On the edge
Geology, wars, and history shaped and connect the White Towns
A road through the Ronda and Grazalema mountains in southern Spain; the belltower in Arcos de la Frontera's main square. (PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE )
RONDA - Every road in Spain has a story, and the winding paths through the Ronda and Grazalema mountains have some of the best.
Even the landscape has the look of legend: an outsized crumple of planetary crust in Andalucía where Europe and Africa last danced the tectonic bump. One mountain ridge rises behind another, and the whitewashed villages cling to the rough security of their peaks. For 2,000 years these mountains were the realm of warlords and highwaymen, the frontier in the epic struggle between Moors and Christians, and a rare stronghold of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The countryside is far less troubled now - the scariest part of the 75-mile drive from Ronda west to Arcos de la Frontera is that the mountain roads often appear to lead right over the edge of a cliff.
The largest of the White Towns, Ronda, both introduces that sense of vertigo and encapsulates the region's history and geography. The city literally lives on the edge, perched high on a limestone cliff dramatically divided by a river gorge. On one side, the narrow medieval streets of the old town curlicue around the massif. On the other, a high plateau supports "modern" (that is, post-1500) Ronda. During the Civil War, Republicans lined up Franco supporters on the edge of the cliff and offered them a choice: Jump or be shot. They all chose bullets.
Of the three bridges linking Ronda, the most dramatic is the New Bridge at the lip of the gorge, 400 feet above the river. ("New" is relative; it was authorized in 1542 and completed in 1793.) What is new is the Interpretation Center, located on the underbelly of the bridge. The small chambers rumble with every vehicle passing overhead and echo with shrieks of mock terror from children looking out the windows at the escarpment and dizzying gorge. The excellent displays - anything is hard-pressed to compete with the view - explain the engineering advancements that made the bridge possible.
Ronda's signature architecture, however, is its bullring, legendary in the annals of bullfighting. Tours let visitors into the horse stalls and bullpens and out into the central arena. Boys and men paw at the sand with their running shoes, mimicking both bull and matador, perhaps channeling local hero Pedro Romero, who killed more than 5,000 bulls before expiring himself (of old age) in 1839. But those Monday-morning matadors never truly confront what the ring's museum highlights as "the oscillation between luck and death."
The Moors long ago set the domestic style for Ronda. No bigger than a suburban McMansion, the Mondragón Palace sits in the side of the hill above the gorge. Built around 1314 as a modest noble home in the style of Granada's more bombastic Alhambra, it was the residence of Moorish governors until 1485. (Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel seized Ronda that year in their long march on Granada that ended in 1492.) Still the seat of city government, the palace is filled with galleries touting local history, ethnography, and environment. But Rondeños love it for other reasons: Brides and grooms pose for wedding pictures against backdrops of the tiled walls, carved ceilings, fountains, and gardens.
The serenity and security of Ronda once stood in contrast to the lawless hills around it. With hokey dioramas, yellowing newspaper clippings, old guns, and garish dime novels and comic books, the Bandolero Museum invokes the brigands who roamed the hills from Roman times into the early 20th century. By the 1880s, many had become folk heroes with such colorful names as Longshanks, Twisted Head, and the horse thief and stick-up artist, El Tempranillo (A Little Early). Without sensationalizing the thugs, the museum delineates the desperate poverty that led men to crime, and lauds the Guardia Civil, created in 1844 to clean up the mountains.
Spain's daredevil drivers seem to channel the reckless spirit of the bandits along the mountain roads. On a "highway" as twisting as a heap of twine, we found ourselves tailgated by a BMW whose driver held a cellphone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He finally passed on a blind curve. Fortunately, one of the buzzing motorcyclists leaning almost horizontal into a turn wasn't coming the other way.
For those of us with a greater inclination toward self-preservation the driving is slow, but not harrowing. The villages scattered along the route make welcome breaks - otherwise the driver never sees the scenery. Tiny Algodonales, about 20 miles from Ronda, was discovered more than a decade ago by a new breed of daredevils who made it Spain's capital of paragliding. "Flying is very friendly here and the countryside is lovely," explained Rob Mansley, an instructor with Fly Spain. "The village is very friendly - the only foreigners in town are our pilots. The villagers are entertained that we come here to fly."
We're surprised that the gliders don't try to launch from the "castle" at the top of Zahara de la Sierra, only 16 miles away. The stone tower stands 1,984 feet above sea level, the highest man-made object in the mountains. One of the best-preserved frontier forts of the 13th century, it repeatedly changed hands between Muslim and Spanish rulers. A graded track ascends the hill from the village in a gradual zigzag pattern. The massive iron door is usually closed but not locked, and a climb up stone stairs to the ramparts explains instantly why the fort was built: You could see the enemy coming for miles in any direction.
The 10-mile drive south from Zahara to Grazalema might be the most dramatic stretch in these mountains. The road climbs for five miles from parched Zahara (an artificial lake at its base supplies its water) to the "Pass of the Doves," as the 4,450-foot-high mountain pass is called. Then it's all precipitously downhill to Grazalema, which nestles in a valley at an altitude of 2,660 feet. The town is Spain's wettest, receiving about 85 inches of rainfall a year.
While Zahara was built around 800 AD as a military site, Grazalema was settled about the same time by peace-loving Berbers from northern Morocco. They never fortified their town, so warring armies simply bypassed it and the Grazalemans went about their business of growing crops and tending flocks, flourishing while other towns were toppled and pillaged. Since the creation of the Grazalema Mountains Natural Park, the community is the chief staging ground for mountain hikers, especially those bound for the high-altitude preserve of Abies pinsapo, an Ice Age fir tree once thought extinct. Grazalema is also full of weavers, potters, painters, and jewelers - and bars and restaurants with outdoor plaza seating for kicking back after a gnarly day on the trails.
The first 10 miles west of Grazalema snake through the deep forests of the national park. Then the road suddenly breaks into sunshine for a railroad-straight 20-mile sprint to Arcos de la Frontera, a city whose name recalls that it was once the borderland between Christian and Muslim Spain. Like other White Towns, Arcos from a distance looks as though a giant bucket of whitewash was sloshed over a mountaintop, and like the others, the streets to the top are narrow and difficult. But the old quarter around the summit is the heart of Arcos.
What invaders could never destroy, nature did. In 1755 the Lisbon earthquake toppled most of the city, leaving the Arcos cork and wine merchants to rebuild with stately neoclassical palaces crammed onto a medieval street plan of donkey alleys. Incautious drivers often discover the hard way just how tight the streets are. Shopkeepers rush out to help motorists negotiate the corners without leaving a swath of automotive paint on the building.
For all that, Arcos is a city of respite for travelers, a place to partake of interior patios cool with shade and bright with flowers. It is a place to watch swallows dart along the mountain wall at dusk, a place to marvel over the coats of arms over every doorway (King Alfonso X knighted all the inhabitants when they sided with him in 1264), a place called "the city of poets" for its sheer lyrical beauty. It is the end of the road in the White Towns, and thus the end of a story. Below it stretch the fertile plains of Jerez, with another road, another tale.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon are coauthors with Peter Stone of the forthcoming "Pauline Frommer's Spain." They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.