New Zealander cruising couple Amanda Church and Mark Farrell continue to cruise in their yacht Balvenie, a 47foot fractional rigged, centre cockpit, sailing sloop built in 1991. They have now reached Gibraltar, where maintenance issues and the weather are keeping them from sailing on. Leaving their yacht in Ocean Village at Marina Bay, they spend their time touring and here they describe their journey to Ronda, 'Andalusia's Gem'.
Houses of Ronda
We changed our original plans to hire a car for a couple of days after reading of the scenic train journey inland from Algeciras. After checking the timetables we voted to utilise public transport so we could both enjoy the scenery.
So with passports, euros, camera and a change of clothes packed we walked across the Gibraltar Airport runway (which doubles as the only road into Gibraltar), left the country and wandered back into Spain. The bus station at La Linea is just a couple of blocks from the border. From there we caught the bus around the Bay of Gibraltar to the port town of Algeciras to catch the train, settled into our seats and enjoyed our hastily purchased coffees leisurely as we headed inland.
The scenery as we headed north and slowly climbed up the El Tajo valley was just beautiful. It started with orange groves, the trees heavily laden with fruit. Then at times we could have easily been back in New Zealand, huge freshly bound hay bales lay scattered in fields, the rolling hillside in the distance covered in bush, even small herds of cattle grazing in shade of trees.
Next we moved through fields of sunflowers, for me there are two things that always bring a smile – dolphins playing around the boat and fields of bright, happy colourful sunflowers pointing their heads high to the sky. They were all in full flower, there were thousands of them. Then to add to the tapestry came orchards and vineyards, it was all just a feast for our eyes.
We passed small farm holdings, with cute bougainvillea covered stone houses built next to the river, colourful pots of geraniums surrounded inviting looking swimming pools, pockets of small vineyards and orchards were nestled in the grounds. This is one of the loveliest regions we have seen in our travels - and then we arrived in Ronda.
Several friends had said 'don’t miss Ronda', we have been to several great Spanish towns, cities and cute little villages but Ronda was just something else. It is an absolute credit to everyone that lives and works there, the tourism department, the council, town planners and the mayor.
From the moment we alighted from the train to the clean and well kept train station and walked out onto the orange tree lined streets it just had a really good feel about it. There was no litter, no graffiti, most of the properties seemed to have been freshly painted, the streets all had signs, as did all the important buildings and monuments – all had explanations in Spanish and English.
We walked down to the Hotel Morales, which we had pre-booked, checked in and freshened up then hit a local tapas bar recommended by the extremely helpful gentleman on reception at the hotel. We sat outside in a small local side street, nothing special about it but again everywhere clean and tidy, helpful staff, great food and ice cold drinks, Ronda rated as an A+ so far and we hadn’t even got anywhere near the good parts.
Ronda has a population of around 40,000 and is at 744m altitude perching atop the El Tajo gorge, surrounded by the Serranía de Ronda. The river which flows 100metres below, dissects La Ciudad - the Muslim fortified old town, from El Mercadillo on the northern cliff. Across the steep gorge spans the majestic Puente Nuevo completed in 1793, quite some project in its time.
Sited in the 'newer town' is the Plaza de Espana, large and open, lined with busy umbrella shaded outdoor cafes overlooked by handsome buildings. There is the Paseo de Blas Infante a well planted shady area along the cliff top, with lookouts affording stupendous views out over the surrounding countryside.
Then there is the Plaza de Toros, one of Spain's oldest bullrings, with the first bull fight taking place in 1785. This area is the birthplace of bullfighting with a huge history. Bull fights still take place annually in September. It also houses an informative Bullfighting Museum with many Goya sketches and prints of bull fights, Matadors costumes and other memorabilia. For firearms enthusiasts there is also a large privately owned Antique Fire-arms Collection comprising of 290 shotguns, hunting pistols and duelling sets. Adjacent within the same complex is an Equestrian School and a collection of Harnesses and Livery from the Royal House of Orleáns. Entry fee €6 each.
There was a concert advertised in the Bullring for 'Tangos and habaneras in the music of Spain' that evening so we purchased tickets, headed back to the hotel for a late siesta and cool down before hitting the tapas bars again early evening. Something got lost somewhere in translation, the concert was a soloist piano recital in the library of the Bullring (it was a lovely library though!!) and the music wasn’t quite the 'tango' we were familiar with – not really our scene but the pianist was excellent and it was just an hour, and there was a complementary local red wine tasting afterwards which perked skipper up a little!!
We went for an evening stroll, all the buildings, statues and bridges were very well spot lit, care and attention really has been taken to ensure maximum effect making sightseeing by night just as impressive as by day. We stopped for more tapas and a nightcap in a busy little lane filled with locals, before heading back to the hotel for a peaceful nights sleep.
Next morning we headed over the bridge and into the rabbit warren of lanes in the old Islamic quarter. We took an exit out and down a long twisting walkway to the bottom of the gorge, everything looked just as spectacular from below as it did from above. We tried to find a walkway that we thought circumnavigated the old city at river level but ended up deep in undergrowth, jumping from partially submerged stone to stone under the foundations of the ancient bridge. We took the sensible option and turned back and completed the rest of the circuit on the Camino de los Molinos, now in the searing hot sunshine, time for a drink.
We discovered the shady Plaza de Mondragón, surrounded by small museums, palaces and churches, its cobbled orange tree lined pavements again adding to the overall beauty. The tiny alleys leading off the square were full of whitewashed homes, window boxes with geraniums flowing down added vibrant colour and the most wonderful collection of heavily carved wooden doors completed the picture.
It was time for a long lazy tapas lunch again, then a final walk around ensuring there was nothing we had missed. We had checked the bus times and there was only one which left early afternoon so we caught the train back to Algeciras, the bus to La Linea and walked back into Gibraltar. We both agreed it was one of the loveliest European historical town we have visited.
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