We first heard about the little town of Ronda, and it’s incredible setting when we were checking out of our hotel in Seville. Another couple our age was just checking in and they were raving about Ronda; they had just come from there. We read about it in the Lonely Planet and looked it up on the internet. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit it in September, when my sister Donna was with us, but as we were coming back to Spain in April for our flight back to Canada, we put it high on our list of places to see in Spain.
The Lonely Planet recommends that travellers take the train to Ronda, as it is on the very scenic Algeciras-Granada line, but when we inquired about train timings, we learned that passengers were being sent by bus because of repairs being made to the tracks. We set off one day to find the San Roque train station, thinking it would be closer to La Linea de la Concepción and we would not have to travel all the way into Algeciras. We went on what amounted to a wild goose chase and as we headed back to our hotel, I turned to Anil and told him that all these roadblocks we were facing getting to Ronda were telling us we should rent a car instead of trying to take a train or a bus.
We had been toying with the idea of exploring the little travelled western portion of Spain, the province known as Extremadura (don’t you just love that name?). If we rented a car, we could see Ronda, travel westwards through the beautiful national park Sierra De Grazalema, on to the horse capital of Spain, Jerez de la Frontera, skip Seville altogether and drive up through Extremadura and then eastwards into Madrid. This route was entirely possible if we rented a car for a week. What would really decide the matter for us, was whether or not we could pick up the car in Algeciras and drop it off in Madrid without paying a large ‘drop-off’ charge.
After a day, and then a morning of heavy rain in La Linea, we set off on the bus for Algeciras and the sun came out and starting shining on our plans. We found a Hertz rental office right between the bus terminal and the port, almost exactly where we had walked when we arrived three days earlier. It seems that long walks always pay off for us, as it helps us get our bearings in a new place, and helps us locate things we eventually need. We were delighted to learn that there were no fees for leaving the car at the airport, and the weekly rate, with all possible insurances included was very affordable. I even remembered to give the Hertz office my Aeroplan number so that I would earn points on the rental.
Within a half hour of arriving at Hertz, we set off with our Chevy Aveo and pointed it north in the direction of Ronda. I can’t tell you how excited we were to have our own set of wheels once again. Rental cars had given us so much freedom in Lebanon and Tunisia, and now we were able to toodle around Spain to our heart’s content. The weather was absolutely fabulous, it had rained almost continuously the day before, we were lucky we had seen Gibraltar when we did. Before long, we were climbing into the hills of Andalucía, on what we had learned was an almost brand new road.
The scenery was stunning, exceptionally green from all the rain over the previous winter and spring months. There were cattle in the fields, birds of prey in the skies, and suddenly we encountered our first of many ‘pueblos blancos’ (white villages). It’s hard to find words to describe the beauty of these villages, white washed buildings with red tile roofs, nestled in the nooks and crannies of grey granite outcroppings. If you are reading this on my trip journal, you will have the ability to see the photos I have posted, and you will see for yourself the beauty of these remote hamlets.
Editor’s Note: Spain at it’s best!!!
We arrived in Ronda in the late afternoon and found a room at a simple hotel recommended in our guidebook. Extremadura is referred to as ‘The Road Less Travelled’ in the Itineraries section of Lonely Planet Spain. Very few tourists, Spanish or foreign, visit this part of the country, and the hotels seem to have few guests at this time of year. This was good in two ways, we were free to plan our route as we went along, and the prices were lower than in other parts of Spain. In our minds, this helped to compensate for the additional cost of renting a car and paying for fuel.
We had inquired about parking for our rental car and balked at the idea of paying 20 euros in a patrolled lot. We were extremely lucky to find a space on the street just a block from our hotel. I was a bit nervous about leaving the car there because I worried that perhaps a sticker was required showing we were local residents. Some streets clearly had vehicles with red or yellow stickers on their windshields. The cars on the street we chose didn’t seem to have these stickers, but just to make sure I popped into a real estate business just opposite our car and asked in my ‘charades’ Spanish if we were okay to park where we were.
The young agent seemed to understand me immediately and gave me two thumbs up. When I gestured with my hands, like the sun was setting and rising again, and said the word noche (night), he smiled a big smile and nodded vigorously. I felt confident that we wouldn’t get a ticket, or worse, get towed away, so we locked the car and wished it a good night.
We set out almost right away to explore Ronda on foot. The light is wonderful in the afternoons in Spain, and it doesn’t get dark until after 9:00pm due to the ‘double’ daylight savings time here. It’s so strange; Spain’s clocks are two hours ahead of Morocco, even though Morocco is just south of Spain. It must have something to do with all the golfers here, Seve Ballesteros and Sergio Garcia to name just two.
We were only one block away from a beautiful Iglesia de la Merced (Church of Mercy). We walked through the gardens of the church, under flowering trees filled with pink blossoms. It almost felt like spring in Victoria, BC, Canada, where our daughter Adia lives. As we walked, we approached the edge of the inland plateau, formed by a 100m high fissure, the El Tajo gorge. It’s hard to describe the beauty of the panoramic view before us, the Serrania de Ronda. It was more than a little dizzying to stand on the edge of the gorge and look down at the small El Tajo River at our feet.
We walked along the edge of the gorge, ( I learned that the Spanish word for gorge is ‘cañada’, if it wasn’t for that squiggle above the ‘n’, it would look a lot like the name for our home). We crossed the dramatic bridge high above the river into the old Muslim town, known locally as ‘La Ciudad’ (the city). We had already passed the massive bullring, opened in 1785; one of Spain’s oldest. It was here that three generations of the Romero family introduced bullfighting on foot. The bulls still didn’t have much of a chance, but at least the men weren’t fighting from the back of a horse.
We had admired the white buildings perched on the edge of the gorge, in La Cuidad, but as we entered the older part of Ronda, we reveled in the small winding streets and the beautifully preserved buildings within the old walls. Many of the buildings have been turned into gift shops, hotels and restaurants, but they were all tastefully done and it was easy to appreciate the beauty of the area without feeling assaulted by commercial interests. We walked through La Cuidad and all the way out through the old walls at the north end of Ronda, enjoying the lowering light and the quiet streets.
We poked our noses into the Lonely Planet ‘Our Pick’ hotel and found that it was full, no surprise there. While I slipped in to use the toilet just off the reception area, Anil noticed two posters outlining great driving day trips in and around Ronda. When I came back, I took photos of the posters so that I could refer to them later. We also had a look in the hotel guest book and were surprised to see that two recent guests were from Canmore, Alberta. It’s a small world.
It had been a long day, with plenty of excitement as we flew by the seat of our pants, making up an itinerary as we went along. We weren’t interested in a big meal and the Spanish eat dinner very late, so we picked up some bread, olives, cheese and wine and had a picnic in our room before turning off the lights for a well-deserved sleep. There were few guests in our hotel and we were away from the street so it was exceptionally quiet. We had a light breakfast of coffee, delicious toasted bread with butter and peach jam. It was great to get away from the massive breakfast buffets we had faced in our hotels in Morocco and La Linea. I think we actually prefer when breakfast is not included in the room charge; we eat less and feel better for it.
It would be easy to spend a few days in Ronda; I would have liked to hike down the gorge to the river and take some photos looking up at the town, but we had plenty to see on the route we had planned, and the weather seemed to be threatening rain again. Perhaps if we pushed on, we could outrun the clouds and stay in the sunshine. We said goodbye to Ronda, thinking it’s a place we will probably return to one day. We were clearly falling in love with Spain and we can imagine ourselves coming back again and again, once we see the far-flung places we’ve yet to see.