Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

The Surprises of Ronda

The rain that pelted sharply into the puddle before the station at Granada was snow on the Sierra, and the snow that fell farther and farther down the mountainsides resolved itself over the Vega into a fog as white and almost as cold. Half-way across the storied and fabled plain the rain stopped and the fog lifted, and then we saw by day, as we had already seen by night, how the Vega was plentifully dotted with white cottages amid breadths of wheat-land where the peasants were plowing. Here and there were fields of Indian corn, and in a certain place there was a small vineyard; in one of the middle distances there spread a forest of Lombardy poplars, yellow as gold, and there was abundance of this autumn coloring in the landscape, which grew lonelier as we began to mount from the level. Olives, of course, abounded, and there were oak woods and clumps of wild cherry trees. The towns were far from the stations, which we reached at the rate of perhaps two miles an hour as we approached the top of the hills; and we might have got out and walked without fear of being left behind by our train, which made long stops, as if to get its breath for another climb. Before this the sole companion of our journey, whom we decided to be a landed proprietor coming out in his riding-gear to inspect his possessions, had left us, but at the first station after our descent began other passengers got in, with a captain of Civil Guards among them, very loquacious and very courteous, and much deferred to by the rest of us. At Bobadilla, where again we had tea with hot goat’s milk in it, we changed cars, and from that on we had the company of a Rock–Scorpion pair whose name was beautifully Italian and whose speech was beautifully English, as the speech of those born at Gibraltar should rightfully be.


It was quite dark at Ronda when our omnibus drove into the gardened grounds of one of those admirable inns which an English company is building in Spain, and put us down at the door of the office, where a typical English manageress and her assistant appointed us pleasant rooms and had fires kindled in them while we dined. There were already fires in the pleasant reading-room, which did not diffuse a heat too great for health but imparted to the eye a sense of warmth such as we had experienced nowhere else in Spain. Over all was spread a quiet and quieting British influence; outside of the office the nature of the service was Spanish, but the character of it was English; the Spanish waiters spoke English, and they looked English in dress and manner; superficially the chambermaid was as English as one could have found her in the United Kingdom, but at heart you could see she was as absolutely and instinctively a Spanish camerera as any in a hotel of Madrid or Seville. In the atmosphere of insularity the few Spanish guests were scarcely distinguishable from Anglo–Saxons, though a group of magnificent girls at a middle table, quelled by the duenna-like correctness of their mother, looked with their exaggerated hair and eyes like Spanish ladies made up for English parts in a play.

We had our breakfast in the reading-room where all the rest were breakfasting and trying not to see that they were keeping one another from the fire. It was very cold, for Ronda is high in the mountains which hem it round and tower far above it. We had already had our first glimpse of their summits from our own windows, but it was from the terrace outside the reading-room that we felt their grandeur most after we had drunk our coffee: we could scarcely have borne it before. In their presence, we could not realize at once that Ronda itself was a mountain, a mere mighty mass of rock, cleft in twain, with chasmal depths where we saw pygmy men and mules creeping out upon the valley that stretched upward to the foot of the Sierra. Why there should ever have been a town built there in the prehistoric beginning, except that the rock was so impossible to take, and why it should have therefore been taken by that series of invaders who pervaded all Spain — by the Phoenicians, by the Carthaginians, by the Romans, by the Goths, by the Moors, by the Christians, and after many centuries by the French, and finally by the Spaniards again — it would not be easy to say. Among its many conquerors, the Moors left their impress upon it, though here as often as elsewhere in Spain their impress is sometimes merely a decoration of earlier Roman work. There remains a Roman bridge which the Moors did not make over into the likeness of their architecture, but built a bridge of their own which also remains and may be seen from the magnificent structure with which the Spaniards have arched the abyss where the river rushes writhing and foaming through the gorge three hundred feet below. There on the steps that lead from the brink, the eye of pity may still see the files of Christian captives bringing water up to their Moslem masters; but as one cannot help them now, even by the wildest throe, it is as well to give a vain regret to the architect of the Spanish bridge, who fell to his death from its parapet, and then push on to the market hard by.


You have probably come to see that market because you have read in your guide-books that the region round about Ronda is one of the richest in Spain for grapes and peaches and medlars and melons and other fruits whose names melt in the mouth. If you do not find in the market the abundance you expect of its picturesqueness you must blame the lateness of the season, and go visit the bull-ring, one of the most famous in the world, for Ronda is not less noted for its toreros and aficionados than for its vineyards and orchards. But here again the season will have been before you with the glory of those corridas which you have still hoped not to witness but to turn from as an example to the natives before the first horse is disemboweled or the first bull slain, or even the first banderillero tossed over the barrier.

The bull-ring seemed fast shut to the public when we approached it, but we found ourselves smilingly welcomed to the interior by the kindly mother in charge. She made us free of the whole vast place, where eight thousand people could witness in perfect comfort the dying agonies of beasts and men, but especially she showed us the chamber over the gate, full of bullfighting properties: the pikes, the little barbed pennons, the long sword by which the bull suffers and dies, as well as the cumbrous saddles and bridles and spears for the unhappy horses and their riders. She was especially compassionate of the horses, and she had apparently no pleasure in any of the cruel things, though she was not critical of the sport. The King of Spain is president of the Ronda bull-fighting association, and she took us into the royal box, which is the worthier to be seen because under it the bulls are shunted and shouted into the ring from the pen where they have been kept in the dark. Before we escaped her husband sold us some very vivid postal cards representing the sport; so that with the help of a large black cat holding the center of the ring, we felt that we had seen as much of a bull-fight as we could reasonably wish.

We were seeing the wonders of the city in the guidance of a charming boy whom we had found in wait for us at the gate of the hotel garden when we came out. He offered his services in the best English he had, and he had enough of it to match my Spanish word for word throughout the morning. He led us from the bull-ring to the church known to few visitors, I believe, where the last male descendant of Montezuma lies entombed, under a fit inscription, and then through the Plaza past the college of Montezuma, probably named for this heir of the Aztec empire. I do not know why the poor prince should have come to die in Ronda, but there are many things in Ronda which I could not explain: especially why a certain fruit is sold by an old woman on the bridge. Its berries are threaded on a straw and look like the most luscious strawberries but taste like turpentine, though they may be avoided under the name of madrones. But on no account would I have the reader avoid the Church of Santa Maria Mayor. It is so dark within that he will not see the finely carved choir seats without the help of matches, or the pictures at all; but it is worth realizing, as one presently may, that the hither part of the church is a tolerably perfect mosque of Moorish architecture, through which you must pass to the Renaissance temple of the Christian faith.

Near by is the Casa de Mondragon which he should as little miss if he has any pleasure in houses with two patios perching on the gardened brink of a precipice and overlooking one of the most beautiful valleys in the whole world, with donkey-trains climbing up from it over the face of the cliff. The garden is as charming as red geraniums and blue cabbages can make a garden, and the house is fascinatingly quaint and unutterably Spanish, with the inner patio furnished in bright-colored cushions and wicker chairs, and looked into by a brown wooden gallery. A stately lemon-colored elderly woman followed us silently about, and the whole place was pervaded by a smell that was impossible at the time and now seems incredible.


I here hesitate before a little adventure which I would not make too much of nor yet minify: it seems to me so gentle and winning. I had long meant to buy a donkey, and I thought I could make no fitter beginning to this end than by buying a donkey’s head-stall in the country where donkeys are more respected and more brilliantly accoutred than anywhere else in the whole earth. When I ventured to suggest my notion, or call it dream, to our young guide, he instantly imagined it in its full beauty, and he led us directly to a shop in the principal street which for the richness and variety of the coloring in its display might have been a florist’s shop. Donkeys’ trappings in brilliant yellow, vermillion, and magenta hung from the walls, and head-stalls, gorgeously woven and embroidered, dangled from the roof. Among them and under them the donkeys’ harness-maker sat at his work, a short, brown, handsome man with eyes that seemed the more prominent because of his close-shaven head. We chose a headstall of such splendor that no heart could have resisted it, and while he sewed to it the twine muzzle which Spanish donkeys wear on their noses for the protection of the public, our guide expatiated upon us, and said, among other things to our credit, that we were from America and were going to take the head-stall back with us.

The harness-maker lifted his head alertly. “Where, in America?” and we answered for ourselves, “From New York.”

Then the harness-maker rose and went to an inner doorway and called through it something that brought out a comely, motherly woman as alert as himself. She verified our statement for herself, and having paved the way firmly for her next question she asked, “Do you know the Escuela Mann?”

As well as our surprise would let us, we said that we knew the Mann School, both where and what it was.

She waited with a sort of rapturous patience before saying, “My son, our eldest son, was educated at the Escuela Mann, to be a teacher, and now he is a professor in the Commercial College in Puerto Rico.”

If our joint interest in this did not satisfy her expectation I for my part can never forgive myself; certainly I tried to put as much passion into my interest as I could, when she added that his education at the Escuela Mann was without cost to him. By this time, in fact, I was so proud of the Escuela Mann that I could not forbear proclaiming that a member of my own family, no less than the father of the grandson for whose potential donkey I was buying that headstall, was one of the architects of the Escuela Mann building.

She now vanished within, and when she came out she brought her daughter, a gentle young girl who sat down and smiled upon us through the rest of the interview. She brought also an armful of books, the Spanish–English Ollendorff which her son had used in studying our language, his dictionary, and the copy-book where he had written his exercises, with two photographs of him, not yet too Americanized; and she showed us not only how correctly but how beautifully his exercises were done. If I did not admire these enough, again I cannot forgive myself, but she seemed satisfied with what I did, and she talked on about him, not too loquaciously, but lovingly and lovably as a mother should, and proudly as the mother of such a boy should, though without vainglory; I have forgotten to say that she had a certain distinction of face, and was appropriately dressed in black. By this time we felt that a head-stall for such a donkey as I was going to buy was not enough to get of such people, and I added a piece of embroidered leather such as goes in Spain on the front of a donkey’s saddle; if we could not use it so, in final defect of the donkey, we could put it on a veranda chair. The saddler gave it at so low a price that we perceived he must have tacitly abated something from the visual demand, and when we did not try to beat him down, his wife went again into that inner room and came out with an iron-holder of scarlet flannel backed with canvas, and fringed with magenta, and richly inwrought with a Moorish design, in white, yellow, green, and purple. I say Moorish, because one must say something, but if it was a pattern of her own invention the gift was the more precious when she bestowed it on the sister of one of the architects of the Escuela Mann. That led to more conversation about the Escuela Mann, and about the graduate of it who was now a professor in Puerto Rico, and we all grew such friends, and so proud of one another, and of the country so wide open to the talents without cost to them, that when I asked her if she would not sometime be going to America, her husband answered almost fiercely in his determination, “I am going when I have learned English!” and to prove that this was no idle boast, he pronounced some words of our language at random, but very well. We parted in a glow of reciprocal esteem and I still think of that quarter-hour as one of my happiest; and whatever others may say, I say that to have done such a favor to one Spanish family as the Escuela Mann had been the means of our nation doing this one was a greater thing than to have taken Cuba from Spain and bought the Philippines when we had seized them already and had led the Filipinos to believe that we meant to give their islands to them.


Suddenly, on the way home to our very English hotel, the air of Ronda seemed charged with English. We were already used to the English of our young guide, which so far as it went, went firmly and courageously after forethought and reflection for each sentence, but we were not quite prepared for the English of two polite youths who lifted their hats as they passed us and said, “Good afternoon.” The general English lasted quite overnight and far into the next day when we found several natives prepared to try it on us in the pretty Alameda, and learned from one, who proved to be the teacher of it in the public school, that there were some twenty boys studying it there: heaven knows why, but the English hotel and its success may have suggested it to them as a means of prosperity. The students seem each prepared to guide strangers through Ronda, but sometimes they fail of strangers. That was the case with the pathetic young hunchback whom we met in Alameda, and who owned that he had guided none that day. In view of this and as a prophylactic against a course of bad luck, I made so bold as to ask if I might venture to repair the loss of the peseta which he would otherwise have earned. He smiled wanly, and then with the countenance of the teacher, he submitted and thanked me in English which I can cordially recommend to strangers knowing no Spanish.


All this was at the end of another morning when we had set out with the purpose of seeing the rest of Ronda for ourselves. We chose a back street parallel to the great thoroughfare leading to the new bridge, and of a squalor which we might have imagined but had not. The dwellers in the decent-looking houses did not seem to mind the sights and scents of their street, but these revolted us, and we made haste out of it into the avenue where the greater world of Ronda was strolling or standing about, but preferably standing about. In the midst of it, at the entrance of the new bridge we heard ourselves civilly saluted and recognized with some hesitation the donkey’s harness-maker who, in his Sunday dress and with his hat on, was not just the work-day presence we knew. He held by the hand a pretty boy of eleven years, whom he introduced as his second son, self-destined to follow the elder brother to America, and duly take up the profession of teaching in Puerto Rico after experiencing the advantages of the Escuela Mann. His father said that he already knew some English, and he proposed that the boy should go about with us and practise it, and after polite demur and insistence the child came with us, to our great pleasure. He bore himself with fit gravity, in his cap and long linen pinafore as he went before us, and we were personally proud of his fine, long face and his serious eyes, dark and darkened yet more by their long lashes. He knew the way to just such a book store as we wanted, where the lady behind the desk knew him and willingly promised to get me some books in the Andalusian dialect, and send them to our hotel by him at half past twelve. Naturally she did not do so, but he came to report her failure to get them. We had offered to pay him for his trouble, but he forbade us, and when we had overcome his scruple he brought the money back, and we had our trouble over again to make him keep it. To this hour I do not know how we ever brought ourselves to part with him; perhaps it was his promise of coming to America next year that prevailed with us; his brother was returning on a visit and then they were going back together.


Our search for literature in Ronda was not wholly a failure. At another bookstore, I found one of those local histories which I was always vainly trying for in other Spanish towns, and I can praise the Historia de Ronda par Federico Lozano Gutierrez as well done, and telling all that one would ask to know about that famous city. The author’s picture is on the cover, and with his charming letter dedicating the book to his father goes far to win the reader’s heart. Outside the bookseller’s a blind minstrel was playing the guitar in the care of a small boy who was selling, not singing, the ballads. They celebrated the prowess of Spain in recent wars, and it would not be praising them too highly to say that they seemed such as might have been written by a drum-major. Not that I think less of them for that reason, or that I think I need humble myself greatly to the historian of Ronda for associating their purchase with that of his excellent little book. If I had bought some of the blind minstrel’s almanacs and jest-books I might indeed apologize, but ballads are another thing.

After we left the bookseller’s, our little guide asked us if we would like to see a church, and we said that we would, and he took us into a white and gold interior, with altar splendors out of proportion to its simplicity, all in the charge of a boy no older than himself, who was presently joined by two other contemporaries. They followed us gravely about, and we felt that it was an even thing between ourselves and the church as objects of interest equally ignored by Baedeker. Then we thought we would go home and proposed going by the Alameda.

That is a beautiful place, where one may walk a good deal, and drive, rather less, but not sit down much unless indeed one likes being swarmed upon by the beggars who have a just priority of the benches. There seemed at first to be nobody walking in the Alameda except a gentleman pacing to and from the handsome modern house at the first corner, which our guide said was this cavalier’s house. He interested me beyond any reason I could give; he looked as if he might represent the highest society in Ronda, but did not find it an adequate occupation, and might well have interests and ambitions beyond it. I make him my excuses for intruding my print upon him, but I would give untold gold if I had it to know all about such a man in such a city, walking up and down under the embrowning trees and shrinking flowers of its Alameda, on a Sunday morning like that.

Our guide led us to the back gate of our hotel garden, where we found ourselves in the company of several other students of English. There was our charming young guide of the day before and there was that sad hunchback already mentioned, and there was their teacher who seemed so few years older and master of so little more English. Together we looked into the valley into which the vision makes its prodigious plunge at Ronda before lifting again over the fertile plain to the amphitheater of its mighty mountains; and there we took leave of that nice boy who would not follow us into our garden because, as he showed us by the sign, it was forbidden to any but guests. He said he was going into the country with his family for the afternoon, and with some difficulty he owned that he expected to play there; it was truly an admission hard to make for a boy of his gravity. We shook hands at parting with him, and with our yesterday’s guide, and with the teacher and with the hunchback; they all offered it in the bond of our common English; and then we felt that we had parted with much, very much of what was sweetest and best in Ronda.


The day had been so lovely till now that we said we would stay many days in Ronda, and we loitered in the sun admiring the garden; the young landlady among her flowers said that all the soil had to be brought for it in carts and panniers, and this made us admire its autumn blaze the more. That afternoon we had planned taking our tea on the terrace for the advantage of looking at the sunset light on the mountains, but suddenly great black clouds blotted it out. Then we lost courage; it appeared to us that it would be both brighter and, warmer by the sea and that near Gibraltar we could more effectually prevent our steamer from getting away to New York without us. We called for our bill, and after luncheon the head waiter who brought it said that the large black cat which had just made friends with us always woke him if he slept late in the morning and followed him into the town like a dog when he walked there.

It was hard to part with a cat like that, but it was hard to part with anything in Ronda. Yet we made the break, and instead of ruining over the precipitous face of the rock where the city stands, as we might have expected, we glided smoothly down the long grade into the storm-swept lowlands sloping to the sea. They grew more fertile as we descended and after we had left a mountain valley where the mist hung grayest and chillest, we suddenly burst into a region of mellow fruitfulness, where the haze was all luminous, and where the oranges hung gold and green upon the trees, and the women brought grapes and peaches and apples to the train. The towns seemed to welcome us southward and the woods we knew instantly to be of cork trees, with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza under their branches anywhere we chose to look.

Otherwise, the journey was without those incidents which have so often rendered these pages thrilling. Just before we left Ronda a couple, self-evidently the domestics of a good family, got into our first-class carriage though they had unquestionably only third-class tickets. They had the good family’s dog with them, and after an unintelligible appeal to us and to the young English couple in the other corner, they remained and banished any misgivings they had by cheerful dialogue. The dog coiled himself down at my feet and put his nose close to my ankles, so that without rousing his resentment I could not express in Spanish my indignation at what I felt to be an outrageous intrusion: servants, we all are, but in traveling first class one must draw the line at dogs, I said as much to the English couple, but they silently refused any part in the demonstration. Presently the conductor came out to the window for our fares, and he made the Spanish pair observe that they had third-class tickets and their dog had none. He told them they must get out, but they noted to him the fact that none of us had objected to their company, or their dog’s, and they all remained, referring themselves to us for sympathy when the conductor left. After the next station the same thing happened with little change; the conductor was perhaps firmer and they rather more yielding in their disobedience. Once more after a stop the conductor appeared and told them that when the train halted again, they and their dog must certainly get out. Then something surprising happened: they really got out, and very amiably; perhaps it was the place where they had always meant to get out; but it was a great triumph for the railway company, which owed nothing in the way of countenance to the young English couple; they had done nothing but lunch from their basket and bottle. We ourselves arrived safely soon after nightfall at Algeciras, just in time for dinner in the comfortable mother-hotel whose pretty daughter had made us so much at home in Ronda.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56