The El Tajo Gorge in Ronda, Spain

The 200-year-old stone bridge over El Tajo gorge in Ronda, Spain, connects the new and old parts of the town.
The 200-year-old stone bridge over El Tajo gorge in Ronda, Spain, connects the new and old parts of the town. (By Andres Aguayo)
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By Barbara Bradlyn Morris
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 28, 2009

It's a glorious day in Andalusia. On Spain's Costa del Sol, in the resort town of Marbella, the sun sparkles on the Mediterranean. A light breeze over the marina sways the soft-clinking forest of sailboat masts.

My husband, Ward, and I should be in this idyllic setting, lounging on our sea-view hotel balcony sipping sherry and nibbling almonds to celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary. Why have we abandoned such luxury? Why are we here, balancing on a rock-strewn, fissured plateau on a sheer precipice near the mouth of a 390-foot-deep gorge?

The answer towers above us: the spectacular, sheer cliffs of the gorge, El Tajo, that splits the ancient mountain town of Ronda into two sections: the old Moorish area, La Ciudad, and the "new" (circa 1485!) town, El Mercadillo. Spanning the gorge high above us is the triple-arched 200-year-old stone bridge that links the old and new districts. Its central, skyward-soaring Romanesque arch is framed by gigantic stone foundations.

It's this gorge and bridge, along with Ronda's acclaim as the birthplace of modern bullfighting, that have made it the most famous and spectacular of the many mountain towns that dot Andalusia. Fortunately, it's an easy side trip, a 90-minute bus ride, from Marbella.

Having caught the 9 a.m. bus, within minutes of passing through Marbella's hilly outskirts, we were climbing steeply in ear-popping, hairpin turns through spectacular, rugged mountain scenery. The gray-black and rust-colored rocks contrasted with green patches of low-lying, hardy pine. Higher up, the shrubs became sparse, and the terrain loomed barren and ash gray. "Bandit country," I thought, with visions of Carmen and her band of smugglers. In fact, I was right. In the 19th century the caves that dot those hills hid murderous highwaymen.

On reaching Ronda's trim, tidy "new" town, we stopped first at Alameda del Tajo, a small, tree-shaded park. According to travel writer Richard Ford, the vista from the sheer drop at the end of the park is "one of the finest views in the world."

We agreed. From that lookout, it seemed that all of Spain's mountains, foothills, meadows and forests lay before us in a vast tapestry of greens. The landscape was etched with slim green-black cypresses, groves of silver-green olive trees and vineyards carpeting the undulating land. Red-roofed farmhouses dotted the scene, connected by ribbons of winding roadways. The horizon, beyond forested foothills, was rimmed with angular mountains softened by a lavender haze.

Continuing toward the gorge, we detoured for a peek into Ronda's famous bullring, a handsome two-story limestone structure. The ring is surrounded by 5,000 tiered seats under double arches formed by 136 columns. Today it is used primarily during the colorful festival on the first weekend of September when the Spanish dress in 19th-century costume and re-create the bullfights of that time.

In a tiny chapel with an elegantly cushioned prie-dieu, countless matadors have prayed to the Virgin for courage and safekeeping. The self-guided tour of the bullring includes the chapel, stables and a bullfighting museum with elaborate matador costumes, saddles, fans, capes, swords and even some stuffed bull heads.

Across the plaza from the bullring, we finally reached the old stone bridge and gorge. Peering down, we gasped at the seemingly bottomless chasm and narrow river channel. The outward vista was framed by behemoth cliffs. In the distance, on the left side, a shrub-covered cliff sloped into the mouth of the gorge. Squinting, we could just make out a path that twisted down the slope and through the shrubs to end on a plateau seemingly the size of a postage stamp, the place from which to take in Ronda's most famous view of the bridge and gorge.

As we made our way through town to that tiny plateau, somehow we missed a turn, a serendipitous error that forced us to meander through a maze of charming, narrow streets, the whitewashed houses marked by wrought-iron "bird cage" balconies and ornate window grillwork. The mix of Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture was a reminder of Ronda's volatile history and of its pre-15th-century Moorish past, when the almost impregnable town was the capital of an isolated Islamic kingdom.

Finally, at the Plaza del Campillo, we began our downward trek on a zigzag trail of slick stones, jumbled pebbles, twisty fissures and buckled rocks. I counted my footsteps -- 904 -- and remembered the guidebook's warning: One who goes down must trudge back up! I gawked at the two backpacking 20-somethings who, grinning, loped down past us in nimble leaps over pebbled ruts.

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