Daybreak over Ronda
Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.
This rihla is about Ronda, Andalucía, Spain.
Around the time that Ibn Jazayy was recording Battuta’s travels in Fez, where the ruling Marinid dynasty had withdrawn for good from mainland Spain after a decisive defeat by Alphoso XI of Castile at the mouth of the river Salado in 1340, Ronda had become part of the Nasrid Amirate of Granada and was described by a near contemporary of Ibn Jazayy, Abu al-Fida (d.1331) in his Geography, as an ‘elegant and lofty city in which the clouds serve as a turban.’ It was to remain so until the 22 May 1485 when Ronda surrendered to the army of Ferdinand and Isabel, seven years before the fall of Granada and the eradication of the final part of Moorish Spain that had been in existence since Tariq and Musa ibn Nasyr had brought their Berber armies across the Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) Straits in 711 CE.
I usually take my annual holidays in March and travel but this year was different and had made no plans. My father has been seriously ill since the middle of February but with his indomitable will, his condition stabilised enough to encourage me to take a few days break and thus the decision for my wife and I to board a flight to Malaga, hire a car and head for Ronda.
For many reasons!
Driving northwards on Route 346 through the Sierra Palmitera, and the Serrania de Ronda, the overwhelming sensation on that serpentine road from the coast was of a sense of a pilgrimage being made rather than a journey of exploration. In August of 2010 I’d bought a book of short-stories for my father by Ernest Hemingway called Men Without Women (see blog entry for August 9, 2010), to replace a copy he had lost many years previously. The first short story in the 1928 book is entitled ‘Undefeated’ and recounts the exploits of an aged, once-great bullfighter ‘Manuel Garcia’ discharging himself from hospital to fight one more fight, to achieve one more victory at whatever cost.
And I had willed him on…Manuel and my father. I needed to see the bullring.
(Bullsh***er in the middle)
Hemingway’s love affair with Ronda had begun in 1923. The city of Pablo García Baena’s ‘sleepless lime’ is the home of modern bullfighting where the bull is primarily fought on foot with the estoque and muleta, rather than on horseback, a development introduced by Francisco Romero in 1754 and fully elaborated on in later years by his grandson Pedro Romero Martinez.
In Death in the Afternoon, published in1932 Hemingway wrote,
‘There is one town that would be better than Aranjuez to see your first bullfight in if you are only going to see one and that is Ronda.’
In the 1950s Hemmingway spent a great deal of time in the company of and at the estate of the other famous Rondian bullfighting dynasty the Ordónez family.
Being mid-March the town was quiet when we arrived and I drove with ease to the Plaza de Espana and into the entrance of the Parador de Ronda Hotel. I booked in for two nights at very reasonable rates and was shown to a rooftop balcony room that directly overlooked the Puente Nuevo bridge and the El Tajo gorge. It continued to rain, and rain, and the heavy ‘turbaned’ sky appeared to meet the rising mist from the torrent cascading over the waterfall at the base of the bridge.
A confluence of tears, I thought!
Lightening strikes lit up Mt. Hidalgo (the Romans called the town Arunda – ‘surrounded by mountains’) in the distance and the rolling thunder coming from the direction of the Puerto de Viento (Gate of the Wind) to the east merged with the Rio Guadalvin’s roar from below.
Like crying almost! Ronda is both beautiful and ugly and a microcosm of the paradox that Spain is…and has been.
As I stood on the balcony, soaking wet, and watched the streetlights come on and illuminate the bridge I felt a great deal of sadness. The Parador de Ronda is the former town hall or ayuntamiento of the Mercadillo ‘New Town’ part of Ronda. Ronda was a Republican town at the start of the Spanish Civil War; a city of disenfranchised peasants, an illiterate peasantry that was created by the abandonment of Moorish agriculture in favour of sheep rearing by the land-grabbing ‘hidalgos’ of Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquistra army in 1492.
In the first month of the war in July 1936, 512 or so perceived Nationalist sympathizers, the new hidalgos of church and state, were rounded up in Ronda, jailed in the former town hall that I now looked down from, given a summary trial and marched ( called paseos) through lines of baiting and spitting onlookers – a preamble similar to the tercio de varas and tercio de bandilleras of the bullring nearby – the short distance to the Puerto Nueva bridge to be thrown over into the gorge below, the tercio de muerte. When the Nationalist forces subsequently took Ronda approximately 1100 to 1600 Republicans were executed in revenge and buried in a mass grave in the San Lorenzo cemetery to the north of the town.
I thought of the fatalities in the current civil-war ‘peasant’ or disenfranchised revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya and then of the extraordinary estimated figure of 250,000 deaths from execution, starvation and suicide in prison attributed to Franco’s Nationalists and the 50, 000 (including about 20% of Spain’s priests and nuns) attributed to the Republican side during and following the Spanish Civil war.
From 1937 the last word on death sentences handed down by regional ‘trial’ was with Franco, not as a head-of-state but as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It was reported that “The Caudillo” used to read through sheaves the sentences of death often when taking his coffee after a meal. He would write an ‘E’ after those he decided should be executed, and a ‘C’ when commuting the sentence. For those whom he considered needed to be made a conspicuous example, he wrote ‘garrote y prensa’, a particularly savage and medieval form of execution and that the execution by garroting was to be announced in the press. He would tell his brother-in-law Ramon Serrano Surer that the decision-making was just ‘routine stuff.’
Spain has a history of their generals determining atrocity to be ‘routine stuff’ with Pizzaro’s ’management’ of the Inca of Peru and Cortes of the Aztec in Mexico but the person before Franco most associated with a governmental passion to kill was Tomas de Torquemada, one of five inquisitors appointed by Pope Sixtus IV on the 11 February 1482, three years before the fall of Ronda, but like Franco, Torquemada managed to become the Grand Inquisitor in a short space of time with the right to appoint all other inquisitors. For Republicans, or Incas, or Aztec read Jewish conversos, humanists, Lutherans, illuminati, and witches. This is the paradox of death that even now Spain, and Ronda is only getting to grips with.
These thoughts and more stayed with me as I took a walk around the old walls of Ronda. Starting with a descent and worthwhile visit to the Arab baths beside the oldest of the three bridges (Roman) that cross the gorge I continued round the outside until at one point came back through a gap in the walls into the old city near the Church of the Holy Ghost. Leaving again through the Almocabar ( al-maqabir or cemetery gate) gate seemed appropriate as the final part of the walk took me around the remainder of the walls to a view of the gorge and the Puente Nuevo Bridge from its base. Here the 512 Nationalists were rendered by their descent and must have been buried somewhere downstream. To the north of the city the exhumation of the San Lorenzo Republican graves has just begun.
On a lighter note the last visit I made in Ronda was to the Lara Museum. In the basement is a permanent exhibition dedicated to witchcraft. One of the exhibits present is a wooden chair with a small pulley wheel at the front. At the rear is a padded seat and through the centre of seat arises and falls on turning the wheel a 9inch dildo. The machine is called a maquina cosoladora or consolation machine and thanks to Irish missionary ( excuse the pun!) 6th century penitential handbooks, its association with sexual gratification of a women could only mean witchcraft, and the attention of the Inquisition.
I thought of my father again and Hemingway’s Men Without Women.
Here in the Lara Museum, Ronda was another story concerning Women Without Men.
Hemingway and Ronda: