Ronda – Spain

I wanted to see Ronda wake; to see the life that stirs at dawn move through the ancient streets; I wanted to watch the color that comes with early day play with the shadows kept from the night under high towers and down narrow alleys.

When I left the hotel a dim moon hung overheadand a star or two was still shining. In the east red streaks lay against a steely sky. In the streets the electric lights were burning, but beyond the yellow zone of their glare a blue twilight was forming. Near the hotel there were singing and loud talking in a drinkingshop, through the open door of which one could look into the cellar-like place, where rows of barrels took the place of bottles. Presently the men left in twos and threes, the keeper clanged the door and put out the light, and the street fell silent.

From an alley a small boy on his way to work hurries across the square, with his luncheon in a basket of native weave. With a clatter of hoofs on the cobblestones a long train of donkeys comes up from the dusk, their great burdens strapped tightly on their backs. A man who has lain on the pavement by a wall asleep, with his hat over his face, sits up, and then stretches out again for another nap. Now and then a boy on a mule rides into the picture and out again. At a cafe opposite, the whiteaproned waiters are putting out little tables and chairs. If you go over there and sit down and clap your hands, one of them will bring you thick, black coffee and sugar. This clapping of hands to secure service, a custom everywhere prevalent in Spain, must be an inheritance from Moorish times, for the habit is purely Oriental.

It is getting lighter now, and the are lamps go out. In the zenith the sky is blue, but along the streets the light is still pale and uncertain-only the tops of the yellow buildings take on their color. An old woman comes into the square. She has with her an immense umbrella fully eight feet in diameter. With the help of a small boy this is opened and tilted up upon the pavement. Under it she places a stool for herself and a little stove, where soon a charcoal fire is burning, over which she fries things that look like sausages, but are only some sort of yellow meal stuffed in skins. Life is moving more briskly now, though it is only half-past four, and workmen in long blouses that reach to the knee stop and breakfast under the old woman’s umbrella.

Leading a donkey burdened with a mass of grass-like stuff, a man in rags and tatters comes close to the hotel steps. On the pavement he spreads a rug, unpacks the donkey, and, sitting cross-legged, the man proceeds to weave the coarse grass baskets that will be of all shapes and sizes.

Out from the square a street enticingly opens. Old men armed with great bundles of twigs are sweeping the pavement. Blackhaired maids are scrubbing the steps of the houses. Rugs are being shaken from upper windows. Bareheaded women wearing long, black-fringed shawls hurry along to market, a basket in one hand, a tiny fan in the other. Across the stupendous gorge on the wonderful arches of the most beautiful bridge in the world the highway seeks the older, the Moorish town. Here the color scheme is richer, and the sun, now over the tops of the mountains, brings into sharp outline against the sky of infinite clearness the houses of green, and cream, and blue and white. Through open doors and along tiled passageways are had glimpses of inner courtyards set about with palms and roses, and cooled by the spray of fountains. Bits of Moorish work are here and there, and beautiful iron grills and strange quaint knockers. This is not the street called straight, and at almost every turn the view is ended by the graceful yellow tower of a church, framed by the houses as in a picture. Leave out the occasional Moorish house fronts, and the street is but a duplicate of those intensely old-world byways of Havana, the most foreign thing in the western hemisphere.

On the way back to the hotel you pass the market-house, a rather bare, pillared building just over the bridge on the old side of the town. Within, it teems with life and color, but the color is not of the people, for a Ronda crowd is a somber-clad one, but of the fruit piled up in enormous heaps upon the floor. Red and green peppers mixed in great piles by the side of big white melons; yellow peaches, purple figs, white and blue grapes, and the beautiful rose and yellow cactus fruit that is sold not only in the markets, but on all the street corners of southern Spain, and that ripens by the million on the cactus hedges that border the railroads. Exquisite as is its color, a love for its sweet insipid flavor is an acquired taste, as is also a liking for the greenish liquor sold everywhere, and made from the sweetened juice of unripe white grapes. Around the market-place boys are selling newspapers of the day before, and doing a thriving trade in lottery tickets which, I must confess, I had an unholy desire to buy. A few weeks before my visit, a boy of seventeen risked all he had, about a dollar of our money, on these tickets, and lost. It seemed so hopeless to the lad, such a desperate finality of ill-fortune, that the next dawn he climbed to the top of the railing on the Moorish bridge, and plunged headlong to the rocks, six hundred feet below. Life is hard to these Spanish folk, and the folk seem hardened to the life about them. Among them there is an indifference, a selfishness, a certain unconsciousness of human rights and human suffering, that amounts to cruelty. A cruelty that has written itself on page after page of Spanish history, and that actively asserts itself today in the ghastly, bloodstained arena where men and bulls take each others’ lives to make a holiday for thousands; a cruelty that passively presents itself in the indifference to the needs, to the very presence of a common humanity.

This hideous national sport of theirs takes the place of baseball here, as the absorbing national topic of interest. The periodical of widest circulation in Spain is wholly devoted to the subject, and the daily press discusses bull-fighting more thoroughly than national or international politics. A dead matador, killed in the arena, was being celebrated throughout Spain at the time of my visit, celebrated in song and story, and by a funeral that was a national event. His picture was everywhere, in the shop windows, in the newspapers, in the magazines.

Here at Ronda is the oldest arena in Spain, a relic of the rule of Rome. Outside it is but a barren, whitewashed wall; within rise tier on tier of solid masonry, nearly all of Roman workmanship, surrounding an open oval space, and having a seating capacity great enough to accommodate half the present population of the town. Great gates lead through a tunnel into the bull pen, and there is also an opening into the stalls where the horses are kept. Above these is the room where once the gladiators and now the matadors gather, and opening from this the little room where are stored the saddles of beautiful workmanship, the long javelins with gay ribbons at the hilt that prod the bull to fury, and the short, wicked sword for the coup de grace. I was glad to come out from this room, so sickeningly suggestive, into the bright sunlight of the open arena, where some little children were playing at bull-fight. Not here, but in Madrid and Seville, the boy who played the bull had real horns strapped upon his forehead. Proud youngster!

The only affection I saw evidenced in Spain by anybody for anybody or anything, was the affection everywhere bestowed upon the donkey. These little creatures, often no bigger than a large dog, are made to carry heavy burdens, but in that and every other respect are treated like one of the family. Time and again you will see a group of peasants at luncheon under the shade of a tree, with the donkey, eased for the time of his burden, stretched out amongst them, thoroughly at home. Here at Ronda I passed a large house of the better class, its double doors thrown open, and within the tiled vestibule children and donkey at play, just as shown in the picture my camera caught.

Toledo in the north and Ronda in the south are the most picturesque towns of Spain. Each crests the summit of a mighty rock, each boasts a bridge, famous as the town, but in spirit the two cities are utterly diverse. Toledo is dying amid a desert, Ronda lives in the midst of the garden of Spain. The strange, sad soul of Toledo is so manifest that the traveler averts his eyes from the profanation of a too great intimacy, but Ronda joyously invites you to share her life, and you as frankly can accept.

Up from the edge of the valley the rock of Ronda lifts a sheer, precipitous front of six hundred feet or more. At the rear of the town it breaks downward to the plain in a fashion less abrupt, so that a winding road can scale its yet steeply sloping sides. Centuries ago an earthquake took this great rocky plateau and shook it till it broke in two, there appearing across it a rent less than three hundred feet wide, but more than that in depth. Through this great fissure a river swirls tumultuously, its mist often climbing above the rocky walls, and just where the bridge is thrown across it leaps downward still another three hundred feet to the level of the plain. Here, on this strange rock, Rome built a city, and in after years the Moors threw up strong walls that helped to shelter the Moslem power in Spain till it fled finally forth from the Alhambra in the days of Ferdinand and Isabella. Surrendered to these joint sovereigns, they built upon the northern half of the rock ” the new town ” which, with straight streets and low, uniform houses, brings to the traveler a keen sense of disappointment. Here are the shops and the hotels, one of which, facing the little park, or Alameda, is one of the very best in Spain.

After tribute to the beggar at its gates you walk through this quiet little garden and out upon an open, railed space where waits one of the most impressive, one of the most splendid views to be obtained from the walls of any town in Europe. To repeat a comparison made elsewhere, it is not so far-reaching as the vast view from the market-place of San Marino, nor so varied as the scene from the ramparts of Perugia, but for complete impressiveness it excels them both. Miles away are chalkwhite mountains, naked, like those that loom along the Adriatic’s eastern shore, and all the miles between are covered with bare yellow fields, shadowed here and there by olive groves. Straight down, six hundred feet and more, the river skirts the cliff after its mad plunge through the cleft and its leap below the bridge. Just across to the left is the mighty rock, where sits the Moorish city in splendid confusion of walls and towers.

As later I wandered hour after hour around this old Moorish town, it seemed to me the most picturesque place I had ever seen. Now that I have passed from under its spell, and the memories of Toledo and Clovelly and Ragusa and Carcassonne come back upon me, I hardly know whether to let that impression stand as an opinion or not. Perhaps it will be more accurate to say that while you are there Ronda seems the most picturesque town in the world-and what more can one ask of any place? The streets drop away so abruptly, giving such charming vistas of clinging towers and buildings; old gateways of such exceeding charm spring so unexpectedly across the way, and through them are offered such bits of nearby towers and distant landscape, that every moment is a keen delight.

Then there is the cathedral square, where the old Mosque, remodeled, serves as a Christian church, presenting an architecture fascinating in its strangeness. A beautiful square tower with doors that part way up open out upon a little balcony in the fashion of your room at the hotel, and a two-story veranda-like structure at the right of the tower, such is the yellow, plaster-walled, red-roofed cathedral that glows in the square at Ronda. Farther on you pass through another square of great picturesqueness, one side framed by low, adobe buildings of purely Spanish type, along another side a high yellow wall with a fountain in one corner, where women fill their water jars, and cattle come to drink, and, diagonally across, the crumbling gate and ruined court of the Moorish citadel.

Thence you come upon a yellow, dusty road that turns its back upon the slender belfry of an ancient church and, by many a steep incline, seeks the level of the plain. Along this road comes and goes the travel forever passing between the country and the town, boys on donkeys with earthen wine bottles balanced across the saddle, women with water jars on their heads or carried on their hips, priests and peasants, in long and interesting procession. From the turn in the road by the church you look to the right across the valley to jagged peaks of mountains five thousand feet in height, to the right is the old medieval wall, and in front the city seems to tumble down the rocks, ending in the beautiful arch of a bridge and the low ruins of a castle belted by a row of pointed cypress trees. Close at hand in the valley are four or five threshing-floors, round places where the earth is packed hard, and here the farmers bring their corn, and here the ” ox treadeth out the grain ” precisely as in Bible days and lands. The view is not only a wide one, but so intensely foreign in every detail that it lives in my memory as one of the typical scenes of Europe.

But back in the old town on the hill there is many another interesting thing to see. There is an old, old house (whose name I have forgotten, and it really doesn’t matter) that stands on the edge of the cliff. It is the most Moorish thing in Ronda. In the center is a courtyard open to the sky, with an interesting stairway leading to the floor above, and in the midst a well, the ice-cold water from which you are privileged to drink, thereby gaining some magic properties which I likewise have forgotten, though I drank deeply, and twice. But the wonder of the house is the overwhelming view from the balcony, hanging directly above the valley six hundred feet below; valley, mountains, olive groves, villages, and rocks blending in one tremendous yellow picture.

Straight beneath the balcony rise two of the most curious rocks imaginable. Perfectly cone-shaped, and apparently about three hundred feet high, they are very singular formations. My guide said he had never been to them, it was too far; no photographs of them were obtainable in the shops, and the proprietor of the hotel had never so much as heard of them. But there they are, like great chimneys, just under that part of Ronda’s cliff on which the Moorish house is standing. I intended to find them the next day, but something happened, so now I shall have to go back.

But the wildest, strangest thing in Ronda is the bottom of the great gorge, and the way there. You find the latter through the doorway of a private house.

Narrow steps are cut in a black cellar-like way that plunges down through the rock, comes out upon a cave-like opening halfway down the cliff, and then dizzily finishes the descent by means of iron stairs that hang like a fire-escape above the rushing stream. Twilight reigns at the bottom of this tremendous crevice, only some two hundred feet across, whose giant, precipitous walls seem to almost come together as you look upward three hundred feet to their summits. Around a labyrinth of mighty rocks the river rages, sending up clouds of mist that at times obscure the granite walls. At one place, however, a bit of quiet water appears, and here blackhooded women are doing the family washing under the shadow of the ruined arch of a Roman bridge. If you do not mind getting your feet wet as you slip from the stones, you can follow the stream a considerable distance in this uncanny place, getting strange, shivery pictures at every turn.

Such is Ronda, odd, picturesque and beautiful, a town different from all others, and one whose lure will surely draw me back once my feet are again on Spanish soil.