1. Environmental
August 2, 2018updated 16 Jul 2021 11:02am

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

By 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.

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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.

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