Have Bag, Will Travel
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“Nothing expresses the masculine quality of this country better than the bull-fight, that lurid and often tawdry gladiatorial ritual, which generally repels the northerner in the theory, but often makes his blood race in the act.” – Jan Morris. ‘Spain’
In Andalucía there is no Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or El Cid of Castilla y Leon because this is the land of red blood passion, of Don Juan and Carmen, of gypsies and duels, tapas and sherry but above all else Andalucía is famous for flamenco and bull-fighters!
By late morning the weather had improved but it still looked dangerously unpredictable so we thought we might find something to do under cover. The choice was Bullring museum or bar?
We chose the bar!
But not just any bar, we selected ‘El Quinque’ because it had a two o’clock show of Spanish guitar and Flamenco dancing. We took our seats and ordered some tapas and eventually the lights dimmed and the show began. First some exceptional guitar playing and then a lot of hand clapping and traditional singing and then eventually the dancing.
To the lyrical sound of Spanish guitar, clacking castanets, the rhythmic stamping of Cuban heels and clicking stiletto rather like the sound of an approaching steam train, the dance show began and we enjoyed an hour of genuine Spanish music played by an assembly of musicians and a young woman dancing the flamenco; stamping, posturing and pouting in a rapid, aggressive, staccato style – wonderful vivacious movement, flicking to the left and sweeping to the right, stamping down the centre and accompanied all the time by the sound of chattering music like a machine gun firing into an empty sky.
We enjoyed the show and were even happier when we emerged from the gloom of the bar into bright sunlight outside. This was a good time to visit the bullring and the museum.
The Plaza de Toros in Ronda is one of the oldest operational bullrings in Spain. It is only used once a year now for fighting but is important as a Matador training school because Ronda is well-known as the spiritual home of the modern corrida or bullfight.
The founder of this style was Francisco Romero, the patriarch of the famous Romero family of Ronda. Before Francisco, bullfighting was an activity normally fought from the back of a horse in what was known as the ‘Jerez style’ but Romero introduced the style that we are most familiar with today when the brave Matador stands and fights on foot.
We visited the museum and took a backstage tour and then wandered around the arena itself and as we imagined ourselves to be famous heroic bullfighters the sun began to leak through the clouds and everywhere was magically transformed.
In a bullfight six bulls are killed in an event and this involves three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes. If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the president of the fight that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail. Personally I would rather have a cup or a medal or even better – a cheque!
It is called a fight but it is far from fair and for example the statistics show that in two hundred and fifty years only three matadors have died at the Seville bullring but they have dispatched almost two hundred and fifty bulls a year, so I can’t imagine that a lot of money changes hands betting on the outcome of the competition.
After the bullring tour we took the steps down from the old town along a path which led to the base of the Puerto Nuevo which gave a different perspective to the bridge and some more photo opportunities. The climb back was arduous so once back at the top we stopped at a bar and ordered a beer which came promptly accompanied with an inevitable dish of olives.
There is always a complimentary dish of olives in the south of Spain because the country is the world’s leading producer and is by a long way the country with the highest number of olive trees and with more than three hundred million, is nowadays the world’s leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter, which explains why cafés and bars are always so generous with a plate of olives to accompany every drink. They can afford to be!
We liked this bar/restaurant in a good position at the top of the canyon and made the decision that we would return later for evening meal.
While Kim rested I went to the local shop for some wine and whilst there I asked about the cheese on display. Just enquired. I had a mind to take some home at the end of the week. Unfortunately, due to language difficulties the shop owner interpreted my tentative interest as a firm order and to accompany the wine I ended up with a slab of cheese as big as a house brick. I really must get back to Spanish lessons!
The weather continued to be moody and unreliable and when we walked out later the grey clouds were crawling like a contagion over the surrounding mountain tops as white dainty lace bonnets were replaced with grey skull caps and we dodged the showers until the sky broke in two, the black clouds disappeared and left behind a glorious sunset.
The day ended in spectacular fashion!
“Dogs don’t like me. It is a simple law of the universe, like gravity. I am not exaggerating when I say that dogs that have not moved from the sofa in years will, at the sniff of me passing outside, rise in fury and hurl themselves at shut windows. I have seen tiny dogs, no bigger than a fluffy slipper, jerk little old ladies off their feet and drag them over open ground in a quest to get at my blood and sinew. Every dog on the face of the earth wants me dead.”, Bill Bryson – ‘In a Sunburned Country’
The next morning it was raining, raining quite hard, raining very hard and after breakfast and with no immediate prospect of improvement Kim decided to go shopping to buy some shoes she needed which left me free to visit the historical centre.
The weather was thoroughly horrid with gusty winds that turned my cheap umbrella inside out and sharp squally showers which tested even the most boasting of waterproof clothing claims.
I walked for a while and then as though by magic the sky cleared, the clouds blew away in an instant and I didn’t need the umbrella and the waterproof clothing any more. That is what I like about Spain, when it rains in England in the morning it generally rains all day but in Spain it can quickly blow away.
I walked to the edge of the town, through the old gate of the defensive walls of the old Arab Alcazaba and then spotted a path that I estimated would take me to a viewing spot at ground level below the bridge. I asked a local man and he confirmed my judgement and so I optimistically set off. It was a steep downhill path of loose shale and after a quarter of a mile or so I began to have doubts but I had reached that point when I felt committed to carry on even though my confidence was by now beginning to evaporate as quickly as a kettle left to boil dry on a burning hob!
And so I carried on, forever going down into the canyon and increasingly regretting my adventurous resolve to carry on. Eventually I reached the bottom of the slippery path and my worst fears were confirmed. This was a dead end and there was no way of returning to the town without either advanced mountaineering skills or alternatively retracing my steps up a very steep slope.
On the positive side I did get some good pictures of the bridge!
The path was quite remote and deserted and on the way back I began to worry about the prospect of running into a dog. You may remember that it is fair to say that I am terrified of dogs – I suffer from cynophobia. This was exactly the sort of place that I would not want to be confronted with a loose canine beast.
Anyway, I got most of the way back and came to the edge of town and then was confronted with my worst fear. Here was a massive dog with the scent of blood in its nostrils staring down at me from the top of a ten foot wall. I can’t tell you what sort of dog it was because my brain had dissolved into jelly and I wasn’t thinking straight. It desperately wanted to jump down and rip my throat out but luckily it was more afraid of heights than I am of dogs and it couldn’t bring itself to make the leap. I rushed past, my heart thumping like a bass drum from the combination of the stiff walk and the dog scare.
A good friend of mine who loves dogs once asked me why I don’t like them. I tried to explain that I am genuinely afraid of them, I don’t like them anywhere near me, I don’t like the smell of their sweating bodies, I don’t like the feel of their greasy hair, I don’t like their slavering tongues and their slobber anywhere near my hands. Like all people who like dogs he didn’t understand my explanation. Some people don’t like cats – I do but if people come to my house and explain that they don’t like them then I put them in a different room and anyway a cat would have more manners than to keep pestering people, they are so much more intelligent and socially aware.
As Bill said…
“It wouldn’t bother me in the least…if all the dogs in the world were placed in a sack and taken to some distant island… where they could romp around and sniff each other’s anuses to their hearts’ content and never bother or terrorise me again.”
Unscathed but shaking uncontrollably with fear I negotiated the final few steps and returned to the safety of the town and slipped inside the old Arab gate and into the labyrinth of twisting narrow streets, still damp and dripping with residual rain. I followed them for a while dropping down again towards the bottom of the canyon but this time on the opposite side of the town.
Eventually I came to the two earlier bridges and then to the Baños Árabes, the Arab Baths which are claimed to be the most complete and most important example of its type in all of Spain. It was impressive I have to say and well worth the €3 admission charge to go inside.
I almost had time to go to the secret gardens which looked well worth a visit but it was starting to rain again and I was due to meet Kim in fifteen minutes, so I turned down the opportunity and returned directly to the hotel.
Kim was already back. She hadn’t got the shoes she needed because the shop hadn’t got them in the right colour but to make up for this disappointment she had alternatively bought some shoes that she wanted!
This is another of my phobias – Shoe Shops…
“We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.” – José Agustín Goytisolo
Ronda is one of the pueblos blancos (white towns) so-called because it is whitewashed in the old Moorish tradition and sits like a wedding cake on the surrounding ragged countryside. It also happens to be one of the most spectacularly located towns in Andalucía sitting on a massive rocky outcrop straddling a precipitous limestone cleft in the mountains.
Ronda is most famous for a one hundred and thirty metre high bridge, the Puente Nuevo, whose name means ‘new bridge’ and which spans a dramatic gorge that divides the city in two.
To put that into some sort of perspective it is the height of thirty London double-decker buses, seven times higher than the Presidents’ faces at Mount Rushmoor, four times higher than the Aqueduct of Segovia, two and half times higher than Niagara Falls and more or less the same height as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The bridge was begun in 1751 and took forty-two years to complete. It is supposedly one of the most photographed structures in Spain and often quoted as one of the top places to see in Europe and lots of people must have taken that recommendation literally because this afternoon the town was swarming with day-trippers from Seville and the Costa del Sol.
We crossed the bridge and looked out over the sprawling patchwork landscape of burnt brown, cream, beige and copper coloured fields that spilled out across the flat valley plain punctuated with terraces of irrigated green, a meandering river far below, swollen by recent rain and a dramatic grey sky full of heavy cloud and pregnant stormy menace.
The author Ernest Hemingway and actor and film director Orson Welles both lived in Ronda at some point in their lives (it seems that they lived almost everywhere) and both wrote warmly about the place. Hemingway’s novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ describes the murder of five hundred fascist Nationalist sympathisers early in the Spanish Civil War by being thrown from the cliffs of El Tajo and into the Rio Guadalquivir by the Republican forces.
Or possibly vice versa, I have never read the book so am not absolutely sure and neither are the historical accounts because even after seventy-five years both sides continue to accuse each other of the grisly crime but those who lost their lives are in some small way poetically remembered by Orson Welles who said – “A man does not belong to the place where he was born, but where he chooses to die”
We walked over the bridge and admired the expansive views over the surrounding countryside and from here it was easy to understand why Ronda was one of the last Moorish strongholds in Spain, only finally falling to the Christian armies in 1485 just seven years before the fall of Granada.
It was possible to visit the interior of the bridge by climbing down a set of steps carved into the side of the canyon and then entering a chamber where there was an interesting exhibition in what was once the guard-house describing the history of the bridge and its construction. Just behind the guard-house was the cramped prison, which allegedly both sides used for imprisonment and unimaginable torture during the civil war.
Ronda, it turns out, has three bridges, the first and lowest may have been Roman but was certainly Moorish and the second was built in the middle ages. They are both at the bottom of the canyon and as both the old town and the new town were at the top this meant a lot of aching legs and creaking wagon wheels to get between the two so the third and most famous bridge was built right at the top to make life a whole lot easier for everyone.
In the evening we went into the town looking for somewhere to eat. It was much quieter now that the tourist buses had left and there was plenty of choice. After a larger than planned lunch neither of us were especially hungry so we were easily talked into a tapas bar with a promise of a mixed plate of local specialities.
According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise (if I was King I think I would like to be called ‘the Wise’) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty. The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.
This developed into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.
It wasn’t the best tapas that we have tasted but to be fair it was traditional and authentic and we liked that and when we had finished we left and returned to the Hotel Poeta de Ronda and hoped that tomorrow the rain would stay away.
“It was not only in Farol that brusque changes were taking place…they were happening at a breakneck pace all over Spain…. Roads, the radio, the telephone and now the arrival of tourists… were putting an end to the Spain of old. And for those who wanted to see it as it had been, there was not a moment to be lost.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
When we visit Spain we usually avoid the tourist areas of the Costas but arriving in Malaga at the heart of the Costa Del Sol we planned a drive west along the coast before heading inland to the town of Ronda.
The reason we avoid the coast is that we find it over developed, commercialised, overrun with barbarian holidaymakers from Northern Europe and totally unrepresentative of real Spain.
Tourists have been flooding into this part of Spain for seventy years or so but this isn’t a new phenomenon because it has always been a popular place with visitors and settlers.
The first inhabitants to come here may have been an ancient Celtiberian tribe almost three thousand years ago. The Phoenicians founded their colony of Malaka here about 770 BC, and from the sixth century BC it was under the control of ancient Carthage in North Africa. From 218 BC the region came under the control of the Roman Republic and then at the end of the first century it became a part of the Roman Empire.
The decline of the Roman imperial power in the fifth century led to invasions by Germanic tribes and by the Byzantine Empire. The southern Mediterranean coast was part of Visigothic Spain from the fifth century until the Muslim Arab conquest of Hispania and it remained part of the Moorish Caliphate of Al-Andalus until the success of the Christian Reconquest.
For almost five-hundred years the area settled down into a life of existence farming and fishing centred around small villages spreading west from Malaga but real change came in the mid twentieth century with the explosion of tourism and the Northern Europeans came again with their beach towel invasion of the beaches.
In 1950 a Russian émigré called Vladimir Raitz founded a travel company in London called Horizon Holidays and started flying people to Southern Europe and the package tour was born. In 1957 British European Airways introduced a new route to Malaga and the designation ‘Costa Del Sol’ was allegedly conceived as a promotional name when it first launched its new service on Vickers Vanguard planes with four propeller driven engines at the start of the package holiday boom.
Close to Malaga, Torremolinos was the first traditional fishing village to begin to disappear under a blanket of concrete and high rise hotels that blotted out the sun and tradition and its popularity as a tourist destination had a domino effect, and nearby municipalities such as Benalmadena, Fuengirola and Mijas, also saw a rapid growth in the number of tourists. This period of often unplanned and uncontrolled development brought a radical and irreversible change in the appearance of the once small fishing villages.
This is far from the Spain that we like but as we were here we decided to pick out one of the resorts for a lunch-time stop-over.
After picking up the rental car we headed immediately to the Autopista del Sol, an ugly, charmless toll road which conveniently by-passes the congested coast road and moves traffic from east to west with brutal efficiency. It reminded me of what Laurie Lee had to say about it: “The road to Malaga followed a beautiful but exhausted shore, seemingly forgotten by the world. I remember the names, San Pedro, Estepona, Marbella and Fuengirola. They were salt-fish villages, thin ribbed, sea hating, cursing their place in the sun. At that time one could have bought the whole coast for a shilling. Not Emperors could buy it now.”
We drove quickly past the sprawling resorts of Fuengirola, Belamadena and Marbella, the marinas, the golf courses and the condominiums and eventually left the motorway and pulled into Puerto Banus.
Puerto Banus is an expensive, crude, brassy, show off, bragging sort of place where people with money and style but no class or imagination sit on their yachts in their expensively logoed designer shirts or occasionally bully their way around the streets in open-topped sports cars. At the other end of the social scale tattooed Brits wander around the port showing off their sunburn and cheap holiday clothes and imagine themselves to be temporarily part of the jet-set.
Ever pestering Looky-Looky men prowl along the beer stained promenade displaying cheap counterfeit watches and other dodgy goods and then scatter like starlings when the sparrow-hawk police car appears and drives pointlessly along the side of the port.
We wanted a traditional bar with simple tapas but most holiday-makers and the ex-pat Brits that live here want pizza and chips and Chinese restaurants so we struggled to find what we were looking for and reluctantly eventually settled on a plastic restaurant and had an instantly forgettable meal at an inflated price.
As you can probably tell, we weren’t especially thrilled with Puerto Banus but we really shouldn’t have been surprised by that because this is really not the best part of Spain to visit and with nothing to really detain us we returned to the car and without a single backward glance took the road towards the town of Ronda.
This involved a forty-five kilometre drive through the razor edged Sierra Bermeja mountains as we climbed continuously along a dramatic road, the Carreta De Ronda, that never at any time had a single straight section of more than a hundred yards and which clung to the side of the collapsing mountains and zigzagged dramatically all of the way to our destination. There was light rain and some low clouds but we could just about make out the coast line and the sea as we drove through first oak and then pine forests of this protected ‘natural area’ of outstanding beauty.
We stopped a couple of times for the views but it was cold so not for very long and late in the afternoon we arrived in Ronda and booked into our hotel.
“History lies underground. On the surface is the bustling life of Spain with its smell, noise, burning sun, decay, street life, mountain shrines, fiestas, markets, dark wine, acrid dust… hard mountains, rushing ravines, hopefulness and resignation, openness, tragedy and song” – Christopher Howse, ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try to help me to understand something the country that I was visiting.
With an area of just over five hundred thousand square kilometres Spain is the second largest country in Western Europe after France and with an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres it is second highest country in Europe after Switzerland.
Spain is also a country of different people and the description ‘Spaniard’ it seems is just a convenient way of bundling them all together. Richard Ford was a nineteenth century English traveller and in his ‘Handbook for Travellers in Spain’, published in 1845 acknowledged now as one of the very first travel guides, was one of the first to identify that ‘Spain is a bundle of local units tied together by a rope of sand’, and oh, what a wonderful strap-line that is.
Gerald Brenan in ‘The Spanish Labyrinth’ similarly observed ‘In what we may call its normal condition Spain is a collection of small, mutually hostile or indifferent republics held together in a loose federation’.
Spain consists of a number of autonomous communities established in accordance to the second article of the Spanish Constitution which recognises the rights of regions and nationalities to self-government whilst also acknowledging the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’.
Currently, Spain comprises seventeen autonomous communities and two autonomous cities, both of which are on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. As a highly decentralised state Spain has possibly the most modern political and territorial arrangements in Western European. Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia are designated historic nationalities and Andalusia, although not a nationality, also has preferential status, the remaining are regional Provinces without nationality.
Spain is placed twenty-sixth in the Human Development Index which means that it is categorised as having high human development in an index that ranks countries by data composed from life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. It is twenty-first in the OECD Better Life Index and sixty-second in the Happy Planet Index which is twenty-one places behind the United Kingdom, fourteen ahead of Australia and three ahead of Canada and way in front of the United States which is as low down as one hundred and fifth. Donald Trump will no doubt sort that out!
Spain has forty-seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Second highest to Italy at forty-nine) but the chances of visiting more than one or two in a single visit is very remote because they are spread evenly right across the country. Prior to this trip I had visited twenty-two (follow this link for the full list) and this time I was going to add the Alhambra at Granada.
Spain is one of only two countries (the other is Morocco) with both a Mediterranean and an Atlantic coast-line and has more Blue Flag Beaches than any other participating country with four hundred and ninety-nine along almost five thousand kilometres of coast. the United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and forty-four in nearly twelve thousand five hundred kilometres. Greece has the second most blue flags at four hundred and thirty and the most in the Mediterranean Sea and France is third with two hundred and thirty-eight.
On this visit we planned to visit some of the beaches on the famous Costa del Sol.
The Blue Flag beach award was originally conceived in France in 1985 where the first coastal municipalities were awarded the Blue Flag on the basis of criteria covering standards relating to sewage treatment and bathing water quality. Two years later, 1987 was the ‘European Year of the Environment’ and the concept of the Blue Flag was developed as a European initiative by the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe to include other areas of environmental management, such as waste disposal and coastal planning and protection and in that first year two hundred and forty-four beaches from ten countries were awarded the new Blue Flag status.
Spain has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest fifty-five times since making its debut in 1961, where they finished ninth. Since 1999, Spain is one of the ‘Big Five’, along with France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, who are automatically allowed to participate in the final because they are the five biggest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union. It has won the contest twice, first in 1968 with the unimaginatively titled song “La, la, la” and again in 1969, when “Vivo Cantando” was involved in a four-way tie. The country finished last with “Nul points” in 1962, 1965 and 1983, and then finished last for a fourth time in 1999.
We like to visit Spain at least once a year but somehow managed to miss a trip in 2015 so after a two-year wait we were happy to be going back, this time to Andalucía in the far south, the second largest and most populous of all of the Regions.
The custom of painting doors blue extends across Europe and beyond and is common across the entire world.
Even today in provinces of Spain buildings are decorated with blue bands and designs, houses in Egypt, in the Arab villages of Israel, and entire villages in Morocco, have blue walls. The same colour decorates the houses of Mexican Indians and in the United States the Amish in Pennsylvania paint their doors blue because, just as in Greece, many folk magic traditions and customs maintain that a witch cannot cross a blue threshold and according to such belief, a blue door is an effective barrier against evil, much like laying a broom across the thresh hold, putting salt on the windowsills or a hanging a horseshoe above the door.