The slow road to Ronda takes one through some of the finest landscapes at Spain’s disposal. Following the breezy coast road for a while the route shoots up north, first taking in the preliminary white walls of Manilva; a pleasant place full of old people that commanded both views to the impending peaks and south to the sea. This was still the part of Spain where bored English people in their sixties and seventies bought holiday homes so that they could have a slice of guaranteed sun when their home country inevitably failed them. Despite the town’s charms it was too close, too near the coast and the resorts to really hit a romantic chord.
The hills arrived in a procession of mustard yellows and bold greens still somewhat hiding in the milky haze of the morning. It felt Welsh until the sun started to burn the place. The first of this lonely road’s sequence of pueblos blancos then began proper. Casares floated past, mythically strewn over the rocky plateau outcrop, its tumbling crumble of a castle standing proudly in the shadow of the immediate heights behind. Then the road took it upon itself to be dramatic and lurched steeply up, snaking its way to Gaucín: the balcony of the Serranía de Ronda. It was artistically draped like a frayed white sheet over a bright green ridge that jutted out from the mountainside. All around it were those mysterious peaks in the haze. Again, like a lot of these Berber hubs, it too had its tiny complimentary fort, now of no use to anybody but the photographer.
Then the prettiest view for miles: gleaming Benadalid snuggly nestled on a hillside and backed by nothing but hills and hills and hills. Old men twirling canes sat out talking in the shade of trees or in the village’s silent church plaza. Friendly little dogs trotted around in the sunbeams and bougainvillea, lemon trees, white walls and terracotta terraces made it painterly. No people. A population of 250 and only a few old men. The village was dead and silent at mid-morning. The one tavern was shut up. It was like some open air museum example of what a white town should be, but within the walls all was empty and fake. Coffee was taken a few more kilometres north in an equally charming, yet even more tiny, dash of white and green: Atajate. This was a land of space and slowness. No holiday homes here, just one quiet road in and out.
Before descending upon Ronda, the lady of the white towns, there was time, sun and heat enough to visit the most peculiar of all of them: Setenil de las Bodegas. Viewed from the top of the olive-studded bluff Setenil appears normal enough: a harmonious collection of white boxes topped with tawny tile roofs sloping gently down from the ridgetop church and turret down into the little river valley. And in that it could already pass for one of the more handsome towns. But then down by the water, down in the guts of the village, one finds Setenil’s eccentricity. Over the millennia the diminutive Trejo River has cut out a tight little gorge. Down in the belly of the beast caves and overhangs started to appear in the rock. The locals, taking a unique initiative that brought neolithic outlooks into the modern era, then converted the spaces into wine cellars - the bodegas. Over the years the bodegas have closed and given way to local taverns and restaurants.
Under a dark roof of rock, peppered with cobwebs, we ate stuffed mushrooms, bacalao croquetas, and dates wrapped in bacon. And wine, crispy cold Cadiz white wine. It was two o’clock and the village was rowdy and noisy with locals. There was a real village atmosphere. Families were chuckling happily with their children, the waiters were jolly, and untethered dogs strolled around freely. Cars arrived and dropped off fresh produce to the various bars and everybody seemed to know everybody. People shouted to each other. Flower pots were hanging from the walls on the other side of the river. It was bewildering to think the town’s stream had done all this.
The road from Setenil to Ronda, though brief, was unpopulated and unpeopled and is worth mentioning for its total beauty. Some wayward Tuscany, lost in Iberia and consumed by the Spanish scenery. Fields: emerald, wheat, chocolate brown, holm oaks and olive groves; and more blue sky than you thought possible. Then, through flatter, quilty fields surrounded by jagged peaks, we arrived at the jewel in the crown: Ronda.
“Ronda is, indeed, one of those places which stands alone. I know of nothing to which it can be compared.” The words of Lady Tennyson are possibly correct. Ronda is the largest and, were there to be one, the capital of the white towns. Spread out over a rise in the middle of a grand bowl and circled by mountains, the town commands views everywhere. To write at length about Ronda would be both, by now, tiresome and overwrought. Safe to say it is a classic white town that has broken free of its village shackles to become a more modern and liveable place.
Its old centre mimics that of its smaller sisters: a cluster of pretty and flowery white streets with a church here and a tavern there - though this time with the added bluster of the tourist trade. Though, locked away in the quieter enclaves, one can find silence. What makes Ronda the inimitable town that shocked Tennyson is its location on the top of the gorge, built right up to the edges where the rock faces fall down three hundred feet to dark waters; and the muscular bridge that spans the gap.
Black storm clouds had thrown down fat raindrops turning the sand of the country’s oldest bullring toffee-coloured. Through the town centre four dark gauchos on the backs of jittery stallions shared the road with patient cars. On a side-street two old ladies, a young woman and her two daughters paraded about in garish flamenco costumes. The explanation I gave myself was that it was Andalucía after all. As the sun fell away and smeared pinks and purples across the sierra I left the old town and descended to the village-neighbourhood of San Francisco in search of some late night sherry or impromptu sevillano dancing. But for one rowdy tavern, the area was silent. Dark lanes of two story white homes only lit by Victorian looking lamps.
At the old fuente two horses stood drinking in the dark. Atop were some Andalusian señoritos in their wide-brimmed Cordoba hats, tight little jackets and trousers and shiny leather boots. Pampered cowboys. A young and beautiful woman was sat behind the younger rider with a frilly skirt and a carnation in her hair. They observed me observing them. Equal parts smugness and haughty disdain. One of the few peoples of Spain unaffected by the word crisis.
There was one day left of the southern voyage yet I could have stayed happily lost in that sheltered world of white towns and hills, mimicking the great Gerald Brenan, until the world caught up with me and I unhappily gave up the sherry bottle.