Home travelSpain Spain travel diary: Ronda, the pueblos blancos, and El Rocío

Spain travel diary: Ronda, the pueblos blancos, and El Rocío

by Fizz
4 comments

September 2021

Puente Nuevo, Ronda

The Booking.com links in this post are affiliate links – click here for more information.

The super fun part about writing this post is that my phone absolutely gave up on everything sometime around October-ish (don’t ignore the “storage full” message, it will quite literally ruin your phone). I couldn’t salvage anything at all, and obviously it wasn’t backed up because that just wouldn’t make for a tragic enough story. So, all of these photos are downloaded from my own Instagram – I’m lucky I spam my account whenever I travel.

Ronda and Seville are two Instagram-favourite destinations that pop up on my phone constantly; that iconic photo of the Puente Nuevo – new bridge – has definitely been on my feed dozens of times, so it seemed like a logical place to resume my exploration of Spain. I was particularly excited because Andalusia, the southern region of Spain in which Ronda lies, is particularly known for its rich and very mixed history, and signs of its roman, Arabic and Catholic past can be seen almost everywhere (Visigothic too, although I didnt learn this until about six months later). Since returning to Seville recently, during the trip that prompted me to resurrect the blog, I’ve decided to dedicate a blog post to Seville itself, so this post will simply be a recount of my September trip, focusing specifically on Ronda and the other pueblos blancos I visited.

Booking.com

Getting there was easier by far than my 100+ mile bus and train trek in Italy. After flying into Málaga airport and spending the night in the Holiday Inn nearby, we had a few hours to kill the next morning, which were spent in Parque del Guadalhorce, a national park between two branches of the Guadalhorce river (fun fact: guadal comes from the Arabic word for river, and it crops up in a lot of river names in Spain). It’s an important stopover for migratory birds and so very popular with birdwatchers, but we also passed walkers, cyclists and sunbathers once we reached the beach. The bus between the city of Málaga and the airport, the A line, passes close by the entrance of the park, but we had no change, so it had to be a taxi to Málaga María Zambrano train station (it takes cards now, although that doesn’t necessarily go for other buses in the city).

From there, we went to Antequera-Santa Ana, a bizarre futuristic train station in what feels like the middle of nowhere. The town of Antequerra itself has an Alcazaba (fortress) and bullring, and apparently plenty more to do, but the station is far out, and standing on the platform surrounded by miles and miles of flat countryside felt surreal. Our next train took us to directly to Ronda, and from there we walked to our hotel.

Accommodation

Apartamentos Avanel in Ronda (afiliate link, for more information click here) are a series of beautiful small studio apartments close to the town centre and run by incredibly friendly staff who were happy to help us with any questions we had about getting around – and we had plenty. Our apartment seemed newly furnished, or at least in great condition, with lots of storage, a big bathroom, TV, and small cooking area with a stove and pans. From our window we had a lovely view over the terrace (with pool!) and beyond, and from there we could walk to the town centre in a few minutes.

Getting from Ronda to Sevilla took just one bus journey of about two and a half hours, so it was nicely late by the time we got to the city and I managed to navigate us to the other side of the city from where we needed to be. However, once we got our bearings and checked ourselves into Green Apartments Alto de Santa Cruz with a series of codes, we found a very comfy two-room apartment waiting for us, once again complete with a nice area to cook. This place also had a window overlooking the street and was close to the centre of the city, so you really felt the buzz of the city atmosphere. The walls were a bit thin though – if I spoke French, I’d know a lot about the people staying next door to us, as I could hear everything, down to cutlery scraping on their plates!

Use the map function below to find your perfect hotel in Andalusia, and click here to read about the other trips I’ve taken to the region.

Booking.com

Ronda

Ronda bullring

There’s much more to do in Ronda than just see the bridge, although setting aside a good amount of time for sightseeing is a must. There are also two other bridges, Puente Viejo and Puente Arabe (also known as the Roman Bridge because, like apparently everything in the region, it’s thought to have been built on the site of an earlier Roman construction). The town itself is a very cosy showcase of the typical pueblos blancos of Andalusia, with no end of cute cafes, eateries and ice cream shops, all set atop the El Tajo gorge which makes for incredible views. My personal highlight was probably visiting the bullring. I don’t think I’m a huge fan of bullfights themselves, but Ronda is apparently known as the home of modern bullfighting, so it seemed worth a visit. And indeed, seeing the empty ring as a tourist attraction was super interesting from a cultural and historical perspective. Entering the ring by the same door as bulls themselves, into blazing sun reflecting off the sand really dazzled me, and you can walk through the maze behind the scenes where the animals are held, with a series of ropes and pulleys operating the horn-scratched doors. The visit includes an exhibition about the history of bullfighting, featuring artefacts such as old lances and the trajes de luces worn by matadores. I knew that the fighters are held in high esteem in Spain, but I wasn’t aware that the honour of bullfighting often continues through families, leading to some names gathering respect from everyone involved in the sport. I found it particularly interesting to look at the posters advertising fights, and how their style had changed through the years. The old Arab baths are also an attraction, although sadly closed when we were there, and although I didn’t visit any myself, there are also plenty of museums.

One of the most fun parts of travelling is finding little curiosities as you go, although the chapel built onto the side of a building on the road of our hotel was less curious and more creepy (pictured above). Despite plenty of googling at the time, I couldn’t find much information beyond detailed descriptions of it, BUT upon reading the WIkipedia page for this post, I’ve discovered its macabre origins. It’s called El Templete de los Ahorcados, which kind of translates to the temple of the hanged, or it can also go by Templete de la Virgen de los Dolores (which also gives the street its name). Apparently, it is where people sentenced to death prayed before their execution, and thats why the disturbing bird-man figure things have ropes around their necks. Yummyyy. Read about it here and here. All in all, it had a strangely eerie vibe even in the middle of a scorching day, and generally felt more cursed than sacred.

Another fun curiosity from Ronda was our discovery and love of Payoyo cheese – think Manchego but better! It was a common feature on all menus there and you bet we had a few slices as a tapa whenever we could. We’d meant to buy some before leaving, but weren’t too worried when we forgot, thinking that we’d be able to find some in Seville. Nope. Apparently it really is that specific to the region.

Setenil de las Bodegas

The lovely thing about Spain, in my opinion, is that it’s relatively easy to find buses to most places, making day trips fairly easy even if you don’t have a car – I’m fairly certain my town has a much greater population, but the public transport links pale in comparison. Granted, we wouldn’t shy away from multiple buses and trains if that’s what the journey required, but actually all the towns we visited on this trip were directly linked by bus to either Seville or Ronda. Just be careful with your bookings; we’ve had buses leave 15 minutes before the departure time on the ticket, and it’s almost guaranteed that if you’re at a larger bus station, the bus you want won’t be in the right stand. The locals can’t seem to get it right either though, so I don’t think I’m missing anything obvious! Definitely a good idea to get verbal confirmation from someone who knows what they’re doing (staff member, preferably) that you’re waiting in the right place, and be poised with your bags ready to run from stand 4 to 24, just in case. We bought tickets both online and in person; Omio and Trainline are useful for those longer journeys between cities, but to get out to the pueblos blancos we sometimes had to go to the bus station and ask someone in the ticket office. That could be problematic at times as they often didn’t open before 9-10am or on weekends, so buying tickets for the first bus on the same day was tricky.

Setenil is another one of those pueblos blancos that makes its way to Instagram all the time (or maybe I follow too many Spain travel pages). It’s famous for its white buildings built into the rockface, some so deeply that the whole street becomes a tunnel. Of course it was occupied by the Romans and then the Arabs (are you noticing a pattern?) but potentially much, much earlier too, as there’s evidence of several other ancient cave-dwelling communities in the area. It’s situated around 13 miles from Ronda, so the bus took between 30-45 minutes.

We visited on a swealteringly hot day – the thermometer in the town said 37 degrees – and the air was either sickly still or really gusty. Being quite literally in the mountains, there are a lot of steep streets, so all in all it was a sweaty day. When we got there, it was tourists galore. It’s the sort of place where the thought of driving even the tiniest of cars would make your heart pound – and I learned to drive in the Yorkshire countryside. The main attraction is quite literally two tiny streets encased in rock, so you can imagine it was very cramped. But, entirely worth it. More than just photo opportunities, the rock provided welcome relief from the sun and a place to rest your legs and refresh yourself in one of the cafes.

Supposedly, it took seven attempts for the Christians to capture the town of Setenil, and it is said that the name is derived from the Latin phrase “septem nihil” – seven times nothing. On top of the hill are the ruins of the old castle, which was captured after fifteen days of assault in 1484, only eight years before the end of the reconquest.

You can spend the day there simply exploring and relaxing. Right at the top of the hill is the church, and another chapel, and down below are more streets of caves, with some houses falling into disrepair so that you can see inside, into what are quite literally caves with brick facades. We managed to miss a little street with a sign saying Bésame En Este Rincón(“kiss me in this corner), which is, I guess, a nice photo opportunity?

El Gastor

A day trip to El Gastor, also known as the Balcony of the White Villages, was incredibly easy, even if the bus driver seemed perplexed as to why we’d want to go. And I can understand that it’s maybe a little way off the beaten track and not made for tourists, but that made it all the better to visit (the Wikipedia page lists the population demographics and that’s it). It’s a really beautiful small town, which was incredibly quiet compared to the touristic buzz of Ronda and Setenil, but still lively and friendly. Attractions include the Giant’s Dolmen and watersports on Lake Grazelama, but we skipped these in favour of a nice juicy hike. The central square had a couple of cafes and so was full of seating, and the streets were decked out with flowers in gorgeous blue plant pots. We stopped for tostada – of course – in one of those cafes, then found a tiny shop to buy provisions for the day, before heading up one of the walking paths to complete a walk that closely, if not completely, resembles the Las Grajas – Lagarín route online. We decided on the route after consulting an information board detailing all the walks available, and decided that this one was possible in time to catch the bus home. It meant we hiked up the mountain rather than across to the lake, and I’m glad we did, as I think the walk was really rewarding!

It was an incline from the beginning, starting with a paved road leading up and out of the town and developing into a small path through dry, brown woodland. We passed many viewpoints along the way, each time providing a more distant view of tiny white houses, until we reached a point where we could see the turquoise water of the Zahara reservoir. I wasn’t expecting what turned into a near scramble to get to the very top of our climb, leveling out into a basin at the top of this 900m peak, in which we sat munching on chocolate chip cookies, under the watchful eye of the vultures soaring – very closely – around us. It’s such a shame I don’t have any photos from the top, but to be fair, my pride at completing the climb might colour my memory of the views!

Seville

After four days in the lovely town of Ronda and a couple of well-chosen day trips, it was time to wave goodbye to our lovely apartment and make our journey to Seville, the capital of the Andalusia region and home to dozens and dozens of attractions. The huge cathedral, which I didn’t get to explore during this trip, is the focal point of the city, with winding streets radiating outwards from there, filled with trendy boutiques and high-end restaurants. It’s a lot pricier than other locations in the region, being the glistening, glittering, international and domestic travel destination that it is. We stayed in Green Apartments (affiliate link), which was something of a comedown after the modern luxury of our Ronda apartment, but arguably very good value for money. It still boasted a TV, couch, kitchenette, and views over the street below. Check in was contactless, meaning that we didn’t have to hide our tired, sweaty, bad moods from any undeserving staff as we traipsed up to our room.

We first explored the south of the city, which was developed into a huge area of beautiful gardens for the 1929 Ibero-American expo. Within the park – named Parque de María Luisa – is located the Plaza de España, the iconic semi-circular building that so many people recognise. Discovering every detail of both the plaza and the park, in intense summer heat and surrounded by other tourists (and plenty of horse-drawn carriages!) took us most of the day, but it was worth taking our time (see the bottom of the post for an image gallery).

Seville Cathedral

We also wandered to another popular attraction in the city, Las Setas de Sevilla (literally “the mushrooms”), the name for a huge wooden grid structure errected in the old quarter of the city. It seemed to take ages to walk there, and felt like we’d strayed miles out of the historic centre into a more modern part of the city, but, looking back, that was because we walked to a lab first, so I could take a Covid test for my return to England! That, of course, took us away from the more touristic area and changed my perception of where Las Setas are, when in reality they’re incredibly close to the centre. The views from the top are amazing, as you can see across the city in all directions. A sign tells you what landmarks you can see, but we spotted two towers and some arch-looking things in the distance and couldn’t figure out what they were. They weren’t on the board, nor did maps show anything if I pointed my phone in that direction and poked around a little bit. I did eventually find out what they were, but months later, on my second visit to the city. So sorry for the cliffhanger, but all will be revealed in a separate post!

El Rocío

The plan for our final day in the city was to book onto a tour which would take us from Sevilla to Doñana national park – a huge expanse of protected land within three provinces, home to a wide variety of species, and its fair share of human history. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get spaces on a tour, but, not wanting to give up, we eventually found a bus route that would take us to the town of El Rocío, the only part of the park we could get to without a guide. We hopped off the bus, leaving behind the other tourists with their beach bags on the way to Matalascañas, and were immediately transported to the scene of some Western movie. The road into the town, a wide, straight, sandy path, was lined with identical low houses on either side, all with wooden horse tethers, and the bus stop was a nondescript white hut. Directly opposite us was a bakery, appearing out of place in the dusty street, but welcome nonetheless. We bought some lunch, stocked up on things to drink, and started wandering down the road, passing groups of people drinking on white plastic chairs on the terraces outside houses; whether they were local bars or private houses I have no idea. Apart from that, we didn’t see many people, and the ones we did see stared. We definitely did stick out like sore thumbs, two confused tourists in hiking gear, probably already starting to turn pink from the sheer anticipation of the sun exposure! The centre of town is a huge square, so very Spanish in one sense and yet unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was a large expanse of sandy ground, with one huge church and a row of cafes on one side, and a large, flat, dry plain on the other side. This is where we’d expected to see water, and birds, not brown grass and tons of horses: in the heat of the summer, thanks to drought and illegal boreholes, everything was dry.

After shocking the lady in the tourist information centre by revealing that we didn’t have a car, we managed to find out how to reach the only hike we could get to by foot, and set off in the direction of another information centre further out of town, where we’d join the trail. Here, there were tall pine trees, wooden boardwalks and even the occasional person, with the trees offering welcome shade and a more familiar terrain than the dazzling sand. After stopping briefly in a small building, housing a tiny exhibition about the town’s history, we set off along the wooden path. At various intervals we encountered birdwatching shelters, and ducked into each one for a view of yet more flat plains. At one point, an otter surprised us by ambling out of the bushes and across the plain, evidently in no hurry and, most surprisingly, with water gleaming in its fur. Having convinced ourselves that we’d stepped into a desert, this shocked us! Our walk was mostly shaded by trees, save for a stretch that was very exposed and had us briskly walking to the shade of the next tree and spending as much time as possible in that shadow before moving on.

Returning to the town in plenty of time to catch the bus back to Seville, we stopped in one of the cafes for a much needed refreshment, and tried to comprehend the bizarre day we’d had. Then we traipsed to the bus stop, that same small, white hut where we disembarked the bus a few hours earlier, and waited.

And waited.

And just as we were starting to panic just a little bit, and I was finding a local taxi service to take us to the nearest train station 14km away, the bus pulled into the sandy road, and with it, air conditioning, and tired tourists on their way back from the beach.

I’ll admit, although I loved being off the beaten track, I was somewhat relieved to leave the town. I found it hard to be under the glare of the sun all day in what felt like such a barren and isolated place, and the call of the wildlife just wasn’t strong enough for me to be sorry about heading back to the city! Little did I know I’d find myself back in the very same town, walking the very same trail and ducking into the very same shelters along the way, just six months later.

But that’s for the next post!

As promised – a gallery of the Plaza de España

Useful websites:

www.andalucia.com

www.andalucia.org

www.lonelyplanet.com/spain/andalucia

You may also like

4 comments

Nic | Nic's Adventures 01/05/2022 - 10:32

Thanks for sharing your diary of your trip, I went to visit some of this area when I was a child, so it has some memories 🙂

Reply
Fizz 27/07/2022 - 19:55

Thank you for reading! I’m glad it was a little bit nostalgic for you

Reply
Andalusian Road Trip: Malaga – On The Fly 19/07/2022 - 21:42

[…] tour of some of the major sights in Andalusia, the southern region of Spain and location of my last spanish trip. There’s just so much to see and do there that you could spend months visiting every city, […]

Reply
My travel bucket list – On The Fly 05/12/2022 - 23:27

[…] […]

Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.