We changed our plans, then changed them again. Originally, we had pencilled in a drive to the very southern tip of Spain, where on a clear day you can see Morocco, and where there is a supposedly wonderfully intact set of Roman ruins, Baelo Claudio.
From the start, I was skeptical that we could do this and still do everything else on our wish-list. I think Allan had forgotten how everything takes longer than you think it's going to, and how sleeping in a different town every night can mean not seeing anything very well. In Granada, it was time to firm up the flexible spots in our itinerary.
We love seeing Roman ruins. But we've seen a fair number of them. On our big trip in 1993 - we spent a month in France and Italy - we drove through Provence and saw a huge number of amazing Roman ruins. And of course, we've been to Rome. On the other hand, this current trip includes something we've never seen and may never see again: neolithic cave paintings. I have wanted to see cave paintings since I first read about the caves in Lescaux and Altamira (now both closed to the public). As soon as the Bilbao Guggenheim opened, and I saw its proximity to caves where there are paintings, I started thinking about going to Spain.
So cave paintings are a major incentive for this trip, and we have planned them for the very end. I was concerned that if we went to Baelo Claudia, we would never make it up to Basque Country in the north, and we'd end up seeing more Roman ruins, but no caves.
So we reconfigured the remaining part of the trip for less time in the south and more time in the north. Our plans for today were to drive to Ronda, walk around the town, then continue on to Zuheros, about an hour away from Cordoba - not spend the night in Ronda, but stay two nights in Zuheros.
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We woke up in Grenada to the sound of cannon fire, or maybe kettle drums, or maybe fireworks. It was 8:00 a.m. and we have no idea what that was about.
After breakfast, we bought a few things at a small supermarket across from the hotel, then went to a tiny panderia (bakery) - so tiny that customers queue up in the street, because only one customer at a time can fit in the shop. We bought a wonderful fresh baguette, two pastries, and two cookies for 2.50 euros.
The lovely woman at our hotel, plus a gentleman who helped direct Allan out of our tiny parking spot, both assured us it was much easier to get out of town than it was to get in. Armed with great directions, we nervously hit the road, but had no problem finding the highway. We did stop once for directions, just to confirm. A man said "...go to the left," while motioning right. I said, "A la derecha?" ("To the right?") And he said, "Si, derecha" which tells you something about miscommunication! But we found the highway easily and soon I was navigating us to Ronda.
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We stopped once to eat some of our ham, cheese, and bread, but otherwise were driving through beautiful, hilly orchards, with steep mountains in the distance. We could have taken fairly fast roads all the way to Ronda, but against my better judgement, we decided to use a tiny adjoining "cut-through" road. I knew that would be very slow and take us through mountains, and Allan said he also knew that, but... let's just say I don't think he understood how tiny and how slow that road would be. Or where he'd be driving. Allan is afraid of heights. Let it not be said I didn't warn him.
The road to Ronda turned out to be one of the more dramatic drives we've ever done, on par with the Big Sur coast in California or the Almalfi coast of Italy. (The latter we did by bus and Allan couldn't look out the window.) First we wound our way through two tiny "white towns" - the typical towns of Spain, with white-washed buildings and red-tiled roofs - called Andarle and El Burgos, then there were no towns.
The road was barely wide enough for one car. When a car approached from the other direction, Allan stopped and we held our breath. We went up and up and up, into the mountains, with a very steep drop-off on my side, and so close to the side of the road that I didn't want to look down. On all sides of us, there were dramatic rock outcroppings, and in the valleys there were pastures, with the occasional hacienda and pick-up truck visible. It looked a lot like scenery I've seen in the western US, with the same huge sky and dramatic peaks.
At one point, we found ourselves behind a herd of goats. A man and two dogs were working them down the road, then off the road and down the cliffs to the right. I scrambled for the camera and we drove slowly behind them until all the animals were safely off the road. I waved and yelled to the shepherd.
Another time we saw a nice dog sitting in the road. Allan looked very upset and was determined to continue driving. We have rescued some strays while traveling, and other times staggered away, heartbroken, from dogs we could not help. I thought we could at least take this dog to a town. I made Allan stop and ran back to the dog, but when I found it, I realized it was fine, just a country dog out for the day. She wasn't skinny, her coat looked good, and the last thing we want to do is abscond with somebody's dog. So I ran back to the car and tried to assure Allan, and we continued on.
This drive went on for hours, real white-knuckle driving, no more than 20 or 30 kms/hour. At the highest point, we stopped at a lookout with some information about the Seirra de las Nieves range. After that, the drop-off was on the driver's side, not ideal for our man behind the wheel! I'm pretty sure Allan was forcing himself not to look out his window.
When I noticed that it was 3:00 and the road was just beginning to flatten out towards Ronda, I suggested we spend the night there. Zuheros has to be three hours away. Did we really want to do that tonight?
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We entered Ronda from the ordinary, non-historic part of town and put the car in an underground parking lot. We very quickly saw the train station and a hotel right across the street, and figured, what the hell, let's give it a go. At the Hotel Andalucia, the man said he had a vacancy... for 35 euros. Allan thought I heard wrong but no, it was 35 euros. I asked to see the room. It's a simple, clean room with a spotless bathroom, and a closet nearly as big as our hotel room in Paris. The hotel has a parking deal with the lot where our car is already parked, so overnight parking will cost 6 euros. Wifi is free and in all the rooms. Wow.
Next we had to change our reservation in Zuheros. I couldn't get it done through Hotels.com, so I called the hotel directly. They were very accommodating, allowing us to cancel one night on such short notice, but they said they did need to receive something from whatever internet site we booked with, or else they would be charged a commission for an unused room.
Trying to work with Hotels.com was awful. One, their phone number - which says, "A free call from anywhere, 24/7!" - is only free within the United States. Two, their number is listed as 1-800-CA-HOTELS, with no actual number given beside it. Does anyone have a phone with letters on it anymore?? There are millions of people traveling today who have never even seen a rotary phone with letters! After waiting on hold, and being transferred, the person who actually helped me wanted to keep me on hold while he called the hotel in Zuheros. I don't think so.
So that was awful, but we got it done, then headed off into Ronda.
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We walked through the commercial area of town, a pedestrian-only mall, past a bullfighting ring, and down to the edge of town. Literally, the edge. There is a wall, beyond which the town drops off a cliff. You can see towns in the valley, then huge mountains in the distance. From the cliffs on this side of town, you can walk around a walkway to a bridge.
The bridge passes over a dramatic gorge, a huge steep drop, with giant stone finger-like projections on all sides, on top of which the town seems to be growing. On the other side of the bridge is the old, historic part of town, with narrow cobblestone streets, white houses with red roofs and wrought-iron gates, and a zillion schlocky touristy stores. Tacky, but beneath that, beautiful.
In between the two sides of town, upstream from the bridge, you can see the gorge, the rushing water, people walking up and down a scenic walkway, and in the distance, farms. It is very dramatic, very beautiful. From the old-city side, looking back on the bridge, you see the full height and impressive arches of the bridge. Allan couldn't get too close to the rail, so I took all the photos. Some view of Ronda, the gorge, and the bridge are here.
This town is supposedly a magnet for fans of Ernest Hemingway. Ronda's Wikipedia page mentions something about a bit of For Whom The Bell Tolls being based on Ronda. I re-read that novel only a month or so ago (I loved it), and I don't remember anything remotely like this town being in it.There are also pictures of Charlie Chaplin in several places, but I don't know why.
After our walk, we were ready for dinner, but it was still too early. The whole town appeared to be having coffee, ice cream, and dessert. Hundreds of families with children, older folks in groups, teenagers on dates, absolutely everyone, were gathered in dozens of cafes, gelaterias, and confiterias. After all, it was "only" 7:00 p.m.!
We reluctantly stopped for coffee and tea, at a cafe selling all manner of baked goodies and "bombs" (bonbons). When I ordered Allan's "the con leche", they made the tea with steamed milk, instead of water. That was new for us. We used the time to further reconfigure the rest of the trip. We're both concerned that things may take a long time in the north - that it may take time to get there or to find a cave tour. As I've said, it's a focal point of the trip, and we don't want it to be cut short. So we actually cut a day out of our planned three days in Madrid.
I only wanted to do one thing in Madrid: see painting at the three big museums. We are also meeting up with our friend David Heap! But I'm not particularly interested in running around Madrid seeing El Escorial and other famous sites, given the time and priorities of this trip. (Of course I'd see any city for any reason, and I'm sure Madrid has many things to recommend it, but in context of this trip: art only.) So now I will have two full days to see the greatest highlights from all three museums. It should work.
After planning over coffee, we found a simple place for dinner. We were clearly the "early bird special" at 7:30. We are both a bit tired of tapas. (Who knew such a thing could happen?) I want to have some great paella somewhere, but this is not paella country. The menus here favour game, stews (including bull-tail stew), and grilled fish. I had a version of huevos rancheros - scrambled eggs with potatoes and chorizos - and Allan had fried calmari that looked like fishsticks. We also had some kind of yummy white bean soup that was made with sausage. We drank vino verano and I had yet more coffee, and the bill barely scraped 20 euros.
This doesn't seem to be a big foodie area. Basque Country, in the north, is supposed to have some of the best food in Spain (or anywhere). I don't know if we'll find any, or perhaps it's impossible to miss. But somewhere, somewhere on this trip, will I get a big bowl of really good paella?
Our little hotel was super easy to find, because it's across from the train station. We were happy to see it again; it has been a long day. I called my mother, who was thrilled to hear from me. I called her two or three times on our long drive from Barcelona to Granada, but she wasn't in, and I knew she'd be massively disappointed to miss my call. She is reading this blog, and she has been to Ronda, among many other places in Spain. It was great to hear her voice!
Photos of the mountain drive to Ronda are here.
Photos of Ronda are here.