Before I go any further, I have to eat a little crow. The tone of my blog last week made it sound like I thought Spain was ugly and disappointing. By the time the week was over, I thought the area we were in was quite lovely (with the exception of the A7). I have a bad habit of seeing things in the negative when I’m new at something. A class, a group, first day on a trip. Any discomfort I feel translates into something wrong with the person, place, or thing. I left Paris in a state of exhaustion and overwhelm. I took it out on the Costa del Sol which had never done anything to me! So any Spain lovers out there, I apologize.
One reader wrote me to say that a reason that Spain and France are so different is that Spain was governed by the Moors for a very long time and historically Islam has had the greatest influence on Spain. Today, Islam is growing again, especially in younger people, and is the second largest religion after Catholicism. Whereas France, since the time of Charlemagne, has been the most Catholic country in the area we know as Europe until the 16th century when Protestantism began to appear. Even then, Protestantism flourished in Germany, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe, more so than in France. When one adds the weather and the proximity of the Mediterranean sea, it can be expected that the two countries will appear very different. That is what I saw and felt when I first arrived.
Andalusia, which includes the Costa del Sol, is the second largest of the eight communes of Spain. High in the mountains behind Marbella are a circle of villages known as the White Towns because of their white-washed walls and houses. On Thursday last week, we drove to Ronda, the largest and most popular of these towns. Although only 40 km from flat land to town, the road is so curvy through the National Park, that it takes over an hour to get there. Susan did the driving and I was the navigator. I had the help of my Apple map on my iPhone and a voice I called Fred. Fred is terrific. He gives plenty of warning when a turn is coming up or having to take an off-ramp. He even told us when we were approaching a radar for speed. We discussed all the radar and decided that, unlike the US, they were not out to trap us and make money, but trying to regulate traffic. Even so people whooshed by us at top speeds. We never saw much traffic anywhere except on the A7. Nor did we see any police or traffic cops deterring these drivers. Everything is being done on-line these days.
Ronda is famous for the bridge that traverses over a 380 foot ravine connecting the old town with the new as well as its cliff side location. It is the largest of the White Towns with a population of 35,000. From our one afternoon there, I’d say 34,950 live in the new town. There was a large and well-organized carpark where we left the car, and a lengthy pedestrian street from the carpark to Plaza de Toros de Ronda, the oldest bullring in Spain. “American artists Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles spent many summers in Ronda as part-time residents of Ronda’s old-town quarter called La Ciudad. Both wrote about Ronda’s beauty and famous bullfighting traditions. Their collective accounts have contributed to Ronda’s popularity over time.”-Wikipedia
We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the bridge and wondered how the it was built (I had visions of the movie, Ben Hur and the slaves pulling huge boulders to build Pyramids). Known as Puente Nuevo, it is the youngest of the three bridges that cross the river that separates the two parts of town. It was finished in 1793, 42 years after construction began. Looking over the cliff edge, one can see the Guadalevin river and the other two bridges much lower down. There is a large archeological site (around the city are prehistoric settlements dating to the Neolithic Age, including the rock paintings of Cueva de la Pileta) and Arab baths (dating from the 13th and 14th centuries), both requiring a walk down into the ravine and a walk back up. We chose to pass that up! Once past the bridge, it was quiet. Only tourists walking the town, learning about old Ronda. Even the touristy shops selling linen dresses, brand new tiles, and leather goods petered out as we moved deeper into the old town. Without a map from the Tourist Office, it would have been impossible to know what was what. The overall feeling was one of huge expanse in all directions from the top of a hill well fortified for just in case. We walked the length of the old town and back towards the bullring, the pedestrian street and to our car. We arrived ‘home’ at 7:30pm wanting nothing more than a quick salad and bed!
Susan and I decided that we should return to Estepona and find the old town and the narrow streets that the guidebooks gushed over. This time, I asked Fred to take us to the Centro Historico and he got us pretty close. We even found parking two blocks away. What made the old town so lovely was more than the narrow streets, there were flowers and plants everywhere. Pots hanging off walls, flower bushes on either side of doors, and large tall decorations of flowers on the shopping streets. There was also tile. Most entryways had the regular what I call ‘Mexican tiles’. Thoughtfully placed were smaller tiles of animals, angels, and symbols. I wanted to buy masses of the artisan tiles and bring them home with me but where would I put them in my rented apartment?
This part of Spain takes a siesta from 2:30pm-5:30pm–at least that is when all the stores close, even the small vegetable markets on the corners. Without people, old Estepona gave off a feeling of a Hollywood set, perfectly assembled and just waiting for some life to happen. It was an eery feeling. We didn’t have too far to walk when one of the streets opened up onto the Plaza des Flores. We found seats at a café and, along with a number of other tourists, had a drink before attempting the walk back to find our car.
One interesting fact: in the 1990s, the Walt Disney Corporation chose Estepona as the site for its EuroDisney project. However, Paris ended up with the installation.
As we walked, and I was walking with my head down, I was thinking about the fact that I had written that there was no town planning along this part of the Costa del Sol. At my feet were brown and grey stepping stones surrounded by smaller grey stones all placed in a pleasing pattern for the length of a block. The next block over would have a similar pattern. Clearly this town had given a lot of thought to planning. And the flowers and plants were all thriving. Most of Europe has suffered terrible heatwaves this summer. Someone was taking care, watering these plants. And those someones were probably paid by the city. I was far off base. Lesson learned.
I write this from Paris thinking back on the week. The absolute best part of the week was the rest I got. They say that mediterranean countries move slower and are more laid back. Perhaps the three of us caught the southern bug. We moved slowly, only went places we really wanted to see, and made simple dinners every evening. That felt like a luxury. And what a vacation is supposed to be.