For a tentative driver like me, the 45-minute climb up the side of a cliff to Ronda, above the Costa del Sol, was a heart-in-your throat adventure. But it turned out to be more than worth it, because it was the highlight of my trip to Spain, and not just because of the memorable drive.
While the beachfront tourist meccas of Marbella and Torremolinos are nice enough, filled as they are with Brits and Germans who crave a bit of sun, the beaches are, for a spoiled Long Islander, a bit wanting. If you're used to Fire Island or Jones Beach, narrow and rocky just don't cut it. And though it's fun to follow the traveling markets, in a different town and with a different atmosphere each day, you can only buy so many designer belts, bags and gloves on a single trip. What I wanted was the "real" Spain, a town with some old-fashioned atmosphere, and both the guidebooks and a travelogue I had rented from my local Rockville Centre library said Ronda was the place. They never mentioned how you have to get there.
But when I arrived, breathless but safe (thank goodness Spaniards drive on the right), I realized that it was indeed worth it. Part of that was directly because of that
almost vertical drive. Ronda's position atop the Sierra Bermeja mountains gives it an "Oh gosh!" panoramic view that is on a scale with the Grand Canyon. It is actually two towns, divided by a gigantic gorge, and the bridge that traverses it continually has visitors stopping in the middle to take pictures, another minor hazard after that harrowing ride. The 18th century bridge, called the Puente Nuevo, or "New Bridge" (time is a relative thing in Spain), spans the Guadalevin River and divides the old and new parts of town. Again, relative terms, because the "new" means 18th century, and the "old" is medieval.
Though residents, as in many scenic places, take the view from "El Tajo" (The Cliff) in stride, the town fathers have been astute enough to provide several viewing overlooks, happily protected by wrought iron fences, and an attractive landscaped park, the Mirador, along the edge.
Just taking in the bridge (and wondering "How did they build that?) and the spectacular view from the village's scenic promontory are reason enough to visit Ronda, but this Spanish gem has much more to offer. Ronda's bullring, for example, is the oldest and largest in Spain, and it has a small but quite interesting museum with a kind of "hall of fame" of the country's most prominent bullfighters. And the wide avenue leading to the bullring has an ambience that searchers for "classical Spain" will love. Boutiques and curio shops that aren't tourist traps line the main shopping street, the Calle Nueva.
But an unexpected highlight was the Caf Mediterraneo, which our party agreed was the best place in Spain for tapas, those delicious snack-size plates of sausages, Machengo cheese, sardines, calamares, and wonderful bread dipped in olive oil, all washed down with some hearty Rioja wine. The scrumptious lunch made us forget that we were on the top of a mountain, precipitous miles away from our resort, straight down the cliff in Marbella.
After a few more hours exploring Ronda's old section, with its medieval churches and San Francisco-type streets, came the reckoning: we had to get down that darn hill before dusk, or decide to find a hotel. Since we had already reserved for a night of flamenco at the resort, we took a breath, and a last look at Ronda's memorable gorge, and headed down the mountain, luckily living to enjoy the dancing, and another memorable side-trip to Granada the next day.
So si, the Costa del Sol is well worth the trip, though the beaches are forgettable.
Ronda, for many reasons, including shouting "Ole!" after the drive, is not.
For more information on traveling to Spain, contact the Tourist Office of Spain at www.okspain.org, or by phone at (212) 265-8822.