Bridging the divide: landscapes and lawmakers in Ronda, home of Spanish romanticism

The Puente Nuevo in Ronda. Image: Claude Lynch.

Perched on a mesa in the middle of a wide Andalusian plateau, Ronda is a sleepy Spanish town much like any other. Its inhabitants number a meagre 35,000. The nearest city, Malaga, is 100km to the south. The town is unassuming from a distance.

And yet, as a place, Ronda has been home to more than its fair share of famous figures; since the 19th century, an air of romanticism has led artists from Irving to Rilke to Welles to Hemingway to visit Ronda, and write no shortage of poems and prose dedicated to the city. This was no doubt a testament to the town’s stalwart atmosphere; it is cited as the first home of bullfighting and maintains an almost village-like contiguity even in spite of its size.

But if any one monument defines Ronda’s ubiquity in the Romanticism of old, that monument would be the Puente Nuevo, the New Bridge, which spans the Guadalevín river cutting the town in two. The third of a series of increasingly elaborate bridges built over a series of centuries, the Puente Nuevo is not only incredibly architecturally sophisticated, but also effective; it connects the disparate halves of Ronda without requiring travellers to scale the mesa (as the other two do). It’s no coincidence that the town only really achieved notability after the bridge was finished in 1793, Ronda’s fame a testament to its majesty.

The question remains, however, what makes this bridge special? It’s hardly the only gorge-spanning structure in the world, or even in Spain. In fact, as far as arches go, it pales in comparison to the Aqueduct of Segovia. However, the value of Ronda’s Puente Nuevo lies less in its construction but its context, the way the town and its surroundings intermingle in the gentlest ways, less a dichotomy of urban/rural and more a testament to how the two can become one.

The bridge comes to represent how Ronda has overcome its natural surroundings, tied itself over the gorge of the narrow Guadalevín, yet maintained a special relationship with it. The bridge dominates the gorge, but the gorge still dominates the town, while spectacular vistas surround all sides. Ronda spoke to the 19th century Romanticists because it was emblematic of a more humble humanity that could run parallel to the awe of natural beauty, compared to the urban sprawl that, in their eyes, ran against it.

Now, the councillors running local government in Ronda find themselves defending the very same romanticism, but this time, in the 21st century. When first built, the Puente Nuevo enabled a series of new developments on the newer, northern side of town, such as the municipal gardens and the Círculo de Artistas building, where modern Andalucia was founded.

The north half of town now dominates the much smaller, older south half – a mixed use area of churches, tourist attractions, and older Moorish buildings. As such, it is the north side that houses an industrial estate, the local train station, and most modern amenities.This is why residents of the south side were up in arms when plans were introduced to restrict the use of private vehicles over the Puente Nuevo. As well as an integral part of Ronda’s identity, the bridge lies on the main road that runs north to south through the old town.

6,000 residents joined associations, put up placards, and penned condemnations in protest of plans to alter the bridge’s access timetable. Some might say their claims were petty, that southerners could simply reroute around the medieval wall and use one of the smaller bridges to access the new town. But this would go against the protesters’ central motto: “los puentes nos unen, los muros nos dividen” (Bridges unite us, walls divide us).

Some small displays of dissent on the south side of town. Image: Claude Lynch

The problem Ronda’s local officials face is not an uncommon one. How do these ancient European cities, built equally of medieval centres and expansive modern suburbs, protect their cultural heritage while designing urban spaces and rules that don’t feel increasingly prescriptive? The case of Ronda demonstrates the clear dichotomy at play here: The officials prize the Puente Nuevo, given its tourist acumen; meanwhile, the locals prioritise convenience and common sense. Of course, no real research has been done into the tangible effects that automobile use is having on the bridge’s integrity, so the council’s decision might be a case of speaking too soon.

A study of Ronda leaves the budding urbanist with far more questions than those it answers. Should we still prize a quixotic image of these ancient towns and cities? One of Welles’ unfinished manuscripts was a story of Don Quixote based here; Ronda’s quiet prestige is not a subject that ought to be taken lightly. However, before we revert to appeals to traditionalism, we should consider how structures like the Puente Nuevo earnestly contribute to a sense of place. From the plateau to the river bed, the bridge embodies Ronda’s relationship with every acre that surrounds it; the stones that compose it were mined from the very same mesa it crosses. Cities have symbols, and this grandiose display is Ronda’s; denying the Puente Nuevo a certain esteem would be a bridge too far.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.