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Ch. 37: The Mountains of Ronda


Orange Valleys--Climbing the Mountains--José's Hospitality--El Burgo--The Gate of the Wind--The Cliff and Cascades of Ronda--The Mountain Region--Traces of the Moors--Haunts of Robbers--A Stormy Ride--The Inn at Gaucin--Bad News--A Boyish Auxiliary--Descent from the Mountains--The Ford of the Guadiaro--Our Fears Relieved--The Cork Woods--Ride from San Roque to Gibraltar--Parting with José--Travelling in Spain--Conclusion.


Gibraltar, Thursday, November 25, 1852.


I passed an uncomfortable night at the Venta de Villalon, lying upon a bag stuffed with equal quantities of wool and fleas. Starting before dawn, we followed a path which led into the mountains, where herdsmen and boys were taking out their sheep and goats to pasture; then it descended into the valley of a stream, bordered with rich bottom-lands. I never saw the orange in a more flourishing state. We passed several orchards of trees thirty feet high, and every bough and twig so completely laden with fruit, that the foliage was hardly to be seen.

At the Venta del Vicario, we found a number of soldiers just setting out for Ronda. They appeared to be escorting a convoy of goods, for there were twenty or thirty laden mules gathered at the door. We now ascended a most difficult and stony path, winding through bleak wastes of gray rock, till we reached a lofty pass in the mountain range. The wind swept through the narrow gateway with a force that almost unhorsed us. From the other side, a sublime but most desolate landscape opened to my view. Opposite, at ten miles' distance, rose a lofty ridge of naked rock, overhung with clouds. The country between was a chaotic jumble of stony hills, separated by deep chasms, with just a green patch here and there, to show that it was not entirely forsaken by man. Nevertheless as we descended into it, we found valleys with vineyards and olive groves, which were invisible from above. As we were both getting hungry, José stopped at a ventorillo and ordered two cups of wine, for which he insisted on paying. "If I had as many horses as my master, Napoleon," said he, "I would regale the Señors whenever I travelled with them. I would have puros, and sweetmeats, with plenty of Malaga or Valdepeñas in the bota, and they should never complain of their fare." Part of our road was studded with gray cork-trees, at a distance hardly to be distinguished from olives, and José dismounted to gather the mast, which was as sweet and palatable as chestnuts, with very little of the bitter quercine flavor. At eleven o'clock, we reached El Burgo, so called, probably, from its ancient Moorish fortress. It is a poor, starved village, built on a barren hill, over a stream which is still spanned by a lofty Moorish bridge of a single arch.

The remaining three leagues to Ronda were exceedingly rough and difficult. Climbing a barren ascent of nearly a league in length, we reached the Puerto del Viento, or Gate of the Wind, through which drove such a current that we were obliged to dismount; and even then it required all my strength to move against it. The peaks around, far and near, faced with precipitous cliffs, wore the most savage and forbidding aspect: in fact, this region is almost a counterpart of the wilderness lying between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, Very soon, we touched the skirt of a cloud, and were enveloped in masses of chill, whirling vapor, through which we travelled for three or four miles to a similar gate on the western side of the chain. Descending again, we emerged into a clearer atmosphere, and saw below us a wide extent of mountain country, but of a more fertile and cheerful character. Olive orchards and wheat-fields now appeared; and, at four o'clock, we rode into the streets of Ronda.

No town can surpass this in the grandeur and picturesqueness of its position. It is built on the edge of a broad shelf of the mountains, which falls away in a sheer precipice of from six to eight hundred feet in height, and, from the windows of many of the houses you can look down the dizzy abyss. This shelf, again, is divided in the centre by a tremendous chasm, three hundred feet wide, and from four to six hundred feet in depth, in the bed of which roars the Guadalvin, boiling in foaming whirlpools or leaping in sparkling cascades, till it reaches the valley below. The town lies on both sides of the chasm, which is spanned by a stone bridge of a single arch, with abutments nearly four hundred feet in height. The view of this wonderful cleft, either from above or below, is one of the finest of its kind in the world. Honda is as far superior to Tivoli, as Tivoli is to a Dutch village, on the dead levels of Holland. The panorama which it commands is on the grandest scale. The valley below is a garden of fruit and vines; bold yet cultivated hills succeed, and in the distance rise the lofty summits of another chain of the Serrania de Honda. Were these sublime cliffs, these charming cascades of the Guadalvin, and this daring bridge, in Italy instead of in Spain, they would be sketched and painted every day in the year; but I have yet to know where a good picture of Ronda may be found.

In the bottom of the chasm are a number of corn-mills as old as the time of the Moors. The water, gushing out from the arches of one, drives the wheel of that below, so that a single race supplies them all. I descended by a very steep zig-zag path nearly to the bottom. On a little point or promontory overhanging the black depths, there is a Moorish gateway still standing. The sunset threw a lovely glow over the brown cliffs and the airy town above; but they were far grander when the cascades glittered in the moonlight, and the gulf out of which they leap was lost in profound shadow. The window of my bed-room hung over the chasm.

Honda was wrapped in fog, when José awoke me on the morning of the 22d. As we had but about twenty-four miles to ride that day, we did not leave until sunrise. We rode across the bridge, through the old town and down the hill, passing the triple lines of the Moorish walls by the original gateways. The road, stony and rugged beyond measure, now took to the mountains. From the opposite height, there was a fine view of the town, perched like an eagle's nest on the verge of its tremendous cliffs; but a curtain of rain soon fell before it, and the dense dark clouds settled around us, and filled up the gorges on either hand. Hour after hour, we toiled along the slippery paths, scaling the high ridges by rocky ladders, up which our horses climbed with the greatest difficulty. The scenery, whenever I could obtain a misty glimpse of it, was sublime. Lofty mountain ridges rose on either hand; bleak jagged summits of naked rock pierced the clouds, and the deep chasms which separated them sank far below us, dark and indistinct through the rain. Sometimes I caught sight of a little hamlet, hanging on some almost inaccessible ledge, the home of the lawless, semi-Moorish mountaineers who inhabit this wild region. The faces of those we met exhibited marked traces of their Moslem ancestry, especially in the almond-shaped eye and the dusky olive complexion. Their dialect retains many Oriental forms of expression, and I was not a little surprised at finding the Arabic "eiwa" (yes) in general use, instead of the Spanish "si."

About eleven o'clock, we reached the rude village of Atajate, where we procured a very good breakfast of kid, eggs, and white Ronda wine. The wind and rain increased, but I had no time to lose, as every hour swelled the mountain floods and made the journey more difficult. This district is in the worst repute of any in Spain; it is a very nest of robbers and contrabandistas. At the venta in Atajate, they urged us to take a guard, but my valiant José declared that he had never taken one, and yet was never robbed; so I trusted to his good luck. The weather, however, was our best protection. In such a driving rain, we could bid defiance to the flint locks of their escopettes, if, indeed, any could be found, so fond of their trade, as to ply it in a storm


"Wherein the cub-drawn bear would crouch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their furs dry."


Nevertheless, I noticed that each of the few convoys of laden mules which we met, had one or more of the guardia cicia accompanying it. Besides these, the only persons abroad were some wild-looking individuals, armed to the teeth, and muffled in long cloaks, towards whom, as they passed, José would give his head a slight toss, and whisper to me: "more contrabandistas."

We were soon in a condition to defy the weather. The rain beat furiously in our faces, especially when threading the wind-blown passes between the higher peaks. I raised my umbrella as a defence, but the first blast snapped it in twain. The mountain-sides were veined with rills, roaring downward into the hollows, and smaller rills soon began to trickle down my own sides. During the last part of our way, the path was notched along precipitous steeps, where the storm was so thick that we could see nothing either above or below. It was like riding along the outer edge of the world, When once you are thoroughly wet, it is a great satisfaction to know that you can be no wetter; and so José and I went forward in the best possible humor, finding so much diversion in our plight that the dreary leagues were considerably shortened.

At the venta of Gaucin, where we stopped, the people received us kindly. The house consisted of one room--stable, kitchen, and dining-room all in one. There was a small apartment in a windy loft, where a bed (much too short) was prepared for me. A fire of dry heather was made in the wide fire-place, and the ruddy flames, with a change of clothing and a draught of the amber vintage of Estepona, soon thawed out the chill of the journey. But I received news which caused me a great deal of anxiety. The River Guadiaro was so high that nobody could cross, and two forlorn muleteers had been waiting eight days at the inn, for the waters to subside. Augmented by the rain which had fallen, and which seemed to increase as night came on, how could I hope to cross it on the morrow? In two days, the India steamer would be at Gibraltar; my passage was already taken, and I must be there. The matter was discussed for some time; it was pronounced impossible to travel by the usual road, but the landlord knew a path among the hills which led to a ferry on the Guadiaro, where there was a boat, and from thence we could make our way to San Roque, which is in sight of Gibraltar. He demanded rather a large fee for accompanying me, but there was nothing else to be done. José and I sat down in great tribulation to our accustomed olla, but neither of us could do justice to it, and the greater part gladdened the landlord's two boys--beautiful little imps, with faces like Murillo's cherubs.

Nevertheless, I passed rather a merry evening, chatting with some of the villagers over a brazier of coals; and one of the aforesaid boys, who, although only eight years old, already performed the duties of mozo, lighted me to my loft. When he had put down the lamp, he tried' the door, and asked me: "Have you the key?" "No," said I, "I don't want one; I am not afraid." "But," he rejoined, "perhaps you may get afraid in the night; and if you do, strike on this part of the wall (suiting the action to the word)--I sleep on that side." I willingly promised to call him to my aid, if I should get alarmed. I slept but little, for the wind was howling around the tiles over my head, and I was busy with plans for constructing rafts and swimming currents with a rope around my waist. Finally, I found a little oblivion, but it seemed that I had scarcely closed my eyes, when José pushed open the door. "Thanks be to God, senor!" said he, "it begins to dawn, and the sky is clear: we shall certainly get to Gibraltar to-day."

The landlord was ready, so we took some bread and a basket of olives, and set out at once. Leaving Gaucin, we commenced descending the mountain staircase by which the Serrania of Ronda is scaled, on the side towards Gibraltar. "The road," says Mr. Ford, "seems made by the Evil One in a hanging garden of Eden." After four miles of frightfully rugged descent, we reached an orange grove on the banks of the Xenar, and then took a wild path leading along the hills on the right of the stream. We overtook a few muleteers, who were tempted out by the fine weather, and before long the correo, or mail-rider from Ronda to San Roque, joined us. After eight miles more of toilsome travel we reached the valley of the Guadiaro. The river was not more than twenty yards wide, flowing with a deep, strong current, between high banks. Two ropes were stretched across, and a large, clumsy boat was moored to the shore. We called to the ferrymen, but they hesitated, saying that nobody had yet been able to cross. However, we all got in, with our horses, and two of the men, with much reluctance, drew us over. The current was very powerful, although the river had fallen a little during the night, but we reached the opposite bank without accident.

We had still another river, the Guargante, to pass, but we were cheered by some peasants whom we met, with the news that the ferry-boat had resumed operations. After this current lay behind us, and there was now nothing but firm land all the way to Gibraltar, José declared with much earnestness that he was quite as glad, for my sake, as if somebody had given him a million of dollars. Our horses, too, seemed to feel that something had been achieved, and showed such a fresh spirit that we loosened the reins and let them gallop to their hearts' content over the green meadows. The mountains were now behind us, and the Moorish castle of Gaucin crested a peak blue with the distance. Over hills covered with broom and heather in blossom, and through hollows grown with oleander, arbutus and the mastic shrub, we rode to the cork-wood forests of San Roque, the sporting-ground of Gibraltar officers. The barking of dogs, the cracking of whips, and now and then a distant halloo, announced that a hunt was in progress, and soon we came upon a company of thirty or forty horsemen, in caps, white gloves and top-boots, scattered along the crest of a hill. I had no desire to stop and witness the sport, for the Mediterranean now lay before me, and the huge gray mass of "The Rock" loomed in the distance.

At San Roque, which occupies the summit of a conical hill, about half-way between Gibraltar and Algeciras, the landlord left us, and immediately started on his return. Having now exchanged the rugged bridle-paths of Ronda for a smooth carriage-road, José and I dashed on at full gallop, to the end of our journey. We were both bespattered with mud from head to foot, and our jackets and sombreros had lost something of their spruce air. We met a great many ruddy, cleanly-shaven Englishmen, who reined up on one side to let us pass, with a look of wonder at our Andalusian impudence. Nothing diverted José more than to see one of these Englishmen rising in his stirrups, as he went by on a trot. "Look, look, Señor!" he exclaimed; "did you ever see the like?" and then broke into a fresh explosion of laughter. Passing the Spanish Lines, which stretch across the neck of the sandy little peninsula, connecting Gibraltar with the main land, we rode under the terrible batteries which snarl at Spain from this side of the Rock. Row after row of enormous guns bristle the walls, or look out from the galleries hewn in the sides of inaccessible cliffs An artificial moat is cut along the base of the Rock, and a simple bridge-road leads into the fortress and town. After giving up my passport I was allowed to enter, José having already obtained a permit from the Spanish authorities.

I clattered up the long street of the town to the Club House, where I found a company of English friends. In the evening, José made his appearance, to settle our accounts and take his leave of me. While scrambling down the rocky stair-way of Gaucin, José had said to me: "Look you, Señor, I am very fond of English beer, and if I get you to Gibraltar to day you must give me a glass of it." When, therefore, he came in the evening, his eyes sparkled at the sight of a bottle of Alsop's Ale, and a handful of good Gibraltar cigars. "Ah, Señor," said he, after our books were squared, and he had pocketed his gratification, "I am sorry we are going to part; for we are good friends, are we not, Señor?" "Yes, José," said I; "if I ever come to Granada again, I shall take no other guide than José Garcia; and I will have you for a longer journey than this. We shall go over all Spain together, mi amigo!" "May God grant it!" responded José, crossing himself; "and now, Señor, I must go. I shall travel back to Granada, muy triste, Señor, muy triste" The faithful fellows eyes were full of tears, and, as he lifted my hand twice to his lips, some warm drops fell upon it. God bless his honest heart; wherever he goes!

And now a word as to travelling in Spain, which is not attended with half the difficulties and annoyances I had been led to expect. My experience, of course, is limited to the provinces of Andalusia, but my route included some of the roughest roads and most dangerous robber-districts in the Peninsula. The people with whom I came in contact were invariably friendly and obliging, and I was dealt with much more honestly than I should have been in Italy. With every disposition to serve you, there is nothing like servility among the Spaniards. The native dignity which characterizes their demeanor prepossesses me very strongly in their favor. There is but one dialect of courtesy, and the muleteers and common peasants address each other with the same grave respect as the Dons and Grandees. My friend José was a model of good-breeding.

I had little trouble either with passport-officers or custom-houses. My passport, in fact, was never once demanded, although I took the precaution to have it visèd in all the large cities. In Seville and Malaga, it was signed by the American Consuls, without the usual fee of two dollars--almost the only instances which have come under my observation. The regulations of the American Consular System, which gives the Consuls no salary, but permits them, instead, to get their pay out of travellers, is a disgrace to our government. It amounts, in effect, to a direct tax on travel, and falls heavily on the hundreds of young men of limited means, who annually visit Europe for the purpose of completing their education. Every American citizen who travels in Italy pays a passport tax of ten dollars. In all the ports of the Mediterranean, there is an American Vice-Consul, who does not even get the postage paid on his dispatches, and to whom the advent of a traveller is of course a welcome sight. Misled by a false notion of economy, our government is fast becoming proverbial for its meanness. If those of our own citizens who represent us abroad only worked as they are paid, and if the foreigners who act as Vice-Consuls without pay did not derive some petty trading advantages from their position, we should be almost without protection.


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With my departure from Spain closes the record of my journey in the Lands of the Saracen; for, although I afterwards beheld more perfect types of Saracenic Art on the banks of the Jumna and the Ganges, they grew up under the great Empire of the descendants of Tamerlane, and were the creations of artists foreign to the soil. It would, no doubt, be interesting to contrast the remains of Oriental civilization and refinement, as they still exist at the extreme eastern and western limits of the Moslem sway, and to show how that Art, which had its birth in the capitals of the Caliphs--Damascus and Baghdad--attained its most perfect development in Spain and India; but my visit to the latter country connects itself naturally with my voyage to China, Loo-Choo, and Japan, forming a separate and distinct field of travel.

On the 27th of November, the Overland Mail Steamer arrived at Gibraltar, and I embarked in her for Alexandria, entering upon another year of even more varied, strange, and adventurous experiences, than that which had closed. I am almost afraid to ask those patient readers, who have accompanied me thus far, to travel with me through another volume; but next to the pleasure of seeing the world, comes the pleasure of telling of it, and I must needs finish my story.


THE END.

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Bayard Taylor