I have to confess I’m not much of a romantic. I don’t do Valentine’s Day, my husband and I don’t have a song, and I’m not 100% sure of the date of our first kiss. I’ve been romantically uninspired by big-hitters like Paris, Venice and Rome. But somehow the Spanish mountain town of Ronda managed to melt this cynic’s stony heart. Set on an Andalusian mountain plateau, Ronda is just over an hour from coastal resorts like Marbella and Torremolinos, but feels like a different world. It’s a comparatively small town so there are no high-rises or big branded hotels, and if you walk for 15 minutes in any direction you’ll find yourself out in the countryside. This is classic Spain, with whitewashed buildings, orange trees and olive groves.
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Ronda is one of Spain’s oldest towns and the name comes from its position surrounded by mountains. It’s been inhabited by Romans and Moors and you can feel history all around you in its cobbled streets, old mansions and stone churches. The town is perched precariously on top of a cliff with views of rolling hills and Andalusia’s white villages. It’s the hilltop location that’s made Ronda famous – and a Pinterest favourite. And if you think Ronda is beautiful in the daytime, then you should see it at night. It’s a popular day trip for people on holiday on the coast. But once the sun starts to go down the crowds pile back into their buses, and the town melts back into a peaceful, sleepy state. As dusk falls, wrought iron lamps light the narrow streets and tapas restaurant tables spill out onto the pavements. It’s just magical.
I’m not the only one who has been charmed by Ronda either. It was a big favourite with the 19th century Viajeros Romanticos, aka the romantic travellers. Though these romantics were less looking for love and more looking for inspiration for their latest book or painting in some of Europe’s most unspoilt destinations. Orson Welles, Alexander Dumas and Ernest Hemingway all loved Ronda and spent their summers here. Hemingway even said “Ronda is the place to go if you are planning to travel to Spain for a honeymoon… the whole city and its surroundings are a romantic set” – and who am I to argue?
Ronda isn’t one of those destinations that’s packed with must-see sights and museums. You can visit a couple of Moorish palaces – the Palacio de Mondragón and the Palacio del Rey Moro y La Mina – or the church and convent in the pretty Plaza Duquesa de Parcent square. The town also has one of Spain’s oldest bullrings, which is allegedly the home of modern bullfighting. I’m not a fan of the sport but the building is an impressively grand sight. It was built in 1779 and is home to a museum about the sport. There’s only one fight a year held there now as part of the Feria de Pedro Romero festival each September.
But the main attraction of Ronda is just wandering around and soaking up the atomsphere. You can stop off when you see an interesting old building, want to cool off on a shady café terrace or spot a fantastic view. And there are no shortage of great views in this town. The heart of Ronda is the El Tajo gorge, a rocky drop plummeting over 100 metres down to the Guadalevín River. The gorge cuts right through the centre of Ronda and splits the town in two. On one side is the Moorish old town and on the other is the 15th century El Mercadillo ‘new’ town (old and new take on a slightly different meaning here in Ronda!).
There are three bridges which link the two different sides of town. The oldest and smallest of them is the Moorish Roman Bridge. Then there’s the 16th century Puente Viejo or old bridge. And finally there’s the Puerto Nuevo or new bridge. This is the town’s postcard shot – a giant triple arch with columns stretching 120 metres down into the depths of the gorge. It’s only new by Ronda standards though, which means it opened in 1783 after taking 40 years to built. It’s lasted well though, especially compared to the previous bridge on the same spot which collapsed only six years after it was finished.
One of the best ways to see the Puerto Nuevo is to get down low and look up at it. It really gives you an idea of the scale of this spectacular piece of engineering. A pathway runs down from the clifftop into the gorge, with one route forking towards the bottom of the bridge where at one time there was an old prison, and one route leading you down along the river banks. It’s an undeniably beautiful place. But it’s not all romance in Ronda. There are gory stories about Nationalist sympathisers in the Spanish Civil War being thrown off the bridge – inspiring Hemingway who used the idea in his book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Though somehow I think that’s the last thing on the mind of the romantics crossing the bridge hand-in-hand at sunset!
We stayed at: The Alavero de los Banos, a Moroccan-style hotel with beautiful gardens full of flowers and a swimming pool overlooking the Roman Bridge. It’s right next to Ronda’s 11th-century Arab Baths and a short (but steep!) walk up into the old town. Double rooms from £84 a night including breakfast.
We ate at: Spain means tapas, and some of the best we found were at De Locos Tapas, where the menu changes frequently and includes dishes like tuna tataki and belly pork, and Meson El Sacristan with its lovely terrace. The cliffside restaurants are a bit touristy, but are worth a visit for a drink with a spectacular view.
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