But from the start, the journey to Ronda was like gliding downhill on a sled. We’d left so early, the hotel wasn’t yet serving breakfast, so we picked the first spot we saw on our way out of town with lights on: Beaming waitresses, sweetly amused by our Spanish, check. Superb chocolate pastries, just out of the oven, check. Delicious coffee with hot steamed milk, check. Seconds of both . . . you get the idea.
The highways were wide open and impeccably smooth, the countryside began as interesting and progressed to breathtaking as plains gave way to mountains. Another random stop for lunch at the equivalent of a gas-station convenience store yielded sandwiches of profoundly flavorful Serrano ham and tangy goat cheese on some of the freshest-tasting bread I’ve ever put in my mouth. We ate at outside tables in the warm sun overlooking the thousands of acres of olive trees that studded the rolling hills. When I pumped gas, I discovered that my standard-transmission Volkswagon Gulf diesel was getting more than 40 miles a gallon — which was handy, since the gas cost the equivalent of $6.80 a gallon.
We got to the outskirts of Ronda — i.e., a two-lane highway looping lazily through green mountains that stabbed at the clear blue sky with massive, jagged peaks of shale — around 2 p.m. Steered the last few miles by the property caretaker giving directions on a throwaway cellphone we’d picked up in Madrid for $25, we drove the last quarter-mile over a deeply rutted dirt track that ran beside a rail line, then into a gated compound on a gravel drive.
Our place was called Finca de los Olivos — Farm of the Olives — a ranch-style house with a vine-draped, trellised porch on two sides. On the short side of the L, a small pool sparkled in the sun and led to another trellis-covered patio. Both porch and patio had full-size dining tables for al fresco meals. Inside the house were three high-ceilinged bedrooms, Spanish tile floors covered with oriental carpets, a wood-burning stove in the large living room and a very cozy, well-equipped kitchen. As everyone unpacked, a fire flickered in the stove and quickly dispelled the lingering morning chill. Then we drove into Ronda.
Peace, love and churros
We’d been told that Christmas Eve would be a quiet family time and that many of the stores would close. So we were surprised to find the steep, narrow streets of the city filled with families taking advantage of the fact that, although many of the stores were shuttered, the bars and cafes emphatically were not. They were not only wide open but packed with laughing groups sampling tapas and drinking the local beer and wine. We picked a place that advertised itself as Argentine and had tables arrayed in the middle of the pedestrians-only main shopping street. After the long trip, we opted for cafe con leche and as an afterthought ordered “churros for four.” I knew it was overkill as soon as it came out of my son’s mouth, and sure enough, the waiter brought out a plate piled high with giant logs of fried dough, still steaming hot and dangerously delicious when sprinkled with sugar and dipped in coffee.