It’s years since I’ve read a novel and I had planned to use my current holiday in Spain to get away from history and back to fiction. However, ill-prepared as usual, I left getting a book to the last minute and had to grab something in the airport. The best I could find was more non-fiction, ‘Crusades’ by Alan Eriera and Terry Jones of Monty Python fame had to make do. I’ve read their excellent ‘Medieval Lives’ so I had high expectations. Unfortunately ‘Crusades’ is not great. It’s ok but some of the writing is mediocre (well the first 50 pages at least) and the staged humour is at times trite.
It has however, proved surprisingly apt reading for my first stop in Spain – Ronda, a town in Andalusia.
I’ve been to Andalusia before; about 10 years ago I stayed in Granada for a few months. I’d forgotten Andalusia was the site of the longest and most successful Christian crusade of the Middle Ages. Bloody as it was it has left behind a fascinating history and even better myths in towns like Ronda.
Before I go any further I should say I know almost nothing about Ronda’s history and received a useful lesson in this regard yesterday.
Standing at the gate pictured below (I don’t know much beyond other than it wasn’t built today or yesterday) I overheard a man explain its history to his wife and daughter.
It was done in that same way men refuse to accept directions despite being clearly lost. Endowed with his innate knowledge of all things he more or less described what he saw in the past tense as if be had just completed a PhD on the gate. This was all oblivious to the pained look across on his wife’s face that said (or screamed) “stop the b******t”. So, a long story short I not gonna be that guy – this article is more places I’ve visited with a light dusting of history.
Ronda is an old town, very old (you see I promised not be that guy). Situated atop stunning cliffs overlooking a beautiful valley, its new town (post-medieval) and old town (medieval) are separated by a 100 metre deep gorge.
Its easy to see why humans were first attracted to this location. The site of the old town is defended on three sides by towering cliffs.
There’s a very historic feel to the old town. Many of the buildings are early modern in date, Id guess from the 18th century while cars look awkward on the narrow, cobbled, winding streets.
It is clearly a town built for horses and carts. Indeed as if to reinforce this point the new bridge which connects the new and old towns – the striking Puente Nuevo – was built over 250 years ago.
This bridge,the towns most famous feature spans the El Tajo gorge. It was constructed after a previous bridge collapsed.
It took over 30 years to build and judging by its scale must have had a high human cost. It is one of three bridges over the gorge, the other two are smaller but nonetheless impressive.
The dates of these bridges are contradicted in information points around the town so I have the foggiest.
100 metres below the Puente Nuevo over the lies the surprisingly small Guadalevín river. Theres an amazing trackway to the gorge floor that takes you past, through and in some cases over the remains of old town defences and many of the abandoned mills that once put this stunning landscape to work by using cascading water to turn millstones.
I’ve often bemoaned how authorities in Ireland seal up historic routes in fear of ‘compo culture’. It’s the exact opposite here. A narrow muddy trackway clinging to the cliff side takes you to the gorge floor. There’s no railings or path surface for that matter. Terrifying at times – immediately beside the track the cliff side plunges 50 metres to the rocky river bed below.
Armed with a fairly unhealthy fear of heights this had me petrified at times but it was worth it in the end.
Ronda itself seems like a fairly religious place. Measuring faith is nigh on impossible but Christianity is more obvious here than elsewhere. Many shops, cafés and bars are adorned with pictures of saints. However walking through its streets it’s obvious Ronda wasn’t always a predominantly Christian town. This is where Terry Jones book is sort of relevant.
When the first crusade was launched to invade the Muslim controlled Middle East, Southern Spain was also ruled by Muslims. Back in the 8th century (ish) it had been invaded and hence forth was known in Arabic as Al-Andalus (giving rise to the name Andalusia). In 1095 pope Urban II decided that a Christian’s duty was to attack Muslims. While he and most other Christian kingdoms looked to the Middle East, the kingdoms of Northern Spain looked South with avarice at Andalusia.
Over several centuries they waged war and were far more successful than their fellow Christians in the east. Ronda fell in 1485 and seven years later the last Muslim city in Spain, Granada was taken.
The capture of Ronda by the armies of dual monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella was an impressive feat. It was by no means easy. The city then situated south of the Tajo gorge was protected by this ravine and steep cliffs to its east and west.
It’s southern flank was protected by impressive man made defences.
This is perhaps the most impressive surviving gate.
According to lore Ronda fell when attackers fought their way in from this small gate on the river.
This entrance is situated at the base of the gorge over a hundred metres below the town.
Protected by a barbican the remains of which are just about visible in the picture below, the most difficult part began once inside.
The attackers had to fight up through one of the most impressive features in Ronda – a cavernous warren of steps and chambers carved through the rock to the city above.
After about 250 (very tiring) steps many of which were hewn from solid rock they would have reached the town.
One of the most striking features is the series of light shafts which provided natural light in this subterranean staircase.
Personally I don’t believe that an attacking army fought up these stairs. There were easier ways in – literally about ten people could stop an army of thousands along this route. It’s a good story though and this construction is worthy of such a legend.
Anyway one way or another the Christian armies got in and like in many other parts of Spain it was not, to say the least, the best thing to happen in the towns history. In the late 15th century Christianity in Spain was deeply fundamentalist. Having conquered Andalusia the Christian rulers ethnically cleansed the former Muslim territory. Muslims and Jews were murdered or driven out. Conversos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity) were harshly presecuted.
While a multicultural society has since returned, Ronda’s medieval mosques,minarets and synagogues are long gone. Church bells have replaced the Islamic call to prayer. However there is still much to remind visitors of Ronda’s Muslim past.
The most impressive ruins from the Islamic era are the Arabic baths. Until the late 15th century a visitor could find saunas and cold pools in this beautiful building.
This was located outside the city walls near a mosque so visitors could purify both body and soul before entering Ronda.
At this point my very limited knowledge runs dry – I know almost nothing about the history of Spain between about 1500 and 1900 so I’ll let these pictures do the talking.
The garden of Casa del Rey.
One of the numerous fountains in Ronda.
Ronda town hall, formerly an 18th century barracks.
A church (who’s name I neglected to note.)
The Civil War
Sweeping past 400 years of history I can pick up the story again in the 20th century. Spain was again divided however this time it was not between Christian and Muslim. The rise of liberalism, socialism and anarchism in the 19th century were anathema to the social and political values of traditionalists. This lead to the outbreak of a highly complex civil war across Spain in 1936 when a group of fascistic generals attempted a coup d’état. Lasting three years it was marked by savage ferocity. Ronda didn’t escape. In 1936 in one of the worst atrocities on the Republican (anti-fascist) side, hundreds of fascists were murdered many of whom were thrown into the El Tajo gorge.
This incident was made infamous in Ernest Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.
This is not something that you will hear visiting the town. Like with many civil wars the tendency is to forget, although recently there have been attempts to discuss the war and the horrific repression of the 40 year dictatorship of general Franco that followed the fascist victory in 1939. This may well be underway in Ronda, but has yet to filter through to tourist information.
Aside from the fascinating if dark history of crusading, fascism and religious fundamentalism Ronda and the surrounding countryside is beautiful. The pleasant towns streets with their almost universal white and yellow houses could teach Irish planners a thing or two.
The surrounding countryside is arid and at times desert-like. There are no animals save mules and horses. The only crops I saw are olive groves which are to be found in abundance.
The valley to the west of the town provides a stunning view of the cliffs on which the town is built.
And finally the bulls
Less special is the towns fascination with bull fighting. Supposedly modern bull-fighting was invented here. I’m not a fan but it seems there are enough visitors who are; lots of restaurants use the iconography of this “sport” to attract patrons.
I’m leaving Ronda today and it has been a great place to start a holiday. Next up is Granada and the Alhambra one of the greatest places in Europe.
Don’t forget you can still get a copy of my book ‘Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome, Life in medieval Ireland.’ You can order your copy here