Elevated high above a patchwork of fields and cracked in two by a deep gorge, the Andalucian city of Ronda looks like a painting by a fantasy artist. There’s a kind of magic in its hanging gardens, ancient caves and ruined Arab baths. Considering that this small, friendly city is just two hours from Seville, it’s a wonder that more people haven’t fallen under Ronda’s spell.
Hugely underrated as it is, I’d never heard of Ronda before I began researching a holiday in southern Spain. I almost missed it out, worrying that I was trying to see too much in too short a time. How glad I am that I didn’t. Turns out, it’s easy to appreciate Ronda’s highlights in just one day – and it was one of the best days of mine and my sister Tama’s trip.
Ronda was our first stop after flying into Malaga (with several cheap flights to choose from every day, it’s a no-brainer to start any holiday in southern Spain there). The bus journey from Malaga to Ronda passed quickly. We spent the whole time either talking or gazing out the window, admiring the rolling green hills and tufted mountains dotted with horses and white farmhouses (you can see bus timetables and buy tickets on the Los Amarillos website).
Hotel San Gabriel
We arrived at Ronda bus station at 11.20am, and from there it was a 15-minute walk to Hotel San Gabriel. Stepping inside, immediately we knew we’d made the right choice. Originally built in 1736, the building was formally a family home and its polished dark wood, framed paintings and classical furniture make it feel both homely and elegant.
Upon checking in we got a wonderful surprise – although I’d booked a budget double room on the hotel’s website (with a note explaining we’d prefer single beds if possible), the lovely co-owner Ana had upgraded us to a superior twin room (number seven). We were ecstatic when we saw how lovely it was – particularly the private terrace!
Beginning our self-guided walking tour
Upon checking in, Ana handed us a map and a self-guided walking tour which we decided to do. The tour perfectly satisfied our desire to see the city’s highlights in just one day. The directions took us down a series of charming streets to all the city’s most notable sights, providing some information on each, meaning I didn’t have to take out my phone once.
One of the tour’s first stops was a beautiful square, Plaza de Maria Auxiliadora, which overlooks the spectacular El Tajo gorge as well as miles and miles of verdant countryside. The view was breathtaking; the weather was blissfully warm and sunny; and nearby a man was playing Spanish guitar. We were elated – we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect start to our holiday.
Down into the gorge
The tour next directed us down a sloping, zig-zagging path into the valley, to see the stony ruins of the old city gate. We followed the path down but made a diversion to go deeper into the gorge, beneath the stunning New Bridge (Puente Nuevo).
The path became more perilous as we descended, with shallow streams to cross, scree to scramble over, and sheer drops, making sturdy shoes a must. Right at the bottom we found still water and what looke like a power generator and/or dam. At the furthest point we could reach, having passed under the bridge, we could see across the water to another platform, accessed by a hole in the rock wall. We later found out that this is the end point of a mine!
Retracing our steps to where we diverted from the main path, we found many more routes to take. We must have spent more than an hour exploring this side of the gorge and seeking out every amazing view of the bridge and bucolic landscape. Profuse wildflowers, particularly poppies, made the wide stretches of countryside even more beautiful. We eventually found our way to the ruined city gate mentioned in our tour, which provided one of the best views of New Bridge.
I briefly felt a pain in my ankle when vaulting up the sloping stairs back into town, but I shrugged it off…
Lunch in Plaza Duquesa de Parcent
By the time we’d reached town again we were starving, so made finding lunch a priority. In fact, we probably settled on somewhere for lunch too quickly – we picked Carmen de la Ronda because we liked the look of its tables in Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, but after finishing a mediocre ‘selection of tapas’ there we found a much nicer looking restaurant just across the square.
Nevertheless, Tama and I enjoyed lunch immensely. The sun was shining and our surroundings in Plaza Duquesa de Parcent were beautiful. Sat in the dappled shade of trees, we were surrounded on every side by grand buildings: the town hall, two convents, and Santa Maria church, which like many churches in Andalucia featured Christian, Islamic and Roman features.
Palace of the Moorish King
We continued our walk down a series of descending cobbled streets until we reached the Palace of the Moorish King (Palacio del Rey Moro). Although our tour didn’t say much about it, we could see that it was a paid tourist attraction of some sort. The high stone walls surrounding it held information panels written in Spanish, featuring photos of the inside of a cave, and of Michelle Obama in a garden. I think that’s what must have swayed it for us, as we decided to pay the €4 entry fee to go inside.
We stepped through into a pretty paved garden, offering views across to the Cuenca Gardens (Jardines du Cuenca) on the opposite wall of the gorge.
The water mine
At the end of the hanging garden we found the entrance to the ‘cave’ on the photos, La Mina, which the information leaflet told us was in fact an ancient water mine. In the 1400s, slaves were chained to its long stone staircase and forced to pass up bags of water from the bottom of the gorge, constituting the city’s only water supply. The descent into the mine is long and dark, the stone steps narrow and slippery, so again I’d recommend sturdy shoes and a decent level of fitness for this!
There are a number of cave-like rooms coming off the main staircase on the way down, containing ‘windows’ to the outside world that let you see how far down the gorge you’ve come.
At the very bottom you come out at a platform on the water – the same one visible from underneath New Bridge! But the only way back up is the way you came down.
Back at the entrance to the Palace of the Moorish King , we continued along the cobbled path to descend sharply again through the Arch of Felipe V – another former town gate, this one much newer than the first. It leads through to the Old Bridge (Puente Viejo), which is significantly smaller than the New. Being lower in the gorge at this point, you gain another new and interesting perspective. I’m really not exaggerating when I say you’re constantly stumbling across breathtaking views when walking around Ronda.
Just down from the old Bridge are the ancient Arab Baths (Baños Arabes). All that’s left of them today is the brick shell that once contained the main baths, alongside ruins that were once other rooms. Hence why it’s a museum, not a spa!
On our tour’s recommendation we paid the €4 entry fee to go in and take a look. A visit to the Arab Baths begins with a 3D animated video explaining the history of the baths, how they worked and what went on inside them. It’s very interesting, but due to our childishness we may have found all the naked CGI men a little bit funny…
Once enlightened by the video, we found the ruins much more interesting. There’s a lot of beauty in them too: particularly the star-shaped holes in the brick ceilings.
Ice creams and Jardines de Cuenca
After visiting the Arab baths we returned to the Old Bridge and crossed it to reach the Padre Jesús quarter. We bought ice creams from the corner shop opposite the Catholic church, Iglesia de Padre Jesús, and slurped them up on some steps nearby. I noticed while sitting down how much my ankle was hurting now…
Thankfully, it was only a short walk through the Cuenca gardens now before we’d return to the top of New Bridge, and the road to Hotel San Gabriel. The hanging gardens provided lovely views across the gorge – we could even spot the windows we looked through earlier when descending the water mine. Back at New Bridge, we jostled with hoards of tourists to see the famous panorama from there. There was still a small section of the tour left that would take us further along the mountain’s edge, but by now it hurt so severely to walk that I reluctantly requested we retreat to our hotel.
Prologue: the sprained ankle, and the procession
Back at Hotel San Gabriel, I lay on the bed and propped my foot on a pillow. I’d booked a dinner and flamenco show for 8pm, but with the roads closed for a religious parade – the procession of the Virgin Mary Auxiliadora – we realised it would be impossible to get there.
Tama went down to ask reception for bandages and ice, and they generously delivered. Once my ankle was tightly bandaged and under a bag of melting ice, Tama next went outside to see the procession and take some photos while I pondered our options for dinner.
Tried as I might, I couldn’t find any delivery services in the area but I did find an Italian restaurant offering takeaway. So as soon as Tama returned I sent her out again to buy us food from this restaurant. I just lay there worrying and watching the only English television I could find, American Nickelodeon.
When Tama eventually returned with steaming containers of calzone and gnocchi, it was also with plates and cutlery kindly provided by reception. We ate these emergency suppers on our beds, laughing at the adversity of our situation!
By some miracle, after a fitful night of failing to get my foot comfortable, I awoke with it feeling much better. I managed to limp down to breakfast, and by the time we’d checked out, got a taxi to the bus station, and a bus to Seville, I could walk normally again – I couldn’t believe it! Perhaps Ronda really is magic, after all.
Stay tuned to see what we did in Seville, Cordoba and Granada – blog posts to follow shortly!
All text and most photos (c) Juliet Langton, some photos (c) Tamasin Langton, May 2017. All rights reserved.