I thought I knew what the Serranía de Ronda had to offer; majestic mountains, white villages gripping to limestone outcrops, vast groves of ancient olives and dense cork forests, circling griffon vultures and views, incredible views. That was, until we had a jeep tour with Chris Mees at C more x 4.
It turns out that the seemingly impassable tracks that scar the hillsides and snake zigzags through the mountains are no challenge for his thirty year old Land Rover. The sensory overload and unexpected vistas that opened up made me realise that, in this ever-changing landscape, one can never be certain what wonders await nor fail to be impressed.
Ronda - a new perspective
We started from the villa, only one of us had a hat but Chris had a selection ranging from a 1920s style bonnet to a rather dapper safari hat. Hats are important, as we were to discover later. Whilst tours can be tailored to your specific requirements we had asked Chris to choose on our behalf so, on hearing that we had never seen Ronda’s bridge from the bottom of the gorge 'el tajo', Chris determined to remedy this right away. We set off and soon discovered that the phrase "hang on to your hat" is very fitting whilst riding in the back of an open top jeep. The erstwhile gentle breeze became a veritable gale when travelling at 30mph and we had to stop twice for the safari hat.
“The best view in the world!”
After splashing through the clear waters of the river in the bottom of the verdant valley, a short stretch on the main road into Ronda was followed by a leisurely, if bumpy, drive to the leafy countryside immediately outside Ronda. In an arid land of rocky mountains and toasted grass, the lushness of the valley was a surprise. Half hidden, whitewashed fincas revealed vegetable gardens pregnant with growth and rapacious vines unfurling in the warm spring. Growers straightened up from hoeing to wave as we trundled past. Around one bend we were confronted by a group of ladies in cycling shorts and bras. Chris assured us this was not the norm and seemed a little perplexed. But then we saw it and all thoughts of half clad cyclists were driven from our minds: “The best view in the world!” as Chris put it - Perhaps not the best in the world although it would be hard to beat: The 270 year old 'new' bridge spanning the gorge revealed to us in all its architectural glory. No matter how many times I had marveled at the Puente Nuevo from above, peering down into the 120m deep ravine that the Guadalevin has etched through the soft limestone - seeing the bridge from a reverse perspective and looking up at the thousands of cut stones stretching up from the valley floor to the top of the towering gorge - gave me a new found respect for its architect Jose Martín Aldehuela, the ingenious engineer Juan Antonio Díaz Machuca who made it possible and the hundreds of labourers who took 42 years to complete its construction. The bridge itself seems almost to have a personality - formidable yet enticing, its four arches in near perfect symmetry connecting the Mercadillo and La Ciudad across the perilous gorge.
A bird's eye view of the valley with the city of Ronda in the distance
Legend has it that Aldehuela, on finishing the bridge, stepped out onto the parapet to admire his work. The wind caught him off guard and a snatch at his hat saw Aldehuela tumble to his death in the gaping ravine. In fact, Aldehuela, also architect of the Neo-Classical bullring, went on to finish Malaga’s cathedral. Rather like the alleged claims, immortalised by Hemingway, that Rondeños were thrown into el Tajo during the civil war, the legend made a good story.
Turning our backs and wheels on the bridge, we headed back into the land that spreads northwards from the house. Climbing up what seemed like near vertical paths, the jeep, like a mountain goat, defied the gradient and tackled boulders with just a little chug. At the top of our climb the land levelled out to offer aquiline views of the valley known as Llano de la Cruz. We could just make out the house below in a vast polygon of even lines of olives.
Andalucia in a blaze of colour
What we saw next I shall never forget. Whilst it may lack the awesome majesty of the bridge from below, or the sweeping panoramas of the Serrania, for me it will be forever 'Andalucia’: Wild flowers. And more wild flowers. Poppies, blue bugloss, scabious scattered with butterflies, corn cockles with downy heads bigger than fists, huge love-in-a-mist with flowers like saucers and jewel blue echiums - whole fields of them. A lone allium, sentinel to this riot of life, stood on the sidelines.
Huge skies and Bee-eaters in the Serranía de Ronda
With a backdrop of the mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema, at a height of almost 900m and being the only souls in a vast, open landscape, it felt like being on top of the world. This feeling was only heightened by the appearance of an eagle, just beginning to ride the thermals overhead. The birdlife in the Serranía is pretty impressive and Chris had promised us Bee-eaters. I did not really expect to see this elusive little creature but when we did spot one it was, frankly, a bit of a let down. Drab and brown with the light behind it, it had something of a kookaburra about its silhouette. In flight it is quite a distinctive bird and not easy to mistake. Rounding a bend we then caught sight of one with the light falling upon its delicious jewel-coloured plumage - Bee-eaters with the light upon them do not disappoint.
On to the white villages of Montecorto and Montejaque
We filled our bottles from a natural spring where mallow, woodcock orchids, vetch and fragrant lime thyme, rosemary and wild dill spilled down the hillside whilst our furry companion, Gringo, the Spanish waterdog, lived up to his name by splashing about in the cool shallows. Past goat farms and horses grazing at the side of the road we climbed a hill went on to the little village of Montecorto, that sits on the fringe of Grazalema’s Natural Park, where lunch in a local bar gave us a deeper insight into the Spanish perspective – the sign, pasted to the door, advertising the kitchen’s opening hours read “mornings 13.30h – 16.00h, afternoons from 19.00h”!
Leaving the sleepy village to its siesta and Spanish idiosyncracies we drove on past the impossibly turquoise waters of the reservoir at Zahara de la Sierra – a fine spot for a bit of wild swimming, then made a long overdue return to the mountain village of Montejaque, one that we had visited some 18 years before. In truth it was the perilously narrow streets that had prevented our return – streets so narrow that huge chunks had been hewn from the stone to enable carts to pass between the medieval buildings – cars and their wing mirrors being no match for the tight alleys that often stop in dead ends. It had been a bit disconcerting to be laughed at by the elderly locals on our first visit as we desperately folded in our wing mirrors.
Incredible wildlife of the Serranía
On the outer edge of the village Chris made a stop so we could visit Montejaque’s laundry. A strange place to stop I thought but then discovered that the laundry room was, in fact, a beautifully preserved, stone-enclosed natural spring complete with old washboards from the days before automatic washing machines, a fantastic piece of domestic history.
A drink in the bar at Molino del Santo in Benaoján to the noise of the rushing river that runs alongside the beautiful terrace was just the ticket in the hot, dry afternoon. This highly regarded hotel restaurant is run by British couple, Pauline and Andy whose relaxed hospitality matched that of the locals.
Our return journey passed through mountainous landscapes where cheeky ibex mocked us, peering down from their rocky heights and sheer limestone cliffs protruded from the fertile plains. We cut through hushed cork forest with deer sleeping in the deep shadows and out into open olive groves and pale golden tracks through fallow meadows bursting with colour.
A perfect communion of earth and sky
We arrived back at the house, exhilarated by the sheer beauty and diversity of the landscape and noticed for the first time our sunburnt knees from sitting in the back of the breezy jeep. With not a red face in sight the hats had proved their worth.
It is several months since we took the jeep tour but I still recall those hidden fields of wild flowers, the feeling of privilege to have witnessed such secret, jaw dropping vistas and the perfect communion of earth and sky.