When arriving late at night, it’s always worth the suspended joy of opening, like a present, the shutters the next morning. In comes the sun over a clear blue sky above these terracotta roofs of Ronda. With Ronda what’s so special is that it’s that rarity: a European city centre from which I could see the fields beyond. With the panorama from the Palacio Mondragon gardens over to Hoya de los Molinos, I relished the utter peace and quiet, the lemon trees and the contours of differing shades of brown and green, a patchwork of tilled fields, like an early Miro landscape or one by Ivor Hitchings. I could actually hear the bees hum and the dogs bark, see the swallows flit and hear the church bells toll, as the sound in the silence travelled steeply, and as the vaporising flowers gave off their aromatic fragrance beneath the heat.
The next day, and for something of a treat, I went to Bardal Restaurant (www.restaurantebardal.com), which gained its One Michelin Star with Chef Benito Gomez in November 2017 soon after opening. This mecca for gourmets has a thoroughly modern, pristine, neutral and zen interior. Every course comes as a surprise with its own theatrical presentation. The curtains have tassels, the waiters are almost military in their uniforms and the food is enhanced in grandeur by arriving in boxes. The local wines included ‘Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne’ champagne, ‘Fino del Puerto Lustau Single Cask’ sherry, ‘Attis Albarino Rias Baixas’ and ‘Chardonnay F. Schatz’. My ‘bouche’ was certainly amused.
Driving through the Old Town, over the bridge that spans the vertiginous gorge and past the famous bullring, I then took the short journey through to the verdant park of Grazalema Natural Park. It was full of cork tress, stripped of their bark to expose rich copper-coloured trunks and offer a visual beauty all of their own. Undulating mountain slopes, cork and olive plantations, oaks and fir trees. Whitewashed villages with window grilles and narrow cobbled alleys. This is Andalucia whose very name instantly conjures up an alluring sense of exoticism and adventure. For I had arrived at the Finca La Donaira (www.ladonaira.com) near to Montecorto.
The Finca is a haven for those attracted to walking, riding, hiking and wellness. It’s set high above the plains overlooking the Peñón de El Gastor, which lords over the sleepy village of the same name. In view are speckled plantations of olive trees and oaks generating many an acorn while white birds rest in harmony beside large Pajuna cattle.
Bought by an Austrian in 2004, it’s been a hotel since 2015, with April to September the busy time. There’s golden yellow sand in the forecourt in reference to the local arenas (interestingly from the Latin word for sand). The furniture comes from Lille and beyond the roaring fire and grand piano there are large panes of glass from which to view the changes in weather over the hills and valleys.
To eat I sat across a table of international clientele as the cook came over to tell us “what we were about to receive” from the amazing produce of the Biodynamic philosophy practiced with its Rudolf Steiner connection. There are vegetable gardens and fruit orchards, vineyards, olive trees and beehives. The farm produces much of its own organic wine, olive oil and honey.
At evening the pathways are lit to expose colorful lizards and the avenues of aromatic lavender. My yurt was truly a glamping experience as I practiced round space living furnished with a palatial bed, butterfly chairs and an imaginative set of windows each with gorgeous views.
The Finca is full of projects with a specialist dedicated to each. Seamus the horse whisperer attends to over seventy of the renown and imperial Lusitano breed glistening in their fully exercised glory. Andrew the vegetable gardener has planted what Peter Rabbit would have coveted, vivid plants in full health freed from insects lured away by interspersed colourful flowers. And Gerhard shared my delight in showing me round his medicinal herb garden. Here amongst the lychee tomato, earl grey and citrus bergamot, were the exotic names of hot lips sage (interestingly the same family as the chia seed), chewing gum plant and, ‘jambu’ the electric flower buzzing in the mouth like space dust. There are now ‘bee beds’ for meditation and future projects include more land to till for hay for the horses, beehives to rent and extract your own honey, and an expansion of the vegetable garden for deliveries.
I was lucky enough for my stay to coincide with an in-house flamenco performance. Flamenco comes from a hybrid of local folklore, gypsies and Muslim chants where the dancer and singer take the lead from the guitarist, like a pianist from a conductor.
I was ready and eager to be swept away by its dramatic flourish and thrilling beat. Goosebumps appeared on me straight from the ‘duende’, the magic and life force that was transmitting telepathically. The female dancer lost no time in getting fully immersed. Her arms were held aloft and her head thrown defiantly back. Then she curved her arms round her body, bent her elbow and hammered her heels remorselessly home into the floorboards. On such a small stage one false step and you’re either flat on your face or else in the audience. All part of the strident act of strutting and stamping from a proud carriage and intense demeanour. Across the Arts, it’s rare for women to have the space to express their emotional gamut: be it anger, hate, aggression, longing or desire. It commanded as well as demanded my attention.
For guidebooks I recommend Pallas Guides’ “Andalucia” by Michael Jacobs and The DK Eyewitness Travel Guide. More local walking detail is to be found in Cicerone’s “Walking the mountains of Ronda and Grazalema” by Guy Hunter-Watts.
As for getting into the local spirit, Google an image of El Jaleo, the large painting by John Singer Sargent in Boston, depicting a Spanish Gypsy dancer. Read “Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia” by Chris Stewart (the ex-Genesis drummer). Track down the video of Bizet’s Carmen starring Placido Domingo to see the Ronda bullring. Watch a Youtube rendering of ‘Solea De Córdoba’ by the top flamenco guitarist. Paco Peña. Listen to ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ the guitar concerto by Joaquín Rodrigo. As it summons up the landscape of wavy hills and crooked olive trees and, to my imagination, of being carried away on a horse on a humid, sultry evening to who knows where.
Luis Cernuda, the renown Spanish poet, said “If I was asked what single word sums up the thousand sensations, suggestions and possibilities that unite the radiant surface of Andalucia, I would say: happiness”. With the clearest of blue skies, fruits aplenty, a phenomenal historic cultural diversity, fabulous rural landscapes and an attitude of ‘mañana, mañana’ (‘tomorrow, tomorrow’) it’s hard to disagree.
Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the first BBC television series QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. He wrote The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.
Images by Lena Saugen, Laura & Braavo Photo.