I guess quite a few cities around the world can boast a bridge as their iconic image. London has Tower Bridge, Sydney has the Harbour Bridge and San Francisco, the Golden Gate.
The Puente Nuevo in Ronda must be up there with the best of them. It’s not particularly big…just 66 metres long. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with its dramatic setting. It’s safe to say it’s the most famous bridge in Spain.
It spans El Tajo, the spectacular gorge of the Rio Guadalevín, connecting the old medieval Ronda with the newer settlements on the other side.
It may be called Puente Nuevo – New Bridge – but it’s only really new in comparison with the two other bridges lower down the gorge: the Puente Romano (despite its name, it was probably built by the Arabs who ruled this part of Spain for almost 800 years) and the nearby Puente Viejo – Old Bridge – dating from the 16th century.
The Puente Nuevo wasn’t the first attempt to build a bridge on this spot. They had a go in 1734, when an ambitious single span bridge went up. Sadly, it didn’t last long; eight years later it collapsed, taking 50 unfortunate folk with it.
So the next time, they took no chances. The Puente Nuevo would have three much shorter spans and be rooted firmly at the base of the gorge. It took 40 years or so to build the 98 metre high structure, finally opening in 1793. And it’s still carrying traffic more than 200 years later, so it’s clearly stood the test of time rather better than its predecessor.
For spectacular views, head down into the gorge on the path from Plaza Maria de la Auxiliadora. Stop at the Arco del Cristo viewpoint for happy snaps, and then there’s a slightly dodgy trail down to the base of the bridge itself. Handrails are clearly for cissies hereabouts; this is not a path for flip flops. The neck-craning view is definitely worth the scramble though.
Happily, there’s plenty more to Ronda than just its bridge. The town itself is set in a beautiful bowl of hills and mountains; the views from the Mirador de Ronda near the Parador are simply stunning, especially at sunset.
In the old town, take in the Casa del Rey Moro (the House of the Moorish King, though its unlikely any Moorish king ever lived there) and the Mina de Agua beneath. Literally translated as the Water Mine, its 231 steps lead down to the river Guadalevín and a vital water supply when Ronda was under siege.
Walk on down the steep hill to the Baños Arabes (Arab Baths) near the Puente Viejo. Perhaps the best preserved in Spain, they’re similar in layout to a Roman baths, complete with hypocaust underfloor heating – though apparently the Arab clients preferred steam rooms to bathing in warm water.
Standing beneath the vaulted ceiling on a chilly winter’s day, with the cold seeping out of the stonework, it’s not easy to imagine how the steam room must have looked back in the 13th century, even with sunshine streaming through the star-shaped openings in the roof above.
Stroll up the hill to the medieval Arab city walls, with beautiful views over the surrounding countryside, and up into the Plaza de la Duquesa de Parcent. Ronda has to have one of the most elegant town halls (ayuntamiento) in Spain. Across the square is the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Mayor.
A few streets away is the Palacio Mondragon, originally Arab, with beautiful Moorish arches and a patio complete with tinkling fountain. The views from the garden perched on top of sheer cliffs are worth the admission price on their own. Palacio Mondragon now houses Ronda Museum, though strangely for an Arab palace, there’s not much Moorish history on display. Lots about the Romans though. It’s almost as if the Moors were never there. Odd.
Head back across the Puente Nuevo for Ronda’s other main claim to fame. Bullfighting. Corridas are not everyone’s cup of tea, even here in Spain, but Ronda’s bullfighting fiesta every September is internationally famous.
The Plaza de Toros was the world’s first purpose-built arena, staging its first corrida in 1785; many of the traditions of the modern bullfight were invented here. Its sandstone arcades are an elegant counterpoint to the bloody ritual acted out on the arena floor.
Ronda’s Plaza de Toros attracted the likes of Ernest Hemingway – never a man to knowingly miss a bullfight – and actor/writer/filmmaker Orson Welles. Statues to both men are nearby. Welles liked Ronda so much, he’s spending eternity here; his ashes are buried on the nearby farm of his matador friend Antonio Ordóñez.
Ronda is also home to the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda: the Royal Riding School which started here in 1572, 200 years before the Plaza de Toros was built. If you’re lucky, you can catch the horses exercising in the indoor school next to the bulllring. Spanish horses were once famed as the finest in Europe. No self respecting monarch would be seen riding anything else.
Tip: for a beautiful view over the Plaza de Toros and surrounding countryside, head for the rooftop bar at the Hotel Ronda Catalonia opposite and a sunset gin tonic. The hotel is a good place to stay too. We did!
© Guy Pelham 2018