In the Mountains of Andalucia
Ronda, to my surprise, was a city. We finally extracted ourselves from the life of the plaza and drove the thirty or so kilometers from Grazalema. Modern apartments and small factories sprawled across the rounded top of a plateau. I wanted to turn our little Peugot around and head back to quieter, smaller Grazalema. But on we drove along the main street toward the Plaza de Espana. The buildings on each side grew older, closer together, and suddenly the city dropped away as if a hidden trap door had opened in its ancient center. A river chasm split the plateau like a giant crack in the earth, joined by El Puente Nuevo (The New Bridge) which was itself an engineering marvel dating to the eighteenth century, built on stone piles rising several hundred feet from the canyon's depths.
Tourists with videos and cameras leaned over the bridge parapet. British, Germans, Japanese as if an international slice of the Costa del Sol had been transposed to Andalucia's interior mountains. Ronda was one of those spots that had been on European tourist itineraries for hundreds of years. In his diary of his travels through Andalucia in 1828, Washington Irving described the moonlight breaking through the mist above El Tajo (The Gorge). On Ronda's bridge Ernest Hemingway set a famous scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls as soldiers throw living prisoners to the gorge below. The great German poet Rilke spent summers here at a grand British hotel at the escarpment's edge. At the urging of Rags, a connoisseur of grand old hotels, we ate dinner at the hotel, the Reina Victoria, that first night in Ronda. Strolling in the hotel's gardens at dusk, we came on a statue of Rilke gazing off toward the purplish valley below, the statue's base inscribed with a few lines from his Spanish Trilogy:
" . . . the river in the gorge reflects the ragged lights on the clifftop (and those of me) /of me and all this, only to give a home, /seqor, for me and my regret."
Rilke was having his private regrets, there on the gorge's edge, and I was having mine. Ronda felt dusty and worn to me, and lacked that freshness of discovery I'd experienced at Grazalema and the smaller Pueblos Blancos. I couldn't say whether Ronda was the place I'd seen from the train twenty-five years earlier; there were railroad tracks in the valley to one side of the escarpment, but they extended up from Gibraltar instead of Malaga, where I'd boarded, and in any case the city seemed too large for the one I'd glimpsed, fleetingly, at age seventeen, through the window of the raucous compartment.
In a way it didn't matter whether Ronda was the exact place I'd spotted. To me, growing up a Midwestern flatlander, mountains and mountain people had always represented a form of purity, straightforwardness, honesty, steadiness, and wisdom that was lacking in the congested and capricious cities of the lowlands. That's what had compelled me when I saw the perfect white village out the compartment window as I traveled between the fleshpots of the Costa del Sol and the industrial cities of Northern Europe, and that's what compelled me now. Whether or not Ronda was the town I'd spotted long ago, during this visit twenty-five years later I still lacked some elemental connection with these mountains and their people. It was this above all else that I wished to establish.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication