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Spain’s Scary Corner


Next to the bullring in the Andalucian town of Ronda, there is a fuming black bull so lifelike that I fear it may any second be panting wildly, leap off its plinth and start butting tourists.

Ronda, 113 km northwest of Malaga, boasts one of the oldest bullrings in Spain, dating from 1785. This is where Pedro Romero, the legendary matador, climbed down from his horse to fight the bull on foot, which was the start of modern bullfighting. His costumes can be admired in an in-house museum. During the Feria de Pedro Romero in the second week of September, the Corridas Goyescas with participants in century-old costumes attract enthusiasts from all over Spain. This year’s Feria ended a couple of days before my arrival, probably the reason why the 35,000 Rondenos appear somewhat exhausted.

The only one bursting with energy is the black bull, greeting the hordes of tourists flocking to the ticket office who are curious to experience the circular beauty of the arena’s arched galleries and get a picture version of the real thing in the bullfighting museum, also an opportunity to meet Ronda fans like Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway. People are quite unaware of the potential drama that awaits them the very moment the black bull wearies of being decoration. I myself decide to make a tour in safer parts of the town.

The nearby Plaza de Espana is the natural center of Ronda, the home of an Oficina de Turismo as well as a Parador de Turismo, a state-run luxury hotel. One particular attraction is in a class by itself. That’s the New Bridge, Puente Nuevo completed in 1793 and the landmark of Ronda, linking this new part of town and the old town, La Ciudad. The river 98 meters below, Guadalevin, flows small and lazy at this point but has in the course of time created the Tajo de Ronda, an eroded gorge, awe-inspiring with its dramatically steep walls.

The whiteness of narrowing streets soon assures me that I reached the district of Padre Jesus, dominated by a Gothic-Renaissance church bearing the same name, inside of which a much venerated sculpture resides when not participating in the Easter processions, Padre Jesus Nazareno. Refreshed by a local fountain, the famous Los Ocho Canos, I enter the Old Bridge, Puente Viejo, offering me a view of yet another bridge, Puente Arabe down left, whereas the Puente Nuevo opposite is out of sight from here.

Into the Old Town

An old arch, Puerta de Felipe V, welcomes me to La Ciudad. Before ascending, though, I make a stop in the restored Banos Arabes who run a video show reminding me of Ronda’s Arab past, terminated by the Christians in 1485. Far beyond these Moorish Baths, a few horses, possibly Arabian, adorn the countryside. Their distant calm and beauty, accentuated by constantly swinging tails, are such a contrast to the brutal appearance of the black bull that scared me away from Plaza de Toros.

It’s time for climbing halfway up the street of Santo Domingo to the Casa del Rey Moro, House of the Moorish King, in whose intimate garden colors, forms, smells, fountains and ponds create a synthesis regarded as a jewel in European gardening. The flourishing surface has a spooky underground: La Mina, a Moorish shaft, zigzags hundreds of steps down to the bottom of the gorge, where a chain of slaves used to ascend carrying skin jugs of water. While descending is still possible, it’s a challenge so slippery and dangerous that visitors with the least health problems are advised against it.

Further up, right where Puente Nuevo connects the old and new town, the street of Arminan traverses La Ciudad. Little do I know what lies in store for me there: witches, cruelty, thieves, animal abuse and a veritable torture chamber housed in a church. The Museo Lara, an extensive private collection within science and history, sports two temporary theme exhibitions: Witchcraft and the horrors of the Inquisition. The nearby Museo de Caza, a hunting museum, is a fateful place too, at least for animals; they are lying about stone dead on the floor or hung on the walls, some reduced to skulls and horns.

Just as frightening is the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Mayor on the right, the principal mosque now converted into a church. The galleries of its facade are cosily crowded with potted plants, a cloak for the falling guillotine inside, assisted by a headman lifting his sword and a hatchet slicing hands and feet away in an exhibition about martyrdom, El Martirio de los Santos. Back on the main street, another museum creates a very different atmosphere - legends about brave men, smugglers, robbers, warriors, even gentlemen and heroes, who once roamed these mountain ranges, Serrania de Ronda, many of them surviving in films and novels and in this bandit museum, El Museo del Bandolero.

Into the Valley

The landscape reappears, with the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo in the foreground, a fortress turned into a church. Behind it, two arched gates lead out of the old city through the Almocabar rampart and onto to the Plaza de San Francisco. A small quiet road takes me along the bottom of the Ronda cliff, the wall of which becomes higher and steeper the whole time, and by following it closely I end up at a vantage point where Ronda imprints itself in my memory: the vertical sides of the gorge approaching each other and surrendering to the embrace of the three-arched Puente Nuevo bridge.

In a drowsy state of tiredness, I have an idea that I hear screams from people running for their lives. The black bull is loose! It comes madly tearing along the promenade high up on the edge of the cliff, ready to destroy everything on its way. A green pavillion, so frail and elegant toward the sky, is shattered ruthlessly. At full speed, the brute blasts the railing of a semicircular viewing balcony that practically hangs in the air - and flies! However, the flying bull loses height, then falls vertically and lands with a splash in a heart-shaped swimming pool at the bottom of the valley. Surely.

The many swimming pools are apparently the farmers’ status symbols, rather out of place and hopefully not visible from the natural park in the mountains beyond, Sierra de Grazalema. The valley, brownishly dry, is dotted with olive trees, often in neat rows. Well rid of the bull, I ascend gladly to the Plaza de Maria Auxiliadora to enjoy the valley and the gorge from the square and then from some paradise gardens, part of the neighboring Casa Bosco and the Palacio de Mondragon, the latter also housing the municipal museum.

The Puente Nuevo carries me back into the new town. Approaching the Plaza de Toros, I realize to my surprise that the black bull is back on its plinth, still furious but motionless and without a scratch, as if nothing had happened. I don’t trust that bull.