Monday, August 22, 2016

Lost in Spain: episode 4

EPISODE 4: Veni, vidi, vici...

El Toro charges through the wooden gate and into the ring, locking his front legs and skidding five-hundred kilograms of black brawn to a halt in the yellow sand. He snorts, tossing his head side to side, and careers at a pink and gold cape waving on the far side of the ring. The torero ducks behind a barrier. A second cape waves from across the arena. Careening away, the bull speeds from one fluttering capote to another as each appears, distracts and vanishes. Until he sees the horse. He stops, turns and slams his horns into the horse's side.

• • •

Even the vivid vicissitudes of getting here can't thwart me. I have arrived.

The town bakes under the dry heat and bright light of a late Andalusian summer. Visitors in straw summer hats and short-sleeved shirts have crowded festive streets strung with a canopy of paper balls coloured yellow, red, blue and green. Local young ladies are wearing colourful, ruffled dresses and baubled silk mantillas draped from tall peinetas in their hair. They flit fans at fine-looking riders with round-rimmed hats on horseback. Everywhere there is celebration, vitality, a real fiesta, with strains of laughter and flamenco in the streets.

After a few incredulous phone calls by the hotel receptionist, I have been directed down the packed Calle Molino to a hotel in La Ciudad that has had, to my great fortune, a cancellation. I triumphantly pocket the keys from the rental car and clap my hand on a horse's flank in jubilance.

Ronda's old town of La Ciudad is connected to the newer cliff-top quarter of El Mercadillo by the spectacular arched Puente Nuevo. Towering above the Guadalevín River over a hundred metres below, this “New Bridge” was completed in 1793, superseding the old one further down the Tajo gorge.

In the Spanish Civil War, an inegressible chamber embedded inside the bridge's central arch was used to hold political prisoners. It is still there. Antonio Ordóñez's good friend Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Ronda part-time, wrote in For Whom The Bell Tolls of Nationalist sympathisers being thrown by Republicans from the cliffs of an Andalusian village. It is supposedly a factual account.

Ronda has a bloody history. It was forged in war, founded by the Roman general Scipio Africanus as an outpost to fight Rome's arch-foe, Hannibal of Carthage. Ever since, it has swung between life and death. Conquered by the Suebi in the fifth century and reconquered by the Byzantine Empire in the sixth, it was sacked by Visigoths and traded between warring tribes of Islamic Moors for the next five hundred years. In 1485 it was subjugated by the reconquista of the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel. In 1808 Napoleon cut the population down to a third when, with guerilla tactics, the Rondeños resisted his invasion.

This weekend's population would have dwarfed Napoleon's entire army. Ronda has swelled a hundred-fold. The streets are closed to traffic just to fit them all. I check into my hotel, toss my backpack on the bed and go searching—without a clue how—for a scarce ticket to the bullfight.

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