I found my paradise on earth sitting outside under the Spanish sunset on a hillside overlooking the buildings of Ronda and numerous olive orchards and vineyards while the only sound I could hear was the soft whisper of the gentle breeze through trees. As the lights came on in Ronda, a trio of bunnies hopped on past and in the distance a rooster crowed a mournful farewell to the sun. I had reservations about staying so far from the town and leaving the coast on our summer trip through southern Spain, but after what may have been the most relaxing evening of my life, I was glad we the detour.
Spain’s Andalucía region isn’t just all about the beaches along the sunny Costa del Sol. The beach is definitely the main attraction, but skipping out on the mountains and the hilltop towns around Ronda would be a crime as well. Dotting the hills long ago settled by Roman legions are olive groves and grape vines as far as the eye can see. Farms are more prevalent than restaurants or tourist attractions and the majority of the roads are dirt and barely wide enough for two cars to pass. I can’t be the only one reminded of the vision of Elysium scene in Gladiator around the golden hued fields here.
The scene of all of this blissful peace is the bed and breakfast, Casa Alta. Three well appointed cabins – with comfortable beds, water and electricity, and actual air conditioning – sit right on the edge of the hillside, allowing views over the valley and mountain towns from the front porch. The farmhouse itself is home to a friendly family of proprietors, including a young girl who made friends with our twin boys even though neither spoke a word of each others’ language. Breakfast is served with fresh local produce from the area inside, and the pool overlooking the valley is just out back, getting ample sun throughout the day. We came to Ronda to see the town, but almost ended up never leaving this great farm.
Ronda’s two most famous attractions are right near to each other, making it an easily walkable town. The historic bullfighting ring sits in the main square right next to the massive Puente Nuevo bridge. The bridge spans a deep ravine running right through the middle of town, rising so far above the floor of the gorge that it appears like something from a fantasy show. A walk across is great, but it’s best viewed from some of the surrounding parks and viewpoints, all easily walkable in town.
Mirador de Aldehuela, the closest viewpoint is just at the end of the bridge and gives good views down into the canyon and just about from the level of the bridge. There’s also a café and we discovered some live music, giving us an excuse to relax and enjoy the view and atmosphere.
Across the way is Mirador de Ronda, a larger promenade which hugs the top of the cliff as it rounds a corner of the hilltop. This offers views of the other side of the bridge as well as panoramic views of the surrounding area all under a treelined path.
Possibly the best view since it comes from below, looking up at the bridge and town, is from the Jardines de Cuenca, a small park that sits below. Easily accessible down a street from town, it’s a longer walk, but worth it for the inspiring views of the bridge far overhead. Without taking a hike along the lengthy dirt trail that heads down into the canyon, it’s the best view you can get of the bridge.
To recover after the long walk on cobblestone streets pushing a stroller with nearly 100 pounds in it as we headed back up into town, we stopped at Café Mondragon, a café with plenty of outdoor tables in a calmer courtyard just off the beaten tourist path in the touristy part of town near the bridge. While our boys made short work of some hearty spaghetti bolognaise, we enjoyed some cold sangria in what felt like a square that hasn’t changed for centuries. Fitting in well with the theme of peace and tranquility, we sat for a while just soaking up the sun.
While in and around Ronda, a great detour to see a part of Spain normally less visited by tourists and completely different from the coast is to head up into the mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema national park, journey through the mountains on winding roads through high peaks and past mountain lakes, and check out one or two of the famed white hill towns of the area. These towns are so called because they feature pretty much entirely whitewashed buildings that shine in the sun.
Zahara de la Sierra, one such town in the heart of the park is imposing with the large fortress on the peak of a mountain that’s visible for miles around. The best views are at the Mirador right at the entrance to the town. It’s not a huge town, but there are plenty of good restaurants to try out the mountain cuisine featuring cured pork and delicious cheeses.
A larger town, Grazalema perfectly represents the white mountain town as it sits nestled right on the side of a mountain in the middle of the park. Winding around it gives a good perspective on how remote it must have been before cars and just how safe the location must have seemed. The best views are right outside of town from the Mirador which features a parking lot and a small promenade along the road that makes for great pictures and a good way to see the entirety of the town.
When we decided to travel to Spain for our family summer vacation, I pictured pristine blue beaches and lots and lots of seafood. Of course we found plenty of that along the Costa del Sol, but perhaps the biggest surprise and some of the unexpected best memories come from our time in the mountains around Ronda. Discovering complete serenity and quiet peace even in the middle of tourist season was a perfect break on our trip through the south of Spain.