I didn’t know about the gorge when we booked — I knew only that Ronda was in the middle of a circle with a two-hour driving radius that covered Granada, Seville, Cordoba and Malaga, all cities that friends had praised. We thought of it merely as a base for day trips. Then I image-Googled Ronda and . . . wow. The ancient town (the Phoenicians were the second group to settle there) was split down the middle by the nearly vertical, craggy-sided gorge plummeting to a cascading river that meandered into a lovely valley spotted with olive groves and rimmed by mountains.
On our way
We landed in Madrid, a six-hour drive north of Ronda, just before dawn on Dec. 23. Most people staying in Ronda will catch a connecting plane to Malaga, which is only an hour and a half away by car. But the direct flight was significantly cheaper, and the last thing any of us wanted to do after an eight-hour overnight flight was board another plane. Instead, we picked up our Avis rental ($350 for the week, paid in advance online) and drove to the discount hotel we’d booked (also based on Web photos and a great price of about $260 for a family suite).
The sun rose just as we drove over the top of a ridge, and Madrid spread out before us, as if carved from ivory tinted orange in the wash of sunrise. I had to rub my eyes. Could it really be that beautiful?
It was. Madrid has the filigreed look of Paris, but unlike Paris, deep in December it was blasted with sunshine and 60-degree afternoons, filled with splashing fountains and rustling palm fronds, even while the mature shade trees still bore their autumn colors. The streets buzzed with well-scrubbed, well-dressed, rosy-cheeked strollers, all, it seemed, beaming with unaffected openness. The shopkeepers and hotel desk clerks were not merely friendly but kind. We forced ourselves to stay awake and wandered the central neighborhood around our hotel, which was just across Madrid’s botanical gardens from the Prado, one of the world’s great museums and a lot more visitor-friendly than the implacably gargantuan Louvre. We were so glad that we’d laid-over there, and looked forward to the partial day we’d have on our return.
But the next morning was the test. It was one thing to flee Christmas in theory. It was another to wake up early on Christmas Eve, cruelly jet-lagged, with a six-hour drive ahead of you in a foreign country to a destination that didn’t even have a street address to feed into the GPS. In fact, as we would find out, it didn’t even have a street.