Walking back to our car, we entered a park that became a promenade along the gorge, now radiating waves of gold in the setting sun. A low stone wall separated us from a stomach-churning plunge to the valley floor far, far below. The farmhouses and cattle looked tiny, as if glimpsed out of the window of an ascending plane. It was hard to believe the guidebooks’ claim that such a beautiful spot had seen a couple of thousand years of extreme violence. But in addition to mass slaughters of Muslims in the 15th century, somewhere along here just 75 years before, Republican loyalists had tossed fascist sympathizers over the wall to their deaths, a scene described in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Later that week, we would watch a young man on a child’s bicycle bounce the rear tire onto the wall, wobble precariously above the sheer drop, then pedal 50 feet along the narrow summit, risking death at every turn of the wheel. We all said a silent prayer of thanks when he hopped back to the safe side of the wall and rode away.
But on this Christmas Eve, it was all peace and love and sweet churro aftertaste in the last glow of day. It was easy to imagine Hemingway in that exact spot, drinking in the glorious charm (and some wine as well, no doubt), and not all that far-fetched. Hemingway had been so captivated by Ronda that he’d spent parts of several summers here attending bullfights in the oldest bullring in Spain, not two blocks from where we stood.
We spent the rest of the evening before the fire in the finca, reading, talking and sipping the excellent local red wine we’d picked up in the market for less than $4 a bottle. We all slept well, and late.
I awoke first, forgetting completely that it was Christmas Day until I walked out and saw that my wife hadn’t quite been able to bring herself to stay completely true to our deal. She’d left two small gift bags on the breakfast table — a necklace for Emily, and 30 euros for Sam to spend on whatever caught his eye. I forgave her.
I stacked some dried olive branches in the stove, and in no time, hungry flames licked around the wood and danced inside the black iron. I walked out to the porch and watched the sun rise above the mountains beyond our wall. I listened as roosters crowed, dogs barked and somewhere just out of sight, a donkey brayed. The pool water lapped gently as a breeze stirred, carrying with it the twining smells of fresh growth and moldering earth, deep country scents that mingled with a grace note of something sweet. I looked around the yard until I discovered the source — a single rose in full bloom, drops of dew tracing the delicate curve of the burgundy-colored blossom, glittering like diamonds.
Merry Christmas to me.
Details: Ronda, Spain
Shroder is a former editor of The Washington Post Magazine.