Hill towns of Andalucia: for high art, go for vulture culture
Down there on the coast in Marbella the idle rich are getting ready for another hard day of puttin' on the bling. The daily parade of Prada, Versace and Bulgari is gearing up. In Puerto Banus, the super yachts are being buffed, Ferraris are being revved and helicopters are being whirred.
Here though, in the Serrania de Ronda, less than 45 minutes up the road, the loudest thing is the breeze gently stroking the cypress trees. A giant vulture floats over the ridge, wide wings carved against the deep sky. I sip my morning coffee with toes dangling in the pool, absently gazing at the limestone ridges of the mountains across the valley. My mind is deliciously blank. There is more than one way to be idle.
Casa Carmen stands just off the road to Algeciras. The road itself has probably evolved from an ancient mountain track serving traders, smugglers and long-forgotten armies. The villa itself feels almost as well established the earthen tiled roof, whitewashed exteriors, chunky antique wooden doors and gnarly old olive trees are all reassuringly traditional.
The glorious nine-metre pool is the only obvious nod to the site's present purpose as a rural retreat. But appearances can be deceptive. When I meet the owner, a surgeon at the local hospital, he says he built Casa Carmen just 15 years ago. Before that there was a pigsty. He's not being metaphorical it was a farm shed. That shed has gone, but wandering between the numerous terraces of the property, luxuriating in panoramic views across the Serrania, I am as contented as a pig in its proverbial element.
Hill towns of Andalucia
Despite the villa's seeming isolation, Ronda itself is only a five-minute drive away. The celebrated town stands on top of a cliff and if that isn't spectacle enough, the rock is bisected by a canyon, El Tajo, which separates the old Moorish city from the "new" town. The challenge thrown down by nature was met by 18th-century town planners. They looked into the 400ft abyss and, against all reason, saw a bridge.
Their first attempt ended in a heap of rubble at the bottom of the gorge, killing some 50 people. The second attempt took more than 40 years to complete and was engineered to last. The Puente Nuevo is an architectural feat as impressive as it is improbable. The supporting brick arches seem to grow organically from the flanks of the gorge and touch down on the banks of the Guadalevin River far below.
The vertiginous structure has generated its own mythology. One story that the architect, Jose Martin de Aldehuela (who also designed the town's bullring) fell to his death from the bridge while trying to catch his hat when it was blown off his head is easily dismissed. He died in 1802 in Malaga at the respectable age of 73.
Another story, altogether darker, concerns the more recent history of the Spanish Civil War when a mob of Republicans are alleged to have executed more than 500 prisoners by heaving them alive off the bridge. The unsparing account of a similar atrocity in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls is widely cited as being based on events in Ronda.
According to the historian Paul Preston, many evils were indeed perpetrated in Ronda but this particular horror was invented by one of Franco's generals. In his recent book The Spanish Holocaust, Preston insists "there is no substance to the claim that large numbers of prisoners were killed by being thrown into the Tajo." It seems likely that the dramatic setting of the bridge has pushed imaginations to take a Gothic leap over the edge.
Although there are other bridges across the gorge lower down, and they are picturesque in their own way, they simply can't challenge the Puente Nuevo for grandeur. On my way down to the lower bridges on the east side of the Tajo I find the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King). The name is misleading, because the Moorish kings had long passed when this palace was built in the 18th century. It is undoubtedly eye catching, partly for the wrong reasons.
Clearly designed to impress, the building occupies one of the most commanding locations overlooking the gorge. But unlike most of Ronda's well-maintained historical monuments, the palace is in a tragic state. A German hotelier bought the ghost house three years ago but no meaningful restoration has begun and with each passing season the once proud casa looks ever closer to ending up as another heap of rubble in the Tajo.
The grounds however are open to visitors and include a formal "hanging" garden at the top of the cliff, as well as a bona fide relic of Ronda's Moorish history. A modest doorway from the garden leads to La Mina (the mine). The Moors were not digging for gold or gems, but something infinitely more precious water. La Mina dates from the 14th century and was built to provide emergency access to the river in the event of a siege. The steep stairway is carved out of the bedrock and winds down through the cliff via various vaulted chambers and buttresses. I emerge blinking into the light at river level and find a little Eden. All is calm at the base of the gorge. Today, the Guadalevin is a flat mirror reflecting the mighty cliffs topped by the icing of white buildings.
Back on the west side of the Puente Nuevo, Plaza de Espana is Ground Zero for the coach party day-trippers. The parador is here, souvenir shops, and, inevitably, the McDonalds. Many are the tourist traps. I overhear one group planning their lunch strategy. They conclude they will find cheaper and better fare the further they venture from the busy plaza. They march off along Calle Nueva, their mission taking them past the recently opened La Fuente. They have missed a treat.
The cafe occupies such an obvious position on the main square that it seems almost lazy to stop here. The bright-eyed young owners are pumped up with enthusiasm for their new venture. Pablo Piek looks barely old enough to drive. He is, it turns out, 23 and has paid his dues working at another celebrated local cafe-restaurant (Tragatapas) under a disciple of the legendary Catalan chef Ferran Adria. Pablo's take on Spanish flavours is accordingly bold. At lunch, the seared tuna tataki is a welcome change from the heavier staples of Andalucia, but it's the deep purple gazpacho de cerezas y queso de cabra an ice-cold cherry soup with grated goat's cheese and powdered pistachio that steals the show.
The area is famous for its pueblos blancos (white villages). I drive to one of the most popular, Grazalema. Its whiteness doesn't disappoint. (To be fair, though, there is another colour. Looking down on Grazalema from above, the village is a dazzling pattern of white lines broken up by stepped terracotta roofs.) Picasso could have daubed a photo-realistic rendition of the view and accidentally invented Cubism right here.
I bump into Clive Muir, who traded landscape gardening in the UK for a life of guiding in the mountains of Andalucia (wildsideholidays.com). He tells me Grazalema's lifeblood is tourism and its picture-perfect cuteness is no accident. "There are very strict planning controls," he says. "Walls are white, doors are brown, and all iron work black. A sign on, say, a bar or restaurant, has to be black with white lettering and can be no bigger than 60cm by 60 cm."
But sometimes the tourist experience of Grazalema is reassuringly disorganised. The village is well known for its wool-blanket industry, but my attempt to visit the associated museum is not inspiring. I find a blanket factory with an attached shop. When I inquire inside about the museum, a lady shoos me vaguely in the direction of a shed in the car park. There I amble between a few old wooden looms and some other rusting machines. There is no commentary or explanation of what they did, or how they worked. And that seems to be it. Nada mas.
The Smithsonian it ain't.
Luckily, Clive has instructed me to take a hike. The "must do" walk, according to him, is around the 4,340ft summit of Coros, a mountain on the hairpin drive to Zahara, the next pretty white village. Soon I am in the domain of the Spanish fir an ancient species that dates to the Tertiary period. Peeping through these slender elegant survivors from the age of the dinosaurs, I get tantalising glimpses of ever expanding views.
Close to the Puerto de las Palomas pass, the cliff face of Coros looms; I can hear the squabbling of a colony of griffon vultures which nests amid the crags. The walk starts from a car park at the top of the pass. The route loops around the summit and is not much more than a gentle stroll, but the colossal views reveal the curvature of the Earth and play to my vanity as a wannabe mountaineer. Looking down I can see the coiled mountain road descending to Zahara, next to it a long ragged lake draws a turquoise diagonal and beyond it the arid plains of Andalucia stretch out towards Seville.
Nearer to hand, the flora is equally spectacular: delicate thistles with golden crowns, red-stemmed succulents and wicked yellow thorned cacti. The most eye-catching, though, are pods that split to reveal a jewel case of fuchsia, red and blue-black beads wild peony plants. More serious bird watchers than me would be able to identify the various darting blurs between the shrubs; wheatears, shrikes, choughs and warblers all inhabit the terrain.
There is however no mistaking the bird I come upon as I round the corner towards the steeper south-west side of the mountain. With their 9ft wingspan, there are few sights in Spain's wilderness as impressive as griffon vultures up close. With a few effortless flaps they slide off the cliff, gliding past at eye level in search of the thermals that will take them soaring high above the Serrania oblivious to the vanities of mere earthbound beings.
The nearest airport is Malaga, which is well served by connections from the UK. Airlines include easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).
Shankha Guha stayed as a guest of Real Ronda (01275 872 929; real-ronda.com) which offers holiday houses, cortijos (farmhouses) and villas to rent. A stay at the three-bedroom Casa Carmen, with a private pool and easy access to Ronda's old town, costs from ?1,355 per week.
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