Spain Travel – Ronda

It was a beauteous evening, calm and free, when we finally shook the dust of Gibraltar’s narrow streets from our feet and boarded the ferry for our crossing to Algeciras, where our real Spanish experiences were to begin. The ferry, a fat, side-wheeled steamer belonging to a line that makes regular trips all day between Gibraltar and the Spanish shore, was crowded, but not uncomfortably so. The surface of the bay was like a sheet of glass. The mellow light of the sunset threw a rosy tinge over the gigantic rock behind, while the tumbling masses of African mountains to the southward were amethystine against the evening glow. Great masses of cloud, shot with crimson and salmon tints, floated lazily above them. The heights of Spain just ahead were royally purple against the glory of the west. The sun was gone now, and from the top of the rock came a sudden flash, followed by a dull boom which ” startled the desert over Africa” and waked the echoes of Spain, — the “evening gun-fire” of the fortress. One of the multitude gathered on the deck, evidently a zealous artist, found the scene too alluring to resist, and seized her brushes in a feverish endeavor to transfer the surrounding immensity to canvas before the light failed.

Darkness came on, however, before we had completed the few miles that lay between the English outpost and Algeciras, and the deep gloom of the long and narrow pier at which our boat came to rest was relieved only by pale and ineffectual electric lamps. The pier itself was crowded with people who soon resolved themselves into porters, runners for hotels, and ordinary onlookers whose evening occupation seemed to be to watch the boat come in. Two ragged boys of the many who swarmed over the side grasped our luggage and made off with it into the dark, we after them as best we could, stumbling over the rails of a track which ran down the middle of the wharf, and mindful only of Hamdushi’s sententious remark in Tangier a few days before,—” This is not Spain!” We need have had no fear, however, of not being able to keep up with the boys. Instead, it speedily became evident that the difficulty was to make them progress at all. They kept stopping in the darkness and stooping down to do something, as I supposed, to their shoes, — to tie them, maybe, — and so exasperating did these mysterious delays become that we were forced to threaten to carry the bags ourselves if better time were not made. This had its proper effect, and we made our laborious way up the long wharf to a sort of open shed which served as a custom-house. It was crowded and ill-lighted, and the examination of our bags was purely formal. But for the two small porters it was not so easy. To our amazement, the two vagrant lads who had been so mysteriously occupied in the dark were instantly seized by a vigilant officer and haled to a distant room, not to reappear. We were forced to depart alone, staggering under the weight of our four suit-cases and wondering what had become of the boys. They were, as it developed, waiting for us outside, having been despoiled of great store of smuggled tobacco ! So it was this which had kept them back on the way from the steamer ; they were stuffing it more securely into their sleeves ! When they stepped up and endeavored to resume their burdens an officer cuffed and kicked them soundly, but ultimately permitted them to go with us. Decidedly this was not a propitious entrance into Spain ; and it seemed even less so when, on finally reaching the hotel, which stood on the very verge of the rail-way platform, the boys followed us to our rooms and demanded thrice their fee for the little they had performed in the way of honest toil !

But the hotel proved to be clean and well served, and a dinner of portentous length speedily put a better face on the matter. Besides, it was comfortable to reflect that, as the railroad ran directly across the hotel doorsteps, we should not have to rise too early on the following day. The evening train came grumbling by the door, waking the echoes with its whistle. One by one the sounds of the dark streets died away. The crying children and coughing peasants drew off to their homes, and silence settled down on Algeciras. We were in Spain.

Morning dawned clear and beautiful over the bay and rock of Gibraltar, and in the cool of the early day we marched down to the little station to begin our Spanish pilgrimage, three determined explorers, equipped with only four suit-cases and ” Precious Darling.” The latter was a diminutive red volume of convenient phrases, whose endearing title but faintly reflects the esteem in which we held it. Until we had grown somewhat accustomed to using the few rudiments we possessed of the Spanish tongue, the tiny dictionary was deemed as essential to our daily well-being as our stock of coppers. It was several weeks before we ventured forth into the streets without it, and for the first few days its aid was constantly invoked.

The train was standing in the station just below the hotel, expectant of the arrival of a ferry-boat. Its engine certainly looked capable enough, and was of recent make. It resembled the ordinary European locomotive, and its trimmings were bright with much polishing. It bore the gay and frivolous name of ” Bobadilla,” for in Spain they still have romanticism enough to name their locomotive engines. Behind the engine were ranged a few cars of the three ordinary classes, none of them very modern in appearance, but sufficiently comfort-able to serve for the run to Ronda, a short three hours. Three hours on a Spanish railway is nothing — a bagatelle. After a few days’ experience, a five-hour trip, which is the equivalent in time of a run between Boston and New York, comes to be a mat-ter of no more importance than a trip ” in town” from Newton, or White Plains, or Evanston.

For the present we were traveling first class, which was rather needless. For so brief a journey the second would have done quite as well. Some even profess a partiality for riding third, — but we had one experience of ten miles in a third-class coach in company with the local peasantry, and the ten miles proved amply sufficient to extract all the enjoyment there was in it, so that if the ride had been longer it is doubtful that our enthusiasm had been stronger.

As it was, we found the first-class compartments far from empty, so that the pleasures of exclusiveness of which we had heard so much were not realized. But it was just as well so, for the ride to Ronda is one to be shared with all appreciative souls. A brief stretch of the line after leaving Algeciras was pastoral and meadowy, but it was not long before the engine began to pant up long grades into rocky defiles in the nearer mountains, through curious groves of cork. The wayside was lined with piles of the bark, and the trees, stripped to their upper branches, shadowed many a station and wayside hamlet. A profusion of wild flowers spangled the fields through which we slipped so easily along, and each new variety called forth exclamations of delight. But the greatest enthusiasm of all was elicited by the tall bushes of gumcistus, a large, evergreen, flowering shrub, with blossoms not unlike huge wild roses, often in two colors, but mainly white, as I now recall them. These showy blossoms grew in great profusion along the embankments of the railway, and the rockier the glens the more the cistus seemed to flourish. The great white petals against the prevailing grayness of the rock afforded an admirable contrast, but nothing was needed to enhance the grandeur of the scenery. The line led through pass after pass in the mountains, always following a river-bottom, now on this side and now on that, winding in and out, with ever-changing vistas through gorges constantly opening behind and before. There are, in my judgment, one or two finer railway rides in Spain, but only to a slight degree ; for the ride to Ronda from the south is easily among the finest. It was here that the striking similarity between Spanish and Hellenic scenery struck us for the first time, a similarity both of composition and coloring that proved to be very common throughout the country.

The railroad from the sea northward to Bobadilla is an English enterprise and by no means an ancient one, which facts accounted in large measure for the efficiency of the motive power. .Not many years ago it was necessary to proceed to Ronda on mule-back, and comparatively few then found their way thither. At present the spot is increasing in popularity, and justly. To omit visiting it would be a serious mistake, and a thoroughly needless one to commit, for the railway, by dint of a long detour, manages to climb painfully to the very summit of the rock on which Ronda stands, and lands one in its midst — or as nearly there as any Spanish rail-way ever does.

Seated high on a natural acropolis in the midst of a bowl-shaped plain, Ronda is visible from afar, and it was fully three quarters of an hour before we were due there when we saw it first — almost directly over our heads ! At the time the train was skirting the edge of a hollow vale beneath a frowning line of precipices, and on the brink of the cliffs above was to be seen a spick and span white house, green-roofed and many-gabled, so outspokenly exotic in its surroundings that we knew it at once for the new English hotel, pictures of which had been displayed at every railway station along the road. But how could that be Ronda? We were not nearly due there !

The reason soon revealed itself in the course of the line, which climbed by long and sweeping curves up the more accessible side of the isolated tableland on which the city stood, until it was able to attain ‘the level of the town and spread itself out in a capacious station yard. Here for the first time we heard the guards call the name of the place at which our train had stopped. Hitherto it had been necessary to read the names from the sides of the station buildings, but now the air was resonant with deep, throaty shouts of ” R-r-r-ronda ! ” with that inimitable rolling of the “r” which is the despair of New Englanders.

The antiquated Baedeker had referred in flattering terms to a hotel located in the building of the station itself, above the waiting-rooms and offices; but after examining them we concluded not to stay. We had not expected to find elegance there, and certainly were not disappointed in that regard. But the certainty of noise from the trains, the prospect of smoke, the pervasive odor of hot oil from the tracks shimmering in the noonday outside, and the ominous presence of a Cyclopean waiting-maid, coupled with the overpowering memory of that green-and-white hotel on the very edge of things as we had seen it from the train, completely routed our avowed intention to economize. The hotel omnibus had departed in discouragement, and we were forced in consequence to gather up our several belongings, summon a long-suffering and very melancholy porter, and set off on foot.

The new hotel turned out to be very new indeed. Painters were still working on it, and the smell of fresh paint was everywhere. It bore the proud name of Reina Victoria, and was managed by the railroad people, who certainly understand the gentle art of flattering the royal house, for their hotels bear the names of nothing less exalted than queens. In general appearance it was like a modern hostelry of the New England coast, and the contrast between it and our mental picture of Spanish hotel accommodations was laughable. Indeed, it was almost regrettable as well, because it was a house so hopelessly out of character with the country. In the White Mountains it would have been quite in keeping, but in Ronda — never ! Let us not quarrel with it, however. When we were comfortless it lodged us, and, judging by what we later saw of the other hotels in town, we might easily have found ourselves comfortless indeed.

Owing to her natural characteristics of topography, Spain abounds in sites that are wonderfully suitable for defense. Ronda is one of the many such, a city set on a hill, — a flat-topped hill with precipitous sides and accessible only from the west. On that one side does it slope gradually toward the deep basin in the midst of which Ronda stands. Everywhere else the drop is abrupt, a tremendous and awful perpendicular of something like six hundred feet to the fertile valley beneath, which furnishes on every side a smiling intervale between Ronda’s rock and an almost perfect amphitheatre of rugged gray mountains. Nature meant this for the acropolis of a warlike tribe, and meant it too obviously for the fact to escape the attention of the martial people who once made this part of Spain the theatre of almost continual war. To look down the steep sides of the cliff made one dizzy. Just outside the hotel there was a garden, — or rather what was about to become one, for the plants still wore a haggard look of discouragement, — and just beyond it was the awful declivity of the precipice, down to the plain with its ribbon highways and toy farmhouses. Leaning over the parapet we could see a tiny shelf of path running along the face of the cliff, but safe for none but goats. Here and there were detached pillars and buttes of rock, flying buttresses, natural bridges, and shallow caverns carved out by the wind and the rain. Across the plain there rose a grim circle of mountains, much more lofty than Ronda, deeply serrated, impressively rugged. It was a cloudy day, and the mountain glens were misty with the showers that played hide and seek among them ; but in Ronda for the moment it was sunshiny and warm. Everything invited us to an immediate exploration of the town, and we set out forthwith.

Somewhat back from the village street we came upon an ” alameda,” or sort of public garden, at the end of which, through a grillwork of iron, one could look down into the appalling depths of the valley. But, like the garden of the hotel, it was not yet in its prime. It was not only the beginning of April, but also at a considerable elevation above the sea, so that trees were only in early leaf and the flowers were not yet in bloom at all. Besides, a horde of children were beginning to gather about to beg for ” cinco centimos,” — a habit which Ronda may have been late in developing, but in which her re-cent progress has been remarkably rapid. Indeed, the chief industries of the place appeared to us to be begging and the herding of pigs. All these things combined to render the garden undesirable as a place of long sojourn, despite the grandeur of its view, and we emerged from it to seek the centre of the town. The begging children came also ; and it was because of this latter fact that we ultimately singled out one bright-faced boy and retained him for the rest of the day as guide, having long ago dis-covered that one such lad is vastly more effective in preventing the importunities of beggars than any number of black looks. The latter expedient, in-deed, we were not yet sufficiently hardened to try, having read in a dozen books that one must always deal gently and politely with the beggars of Spain, big and little, lest a worse thing happen. Does not James Howell in his ancient but delightful ” Familiar Letters” remind us that in dealing with the Spaniard “there is necessary a great deal of phlegm? ” We were, moreover, anxious to practice our Spanish, and with the aid of ” Precious Darling ” the poor lad was kept in animated and thoroughly ungrammatical conversation all the afternoon.

Thus attended we set out on our tour of the town, passing down the central street past the curving white walls of the bull-ring, and pausing for the time being at the bridge. The bridge is not the least interesting thing in Ronda. It serves to span the ravine which makes directly in from the broader valley and cuts the city in two with a deep and very narrow gash. The sides of it are almost perpendicular, and its depth is something like three hundred feet. It is across this tremendous and gloomy chasm — for the sun does not penetrate to its bottom — that the Puente nuevo, or new bridge, springs. It is ” new,” however, only in a relative sense, by comparison with much older and lower bridges farther up the ravine. And while it is some-times pointed out by unscrupulous natives as a ” Roman ” work, it was actually built in the eighteenth century, which is but yesterday in Ronda’s long and eventful history. For Ronda is very old.

This really wonderful bridge is best seen from below, whence one gets the best idea of its immensely tall central arch. This rises from the bottom of the ravine nearly to its top, with a span of only about fifty feet, which makes the total effect very startling indeed. Borne on the great arch is the bridge proper, consisting of three smaller arches. From the roadway thus led across the chasm and prudently protected by lofty parapets, it is possible to gaze down into the cool green depths beneath, where a brawling stream gushes over the rocks and through a dense growth of underbrush.

On either side the top of the chasm is lined with houses, clinging to the very brink. Evidently the gash in the rock was worn by the waters of the diminutive river, — the Guadalevin, — which empties itself into the broad vega below in a series of filmy cascades, a wisp of canal serving to turn the power to some account in moving the wheels of a few primitive mills at the mouth of the gorge.

” Paco,” as we learned to call our boy, — the name is equivalent to Frank, — led us around to a side street on the farther side of the gulch, and pointed out a sharply descending path which zig-zagged down the face of the cliff to the valley, utilizing a spot where the declivity was somewhat less abrupt ; and by clambering down this steep way I was able to get around the shoulder of the cliff to a point whence I could see not only the whole height of the bridge, with the full length of its wonderful arch, but also could combine in the view the mills at its foot, — tiny toy mills they looked to be. Here was the narrow cleft leading directly into the heart of the living rock, the white buildings of the town peering over the edge far above ; below were the mills hanging to narrow shelves along the water-course ; and still farther below lay the smiling plain stretching away to the gray and misty mountains beyond. From the precipitous hillside all about came the tinkle of the bells of grazing goats — and suddenly beside me was heard the vicious thud of a pebble cast from above. I looked up quickly and beheld the head of a mischievous boy who was peering over the rim and making some remarks about bestowing upon him ” a little charity for the love of God.” Not relishing the idea of further bombardment from that vantage-ground, I hurriedly took my photographs of the bridge and the gorge and scrambled back to the town, passing nobody more formidable than a poor demented man who grumbled something which I took to be a demand for more charity. It was no small relief to get back to the sheltering care of the diminutive Paco and proceed farther along the streets of the town itself.

The constricted cutting, or tajo, which thus divides the rock on which the city is built, separates the town into two very distinct and different districts. The farther or more southerly end is occupied by what is called the old town, — naturally the more picturesque and interesting. The other section, more commodious but less adapted by nature for defense, is the new town with the principal business streets and hotels. Needless to say, the old town is the only portion worthy of much attention, and even that can be seen very thoroughly in a single day. Of the dungeons which the Moors of old time are said to have cut in the living rock for the reception of Christian captives, we saw nothing ; but the stairway remains, over which tradition says these poor prisoners were forced to toil many times daily bringing jars of water from the Guadalevin, its steps worn into ruts by the constant passing of bare feet. Into the cavernous depths of this old stairway we gazed, but did not venture to descend into the dank darkness below, content with the information that it was a device of the Moors to safeguard their water-supply in time of siege.

So we wended our way along the streets to the southward, streets as roughly paved as those of Tangier and nearly as narrow, indicating that carriages and carts were few in Ronda and that almost all traffic went on mule-back. Here and there fascinating bits of the ancient architecture manifested themselves amidst the whitewash of a later day, –doorways and windows of a Moorish cast, Romanesque arches, quaintly carved portals. One I recall especially was adorned with carved putti, — babies with hands clasped over their round stomachs and faces expressive of internal woe ! Meantime Paco valiantly shooed away the infantile begging population which followed us still in hope of pence, and led us by a devious way to the cathedral. It was our first Spanish church, a curious blend of architecture without, and coldly gloomy within, yet far from lacking in dignity. Its interior was as complex a jumble of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance as its outside walls had presaged. Owing to its unsatisfactory situation we got no accurate idea of its façade, but the rear of the building adjoining a great open square proved to be fascinatingly picturesque, — a sturdy, square tower of massive bulk, topped by an octagonal belfry, and adjoined by a very curious two-story loggia somewhat resembling the arcades we subsequently saw in the Romanesque churches of Segovia. We found stone benches in the open plaza, and seated ourselves there to enjoy the church and allow the bright afternoon sun to bring back the glow which the chill of the cathedral had destroyed. A bell clanked unmelodiously now and then from among the many in the tower. Innumerable ragged urchins played at a game of ball in the square. Ancient crones sat in their neighboring doorways, busied with gossip, or with various domestic activities.

It was just to one side of this square that we found an obscure street leading in a winding course through thickly-set houses, and it was through this that Paco led us with much pride to an old and famous house, the Casa de Mondragon, where is still to be seen a well-preserved interior in the Moorish manner. An old dame answered the vigorous bell-pulling in which Paco took such infinite delight, and admitted us to her patio, — an open, inner court, columned all about to form an arcade, the roof of which was paneled and adorned with Moorish work, its wood blackened with age. A picturesque stairway led up from one side to the upper tier of arcades, and with the inevitable well in the centre, the greenery and the mellow antiquity of everything it was indeed a charming spot, in which the old woman took pardonable pride.

Interesting as it was, it shared the palm with a view which surprised us at the end of a dark hall-way, through which the ancient dame and her little girl soon led us. It gave access to a narrow balcony that overhung the precipice outside. Here we were on the very rim of the valley, and could look up and down the whole side of the city, along the dizzy cliffs, to the very edges of which the city buildings ventured to crowd their way, our own hotel of the seven gables glittering white at the farther end of the vista.

Thence we betook ourselves to the open country. It was a long and steep highway that led down through the southern gates, and Paco, resourceful as he was, found himself unable to cope with the noisy urchins who insisted on following us along. Of course it was money that they wanted, a ” little dog ” at the very least, — meaning thereby the copper ha’penny with the small lion on it ! Repeated assertions that we had no money were laughed to amiable scorn. Finally, having practiced a sufficient time with Paco, I hit upon a plan which for a while worked wonders through force of sheer astonishment. Turning to the foremost of the boys, I would inquire with a sudden show of personal interest, ” Where is thy house, chico ? ”

” It is over there, señor, in the second street.” Go there, then, at once, boy; and God go with thee!”

By dint of such tactics as these, and still more by virtue of our faster pace, we wearied the children of their quest, and emerged from the gates at last without their escort, free to climb a neighboring hillock and enjoy the view unmolested. It was but a low eminence, devoted to cultivation, but we managed to find a grassy knoll and from it obtained a very charming view of Ronda. There she lay spread out on her flat and isolated rock, the deep valley all around her and the jagged mountains, now purpling in the sunset light, mounting their silent guard. It was truly a situation to have invited the warlike men of old. The sheer sides of the cliff, aided by triple walls and many a sturdy tower, must have made the place a fairly impregnable stronghold by the time that King Ferdinand brought his forces down to dispute possession of the fortress with the Mohammedan garrison. As a matter of fact the fall of Ronda seems to have been due to over-confidence on the part of its Moorish possessors, who had the temerity to leave a small guard in charge while the main body of the forces were sent to harry the country round about Utrera. On their return they found the Christian host seated at their gates, not only reducing the city by siege, but actually storming the works and demolishing them with their primitive engines and artillery. Burning arrows carried fire to the midst of the city. The subterranean way to the waters of the gorge was discovered and walled up. The returning forces of the Moor, unable to cut their way through the armies of the kings, could give no succor to the beleaguered, and Ronda fell. The Christian captives, worn to shadows by long confinement in the rock-hewn dungeons and by ceaseless toiling over those breakneck stairs, came forth into the light of day more dead than alive, and Moorish domination over this inland Gibraltar was forever at an end.

But to us, gazing from that grassy knoll in the peaceful evening twilight, there was no longer any hint of war. The reds and browns of the tiled roofs, the white walls, the many towers, all harmonized in a picture of peaceful aspect. The smoke of numerous chimneys rose straight into the twilight air. Where once the priests of Islam had called to prayer, Catholic bells sounded melodiously. But the sudden chill of the Spanish night settled down upon us, and we were forced to clamber back again, up the breakneck street and along the stony pavements to the hotel, where fires blazed so cheerfully in the grates. And Paco went away supremely happy in the possession of two shining pesetas, — wealth he had not dreamed of possessing at morning.

It is said that it never rains in Ronda except at night, which is certainly an advantage, if true ; but the local tendency toward inaccuracy of statement has been remarked, and possibly this is a further instance of it. While we were there it did not rain at all, although with the darkness came a thunder-storm from the mountains that hem in the vega, and the roll and rumble of the celestial cannonade were taken up and reduplicated by the echoing glens. But no rain fell, save in the plain. The storm swooped around our lofty rock, bellowed and roared and flashed its vivid lightnings, but no more. We climbed the stairs, sought our immaculate chambers, and, surrounded by the evidences of a thoroughly New England civilization, dropped off to dreams of swarthy sheiks building seven-gabled hotels at Manchester-by-the-Sea !