The Romance of Ronda

The southern region of Andalucia in Spain is a sun-soaked landscape, awash in bleached yellows, browns and greens. Its sierras dotted with gorse and sparse vegetation swoop into valleys of whitewashed towns that the Spanish call pueblos blancos. Once in a while, vineyards terrace this arid terrain. There is an atmosphere of the primitive and you are indeed witness here to an older European way of life. The Andalucian civilisation is supposed to be the oldest in the Western reaches that traded with the Phoenicians. A wild halo hangs about the sierras where service stations are few and far between. Drive through them on a Sunday as Adi and I did and you will spot lone bodegas with their shutters down. 

A heat haze hung about us palpably. Right across the Strait of Gibraltar is the northern tip of Africa from where the Calima blows towards Málaga, casting over the landscape the mien of a place lodged faraway in time. With tales in our heads of the Moors, the mixed race of Berbers and Arabs who crossed into Spain from North Africa, who occupied Andalucia for seven centuries, we came upon the ancient hill town of Ronda.

Sun-bleached Andalucian mountains 
A bodega

About 100km from Málaga, Ronda is a picture of quaintness, bringing together images of al-Andalus of the Moors and medieval citadels. 

In this old town, there is a small museum on the bandits who in the 1800s roamed the hills of Ronda. The Museo del Bandolero has these old prints that narrate jaunty stories of young bandoleros. In the late 1800s, a traveller passing through Málaga remarked upon the way of the bandit bedecked in his various amulets and charms. He noted: “The favourite and original method of the Malagueño highwayman is to creep up quietly behind his victim, muffle his head and arms in a cloak, and then relieve him of his valuables. Should he resist, he is instantly disembowelled with the dexterous thrust of a knife……” The museum is a winner in every other way. I have not come upon the likes of it anywhere else. But then, you could argue that bandits did not flourish just about everywhere.

Ronda has two halves and the Puente Nuevo, or new bridge, divides Ronda into the Mercadillo (new town) and La Ciudad (old town). Yet two more older bridges span the El Tajo gorge. The oldest having been constructed by the Romans during the reign of Julius Caesar, and the other, a Moorish bridge which leads to an exotic hammam, Baños de los Arabes, the former bathing houses of the Moors. 

Rainer Maria Rilke who arrived in town in 1912 from Paris was transfixed by Ronda. He noted: “The spectacle of this city, sitting on the bulk of two rocks rent asunder by a pickaxe and separated by the narrow, deep gorge of the river, corresponds very well to the image of that city revealed in dreams. The spectacle of this city is indescribable and around it lies a spacious valley with cultivated plots of land, holly and olive groves. And there in the distance, as if it had recovered all its strength, the pure mountains rise, range after range, forming the most splendid background.”

The obvious highlight of Ronda is El Tajo, a gorge that plummets 492 feet into River Guadalevín. I was enchanted by the sprawling vista of the Andalucian country on either side of it, a thousand fireflies buzzing in the quiet of the afternoon, and imparting it with an other-worldly air. The Puente Nuevo turned out to be a repository of hoary stories. Above the central arch of the bridge is a secret chamber. During the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1939, many a Nationalist and Republican was tossed out of the windows of the chamber into the gorge. Ernest Hemingway recalled these incidents in his novel, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. When pages from the past are riddled with blood, you get these forbidding stories that trickle out of the most innocuous of places, as keepsakes. 

Old Ronda




The late-15th century Iglesia de Santa Maria la Mayor built after the Reconquista upon where once stood the main mosque of Ronda
Puerta de Almocábar 
The museum of bandits
Old prints of bandits


The bandit’s way of life


Near an old minaret in old town


Catching a spontaneous shot of  couple on the cobbled lanes of Ronda
Peeling plaster and old buildings
The road that leads to the Puente Nuevo

El Tajo

Puente Nuevo
At the bridge
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Guadalevín beneath the gorge
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Fireflies at the Puente Nuevo

The most bloodthirsty aspect of Ronda awaited us at the Mercadillo. The new town, which is not so new because it dates back to the 15th century and makes you realise that the old town must be ancient then, has its share of beautiful old churches and plazas and cobbled alleys. It is in the new town that you come upon Plaza de Toros, Spain’s oldest bullring. My interest in Ronda’s bullfighting heritage began with Hemingway’s written records of his obsession with it. Ronda, according to ‘papa’, is the town where you should see your first bullfight in Spain. Every year there is a festival in Ronda called Corrida Goyesca when its bullfighting past is recreated with flourish 

With stories of moors and bandits, bullfighters and writers in the air, Ronda became a honeypot for the Viajeros Románticos or Romantic Travellers who during the 18th and 19th centuries wanted to travel through the lesser known parts of Europe. Alexandre Dumas, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles – they all found themselves beguiled by this old town. And why not, they were walking in the footsteps of the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths and the Berbers. Just as I in turn walked in their footsteps and fell into a state of enchantment upon finding myself in Ronda.

New Town

Plaza de Toros, Ronda’s bullring, which was the first to host bullfights in the country.
Cayetano Ordóñez better known as Niño de la Palma. His parents owned a shoe shop called La Palma hence the nickname. Ordóñez had faced over 3,000 bulls. He was also Hemingway’s inspiration for the character of Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises
That plaque outside the bullring is a tribute to Hemingway who arrived in Spain in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War and wrote of Ronda as the place “where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone. The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is romantic background….”


Hocks of ham


Tiled alleys that open into the Iglesia del Socorro


Adi next to the figure of the father of Andalusian nationalism, Blas Infante, in Plaza del Socorro.
Behind me is Hercules and the two lions he aims to tame

Back at El Tajo for one long last look before leaving Ronda. No wonder Rilke had avowed lasting love for it when he had said: “I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda.” 









Of Bavarian-American Towns

A strangely incongruous title, eh? But in the heart of Chelan County in Washington is a city called Leavenworth that whisks you into the heart of Bavaria, even though it lies at the foothills of the North Cascades. When we entered Leavenworth, we were witness to a town that had centered itself around a sawmill industry, but left bereft when the industry died away and when the Great Northern Railway Company was re-routed around the city. It was on the verge of an utter breakdown.

That is when enterprising minds in the early ’60s got together and hatched a plan to transform it into a village with an alpine look. Baskets of bright petunias hang from eaves of cottages which are built distinctly in a Bavarian Alpine style of architecture and horse-drawn carriages trot through town.

You know that bit about making the most of a journey to any place? I think that drive through from Seattle to Leavenworth was just divine. Our brother-in-law drove chirpy five fellow passengers, his family and the two of us, through evergreens that framed the mountain passes in the Cascades. We wound past emerald-hued creeks and rivers with distinctly Native American names. Even though Stevens Pass that is hugely popular with skiers was chanced upon by a non-native man called John Frank Stevens. We passed by railroad towns called Skykomish.

My favourite part of that drive was when we stopped at an espresso stand with a dramatic backdrop. Espresso Chalet sits on Route 2 with the stunning Mount Index in its backyard. Its three pointed spires were like three mysterious damsels, smoky blue and mired in mist. That was a view I could have sat in front of and stared at for a long, long time.

The line-up of espressos was mind boggling. And the sizes had me. The mug which my brother-in-law chose was the biggest and tallest I had ever laid my eyes on. If clichés are clichés for a reason, then it stands true that in America everything comes in a jumbo size. Cars, trucks, supermarket packs, burgers, coffee mugs…the works. Apart from the espressos and Mount Index, Espresso Chalet is littered with references to the mythical Bigfoot and a sulky statement that announces to the world: “BIGFOOT doesn’t believe in you either.”

Below are some snaps from the drive:


Food trucks serve reptile lovers
Small American towns
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Peaches and tomatoes 
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Mount Index and its three spires
Mount Index, my beloved and I
Does Mount Index not look quite bewitching?
Coffee stops are but essential to any road trip

Then we were finally in Leavenworth where I started off the jaunt on a different note.

Despite tucking into hot and spicy dishes through my entire holiday — the Americans even grade the level of chillies in their food — I had the most excruciating save-my-soul-and-call-the-firemen experience in a specialty store in Leavenworth. Its name was A Matter of Taste and it was there that my brother-in-law called my attention to a particular red sauce. Next, he saw me dipping a pretzel into it with great gusto. Just as he warned me, I had greedily popped it in.

The whole world came crashing down around my ears. My husband followed suit. There we were, the two of us – fire in our mouths, fire streaming out of our ears, fire in our bellies.

Fortunately, there was wine at hand. A wine-tasting noon went by in a blur, us nodding vigorously at fine words of appreciation from an eager wine-seller and quaffing glasses of wine to douse our screaming insides.

While my husband felt better in a while, the story did not end for me there. After some time, a series of cramps seized my stomach, so bad that I had to double over to tide over it. The only way out for me was double scoops of maple syrup and pecan ice cream. That was bliss in the most intense way possible.

And inspite of my love for fiery food, that steered me away from any more chilli-ridden foods for the rest of our holiday. You know, once burnt and all that.

Entering Leavenworth
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The alpine architecture
The Cascades in the backdrop
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The charming cottages
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By which time my husband had recovered from a round of chilli tasting  

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Tight hugs work. The nephew and niece post a teary squabble.

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When we met three handsome lads in the back of a pick-up truck
A view of Leavenworth from Mongolian Grill

Then to wind up an evening in Leavenworth, we sat in Mongolian Grill, a restaurant which had the most picture-perfect view of the village. It started pouring as if on cue, the sun shone on making those rain drops look unreal and a rainbow appeared in quick succession to all our delight. Pints of beers in our hand, we looked on, trying to convince ourselves that such beauty can be real.


Summer in Seattle

A fishy kind of theatre was underway in the Pacific Northwest. Dungeness Crabs, royalty amongst the crustacean species in the American West Coast, stared back at us with beady black eyes, their fiery orange claws beckoning us from the carts they lay upon. Freshly caught fish of all shapes and sizes glistened from the sidelines. Beneath placards announcing the arrival of the Copper River Salmon, rubber overall-clad fishmongers tossed robust fish at each other and chanted in tandem. A crowd had gathered for this piscine entertainment.

We were at Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. Armed with cups of iconic Original Starbucks coffee from the first store of the chain (some things have got to be scratched off the bucket list), my husband and I were witnessing the famous Pike Place phenomenon one early morning in 2015. The business model of these energetic fish-sellers has inspired case studies at universities, schools and a book-documentary called ‘FISH! Philosophy’.

With its warren of hundreds of shops selling everything fresh from cherries and chocolate to tea picked by monkeys somewhere in China, Pike Place is the throbbing soul of Seattle.

Pike Place Market was started in 1907 and it is where farmers, craftspeople and merchants have always come together to sell their wares.
Dungeness Crabs at Pike Place Market
Inside Pike Place
The point after which we discovered that my phone camera had shattered after a fall. Therefore you see the refraction in some of the photos.
An old man and his ukelele in Pike Place Market
Four-legged face off
The canine and his biked-up guards

Now, we were caught in the midst of one of the worst heat waves the city had seen. Gasping for chilled beer, we traipsed the streets of Seattle’s downtown. Yet we carry a sizeable bag of memories — gaping at the Space Needle; tasting beers at microbreweries; contemplating whether or not to queue up for ‘handheld pies’ at Pike’s Russian bakery, Piroshky Piroshky.

With our love for anything that’s atmospheric, we were caught up in the charming Pioneer Square of Seattle where a saxophonist serenaded us with jazz.

The perfect way to get in touch with the history of Seattle is to set out on Bill Spiedel’s underground tour. We were transported to a time when Seattle did not have its modern-day icons of Microsoft, Nordstrom and Starbucks.

In those days, the news was all about the first settlers of Seattle. They were a certain Denny Party, a group of Americans who arrived in 1851 at the westernmost Alki Point that juts out into the Sound. At place where the settlers would have arrived and surveyed what lay before them, we sat and had some of the best fish & chips we’ve had from a chippery called Spud Fish & Chips, along the waters of the Sound. Across lay the sweeping Cascades.

Back in time, the Denny Party shifted base to Pioneer Square in 1852 and set the plan in motion to raise the city from its original mucky tide flats. A significant change in the fortunes of the city took place with the Great Fire of 1889 that destroyed Seattle’s central district. Subsequently, the Yukon Gold Rush brought in a host of gold-diggers and get this, women were shipped into Seattle to marry its bachelors. And yes, Seattle had its share of powerful madams who ruled the roost.

Downtown Seattle
Downtown Seattle
Breakfast in a downtown cafe


Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour
The layer of the city that is couched beneath the present central business district
The world of Lou Graham, a German-born woman who became the most wealthiest madame of Seattle before she died in her forties. Here is a typical shot of the ladies in a brothel in the 1800s. Graham had established the city’s most refined parlor house which was meant to be ‘a discreet establishment for the silk-top-hat-and-frock-coat set to indulge in good drink, lively political discussions and, upstairs, ribald pleasures — all free to government representatives’.
Pioneer Square in the old days
Leafy Pioneer Square, today
Pioneer Square
Where we sat with beer and pizza, watching people go by
Beer-y smiles
Once dusk sets, the stalls of Pike Place are emptied, one by one
The Space Needle

Lake Washington

The eco-friendly, health-conscious and vibrant culture of the Pacific Northwest was introduced to us by my sister-in-law, her husband and two children during a month-long holiday in Washington State’s coastal city of Seattle. During this time, my trivia was culled mostly from our 9-year-old nephew.

One afternoon we went on a cruise that hugged the shores of Lake Washington. There we saw waterfront properties, the stomping ground of billionaires including Bill Gates. But my attention was riveted by the towering presence that hangs over the city’s horizon – the heavily glaciated and ethereal Mount Rainier. This highest mountain of the Cascade ranges also happens to be an active volcano, and is a beacon of beauty. I went with the intent of hiking the volcano’s many trails. I had also hoped to get near a glacier or two but the ghastly heat made me do an about turn.

So there we were sipping on Bloody Marys aboard the boat and keeping a lookout for those fantastical futuristic houses, some of which had funiculars connecting them to the shores of the lake.

For sunset, we headed the posh Sunset Hill quarter in downtown Seattle with its mansions, where we watched the sun go down in a blaze of colours.

My sister-in-law’s house in Seattle
A beer-y welcome to the city with by the brother-in-law
Adi lazing around the house
Baking with the niece and nephew
Star-spangled cupcakes by the two
Lake Washington
Memorials to soldiers
Houses of Lake Washington
Bloody Mary on Lake Washington
Lake Washington
Lake Washington
Water sports on Lake Washington
Mount Rainier up and close and therefore a bit blurred
Seattle during dusk with Mount Rainier as the fabulous backdrop
A sight not to be missed

The Pacific Northwest

Leaving life in the fast lane behind in downtown, we set off on long drives through the incredibly beautiful countryside of the Northwest. Stretches of evergreens for miles and miles skirted shallow creeks. Native American names popped up very often. Skykomish, Sammamish, … It felt like we were in another world.

Not too far from Seattle are little villages and towns such as Snoqualmie with its beautiful waterfalls, Edmonds, and Snohomish which has been dubbed the ‘antique capital of the Northwest’. The historic town of Snohomish was chock full of the prettiest antique shops, chatty owners and vintage dress shops that set my heart aflutter.

A favourite feature of mine was drive-in espresso booths. Really with the Seattle-ites’ coffee culture, it is unthinkable not to give in. If you are particular about milk, they offer a bunch of different options — hemp, goat and soy to eggnog, almond and rice. Also, try beating this one: The largest mug serves a whopping 1,000ml of coffee.

The coffee jargon had to be taken in stride too. Did I want a wet or dry cappuccino? A ‘wet’ drink, it turned out, has creamier milk. The ‘dry’ drink stays insulated and hot longer with a generous topping of froth.

My coffee-loving genes had no complaints.

A testimony to the native people
With the niece and nephew at a mall in North Bend, a city in King County in Washington
Meet the Soap Sniffers 
Boutiques of Snohomish
In the county of Snohomish is a city called Edmonds. It has a great view of the Puget Sound, the Olympic mountains and the Cascades.
We came here for a Mexican meal and watched the sun set from in front of the pretty cottages on the Sound.
Sunset on Puget Sound

Port Gamble

There were days when we took the ferry to 19th-century logging towns such as Port Gamble. Time stands still there. We followed it up with an Olympic Peninsula Loop Drive that took us to Sequim (pronounced Skwim), a town at the base of the Olympic Mountains renowned for its lavender farms. There the senses were steeped in the fragrance of lavender. Lavender iced teas and lavender ice cream and what not. Later, we drove high into the Olympic National Park where thick fog swirled about us and it was all so mystical and beautiful. Just like a holiday should be.

Water Towers of Port Gamble that date back to the 1880s


Pretty houses line the streets of Port Gamble 
The General Store has a museum inside
This pretty thing belongs inside the museum of the General Store
Boutiques of Port Gamble


Scones in Port Gamble’s tea room
Port Gamble


Heritage lavender farm in Sequim
A recurring lavender theme
“It always seems to me as if the lavender was a little woman in a green dress, with a lavender bonnet and a white kerchief. She’s one of those strong, sweet, wholesome people, who always rest you, and her sweetness lingers long after she goes away.” Myrtle Reed