago and the sheer escarpments we had noticed were caused by the movement of tectonic plates resulting in seismic faults, the hillside rising as a sheer wall of rock.
Nowhere though could we find shade for lunch. The only trees were a few wild olives, too low for shade though burdened with large black olives that looked delicious but tasted unbelievably bitter. What happens to change the taste of an olive I wonder. Eventually we spotted an oak tree with space for Modestine beneath. We turned off to find ourselves at the entrance to a private motor racing club! Entry was forbidden but our tree was just outside. Perhaps to the annoyance of the guards we set up our picnic tables, waved at the overhead security cameras hidden in our oak tree and settled down for lunch in the shade.
We had intended to visit Antequera famed for a group of three prehistoric dolmen caves which are amongst the most impressive in Spain. However, just before the turn-off Ian checked our guide book. They are closed on Mondays!
We parked on the edge of Ronda and walked down into the heart of the old town where the impressive bridge links the two halves of the town across a deep, narrow ravine. The original, Moorish city was constructed on a mountain promontory overlooking a wide plain, surrounded by the peaks of distant mountains. From the public gardens there is an awesome sheer drop straight down to the plain. It's a real stomach squirmer!
The town is also famed for its bull ring and is considered to be the cradle of Spanish bull fighting. The writer Ernest Hemmingway and actor Orson Welles were particularly drawn to this sport and their interest is well recognised in Ronda today.
Best of all though, we enjoyed its gardens, old Moorish houses, its picturesque narrow streets and the external charm of its many churches.
There are many Moorish remains, including public baths, a 10th century minaret and crenelated castle ramparts as well as various remains down in the ravine. We've explored down there before and today gave it a miss in favour of licking iced lollies beneath a flowering oleander, beside a gently cascading fountain, surrounded by flowers and palm trees as we looked out over the sheer drop towards the distant peaks and listened to somebody playing Rodriguez Concierto de Aranguez on a classical Spanish guitar.
By early evening we were weary again so returned to Modestine and sought out the campsite we'd used on our last visit five years ago (it seems like yesterday). We'd forgotten though that the site is run with as much discipline as those in Italy and everything is Prohibido! Fortunately we don't want to do any of the things on the banned list we were presented with but it's rather intimidating. It's also far more expensive than we remember from last time – 28 euros for a dusty patch of earth and an olive tree. It doesn't even include wifi.
Tuesday 27th September 2011, Alcala de los Gazules, Andalucia
Today has been excellent. We've not travelled far but the scenery has been magnificent as we've gently pottered through the mountains along the route between Ronda and Algeciras, turning off to explore several of the Pueblos Blancos, each isolated from the rest of the world up here with the elements - hot sun in summer, ice, snows and gales in winter. We've seen hardly another vehicle all day and have been kept refreshed by a strong breeze blowing up from the coast.
Having left Ronda quite early we followed the winding road through the rugged mountains with awesome views across wide valleys to ridges of rock over which clouds billowed and tumbled as they were dissipated by the sun's heat. We stopped at several miradors where the only signs of life were eagles soaring over the crags and the occasional few goats near the roadside. Beside the road were mountain shrubs unknown to me as well as kermis oaks, sweet chestnuts and wild figs. On distant hillsides white villages nestled where they could for shelter, frequently just below the level of the road. Thus we turned off down into the village of Alajate. The streets were too narrow, steep and twisting for Modestine so we left her at the entrance. Every house was whitewashed with decorative wrought iron bars at the windows, their fronts decorated with potted geraniums, succulents and agaves. In the village shop we bought a couple of locally produced cakes made from chestnut flour and wheat mixed with honey and almonds. They are a local speciality which we ate later with coffee in a mountain setting to die for. We were served by a diminutive elderly lady who looked delighted to have a customer at all today.
At Gaucin we again parked Modestine outside the town and climbed the steep steps to the main street. Here we found a covered market and several bars frequented by English people. Many of the notices around the streets were in both Spanish and English. Some of the English are probably summer visitors but we have the impression many are resident. It seemed idyllic today with a cooling wind to soften the effects of the heat but I'd not wish to spend a winter up there.
Many of these older white towns and villages would appear to have originated as Moorish settlements, clustered around a ruined castle built on a hilltop above. Those we have seen today have been at the frontier of the Moorish kingdom as they were forced back by the advances of the Christian kings retaining only a diminished empire centred on Granada until finally routed in 1492.
Right at the top of the little town we had a magnificent view down towards the Mediterranean the outline of the Rock of Gibraltar just visible through the haze 40 kilometres away. On a clearer day the coast of Africa is reputed to be visible.
When we last visited Ronda in the winter of 2006 we drove down from there to Gibraltar through torrential rain. On the way we attempted to visit Jimena de la Frontera only to find the streets flooded and far too steep and narrow for Modestine. Today we left her well outside and climbed up the terraces of shady cobbled streets exploring this delightful little town. Local people manage to manoeuvre their vehicles through the switchback of alley ways with agility but we struggled slowly up on foot. Several of the streets had steps or railings to help the mainly elderly residents as they disappeared through front doors of ordinary houses often hung with blinds to emerge laden with carrier bags of shopping. There were no shop signs to be seen and we'd been wondering how residents got their bread and groceries.
Ian successfully lured me up to the Moorish castle despite my protestations that it was too hot and steep. It was well worth it though for the stunning views. The place was no more than a ruin but there were the remains of water cisterns, a mudejar gateway and a couple of stone towers. Right on the summit of the hill stood the present-day necropolis of Jimena. It seems strange that it should be within the castle ruins. Here the departed are stacked in concrete pigeon holes and the entrance sealed and decorated with a photo and some plastic flowers. There was also a monument to those of Jimena who were executed during the Spanish Civil War, mainly between 1938 and 1940. One was a mere child, just fifteen years old while a 26 year old was killed in Tenerife. I'd only ever thought of Franco's war as affecting mainland Spain. How could people out in the Canaries have been actively involved? Nationalist troops must have been stationed out there with local resistance groups set up. Could they really have felt involved in the same way as the people here? It made us think!
Coming back down was more difficult than climbing up had been. Near the bottom we discovered a little bar with check tablecloths and a few people drinking beer in the dark interior. We feel very inadequate with the few Spanish words we've picked up but can never remember in times of need. We struggle by though – rather to our surprise – and soon we were enjoying hot chicken rolls with a couple of beers. We even got mine without alcohol. Our bill was 6 euros for the two of us. It was all a very pleasant experience.
During late afternoon we made our way along a minor, winding road through forests of cork oak. Many had had the bark recently removed from their trunks and had been painted a deep red colour to protect them. It will be another fifteen years or so before their bark will be ready to harvest again. In Jimena we'd noticed many piles of bark out in the fields awaiting processing.
Eventually we reached this campsite on the edge of a huge reservoir that presumably supplies the towns along the coast of southern Spain. It was wonderful to enjoy cool showers and relax beneath the olive trees on a shady pitch with a glass of wine. The price is 13 euros and the facilities every bit as good as in the expensive sites of Cordoba and Ronda. There is though a down side. The bulls bellowing, dogs barking and cockerels crowing we can cope with. Ian though got ratty with a Spanish punk in a tent playing his grunge music rather loudly and asked him to turn it down. An argument followed and Ian got as angry as he was capable of being in Spanish. It's gone quiet now but for how long? Ian says if he starts it up again he'll go and sing selections from Sabine Baring Gould's "Songs of the West" outside his tent at 7am tomorrow.
Related links from Maxted Travels with Modestine
Ronda 2006 See 2nd February.