Gretchen in Ronda
This is Part 7 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. Check out the previous iterations here: Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden, Part 2: Kustvägen to Finland, Part 3: The journey to North Cape, Part 4: To the Russian border, Part 5: Driving through Lapland, Finland and Part 6: Paris to Granada, Andalusia.
When I planned this trip, I was pretty sure Gibraltar was the southernmost point you can reach in continental Europe. Turns out it isn’t – as it was the case with North Cape which isn’t exactly the northernmost point. In fact, this title goes to Tarifa, which is actually – and fascinatingly – located south of two African capital cities: Tunis and Algiers (see map below). At BSCB we love linking extremes, so we couldn’t deprive Gretchen our Mercedes C-Class Coupe from the pleasure of reaching the actual northernmost point in continental Europe. We will therefore not end this adventure just yet in Gibraltar, instead we will continue on to Tarifa, then Cadiz, then Sevilla.
Leaving Granada, our first stop is Ronda, but not before testing the Mercedes C-Class Coupe in the winding countryside roads. As expected, Mercedes does not disappoint. The car sticks to the road, the weight is where it’s supposed to be, everything is in place but there is no grain of folly, no rebelliousness. Gretchen sure does look sexy, but she’s a bit uptight. We need more highways to unleash her potential. Reading this paragraph some of you (of a certain age like me) would have been rattling your brain about this Ronda name. Wasn’t it the name of a car? Yes it was, albeit a forgettable one. Seat called the Ronda a Fiat Ritmo rebadge on sale from 1982 to 1989 – see illustration above.
Gretchen (or rather, her GPS) was desperately trying to smooth us into driving to Málaga… (“What’s that Ronda town you want to get me to? she said. “Let’s go to the beach! Let’s swim, let’s enjoy the end of summer!” – it was end September when we endeavoured this trip) – Not today Gretchen, not today. We have milestones to hit. Turns out Gretchen’s GPS has a mind of its own sometimes. Ronda is located 100km west of said Málaga and houses 35,000 souls, much more in the heat of summer but now that school had started again, the crowds had gone. The town of Ronda is simply spectacular. It sits on top of a canyon, towering over 120m (390 ft)-high cliffs and overlooking the El Tajo gorge. The views from one side of the canyon to the other are stunning, as well as those giving onto the surrounding countryside but most impressive is the town seen from below down the gorge, as pictured in the opening photo of this article. The town itself has a quaint, relaxed and friendly demeanour that is starting to become the emblem of southern Spain to us.
Gretchen posing in front of the Hotel El Horcajo near Ronda.
Puente Nuevo in Ronda
One of the most spectacular features of Ronda is its largest bridge, the Puente Nuevo, translated as New Bridge, even though it has been in place since 1793 after 42 years of hard labour that cost the life of no less than fifty workers. You will notice on the picture above a single window right above the central arch. There is actually a chamber there, and it was used as a prison, notably during the 1936-1939 civil war. The uniqueness of Ronda’s situation and its very peculiar character attracted American artists such as Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. According to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Nothing is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.” It does indeed have a startling effect as well as a savage touch.
Land Rover Defender in Ronda
As you can see Gretchen is particularly enjoying posing near the Hotel El Horcajo, a few km away from Ronda. This is an authentic, emblematic, traditional Spanish farm restored into a hotel, complete with white-washed walls, low-rise buildings and sparkling orange tiles with fierce vegetation surrounding it. Unashamedly rustic and rough around the edges, it’s the true Spain that you see in the tourist guides, albeit a little overpriced. Be prepared for no internet connection (shock! horror!) but a true break from it all. The cars in Ronda? More robust, more strained and more proud than where I’ve been to in Spain so far, such as the many Land Rovers in town.
Gretchen in Gibraltar
Time for a change of scenery as we are now headed to Gibraltar, the famous British Overseas Territory. And what a change it is. If Ronda represents the symbolic Spain that everyone is yearning for, Gibraltar is (according to the Lonely Planet, particularly on point with this description) a town full of “creaky seaside hotels with 1970s furnishings”. Gibraltar is like a concrete attack on the beautiful rock it is sitting on. Despite being unattractive, it plays hard to get: its border is the most guarded one between to European Union countries (soon to be a non-EU border). Passports are required to cross, something that I haven’t experienced elsewhere in Europe in decades. The name Gibraltar is a Spanish adaptation of the Arabic Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق), meaning the mountain of Tariq. Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim governor of Tangier, landed at Gibraltar in 711 to launch the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.
The road crosses the Gibraltar Airport runway.
This very unique situation of a UK enclave of just 6.7 km2 (2.6 sq mi) at the (almost) southernmost point in Spain and only a few km away from Africa has given birth to a lot of fun facts I couldn’t resist listing…
– Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, which means “the Rock” (its nickname) has been British longer than the United States has been American.
– Spain has been relatively consistently claiming sovereignty over Gibraltar ever since it ceded it to Britain over 300 years ago.
– In a sovereignty referendum in 1967, Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain under British rule, resulting in Spain closing the border with Gibraltar and severing all communication links.
– The border remained closed for 15 years and was only partially reopened in 1982, then fully in 1985.
– Air links with Spain were reestablished only 10 years ago in December 2006.
– True to its British sovereignty, there are regular flights to the mainland (London, Birmingham and Manchester) but flights to other countries including Spain and Morocco were abandoned for lack of passengers.
– There is a ferry link with Tangier in Morocco, and the ferry to Algeciras in Spain was reopened in December 2006.
– Gibraltar did not vote for a Brexit in June 2016: 95.9% voted to remain in the European Union and only 4.1% to leave.
– The currency of Gibraltar is the Gibraltar pound: Coins in circulation follow British denominations but have separate designs. But in practice everyone accepts euros in Gibraltar.
– Gibraltar airport intersects Winston Churchill Avenue, the main north-south street, requiring movable barricades to close when aircraft land or depart (see pictures above).
– There are no rivers, streams, or large bodies of water on The Rock. As such, Gibraltar’s water supply comes entirely from desalination, and is delivered from huge underground reservoirs excavated under the actual Rock. Just like a James Bond movie…
Situated at the very tip of Spain, I had assumed that the car landscape in Gibraltar wouldn’t bother conforming itself with the UK one, so far and with such a convoluted access to the mainland. Wrong again. Driving into Gibraltar is like crossing Europe to reach the UK in a matter of minutes. Even though – to keep consistency with the Spanish mainland – all cars drive on the right, the most successful models are a replica of the UK sales charts: Ford Fiesta, Focus, Nissan Qashqai: they’re all here. Oldies include the famed Land Rover, a presence that is a lot more logical here than in Ronda. Gibraltarians are in a hurry and experts road rage: it’s really just like an express flight to London. Gretchen had enough, and we did too. Time to get back to Spain.
But Tarifa, our next stop, is not really Spain anymore. It was given its name after the attack of Tarif ibn Malik in 710, that’s a year before Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Gibraltar, gave it its name and went on to invade the entire Iberian Peninsula. This is it: located at exactly 36 degrees latitude, Tarifa is the southernmost point of Continental Europe, even situated south of Tunis and Algiers. And there is a definite African flavour in town, with one of its main features being a ferry port for Tangier (40 minutes) and Ceuta (1 hour) complete with Moroccan-plated cars waiting to return home, and numerous signposts in Arabic script. Strong Atlantic winds means the climate is not as scorchingly hot as the rest of Andalusia in summer, but it also gives the town a different personality.
Tarifa is an appetiser for Morocco, a road trip BSCB might try and attempt in the near future with a Dacia, the most popular carmaker there. In fact, Dacias are – logically – more common in Tarifa than in the Spanish cities we’ve visited so far. Tiny, with no beach front, the walled old town is a remnant of an epoch long gone, with its fortress and tiny pedestrian streets lined with white-washed houses. We are still in Spain, but this could easily be Chefchaouen or Essaouira and you can, in fact, clearly see the African coast from the town’s dominant point in Castillo de Guzman. I couldn’t end this Report without a fun fact on Tarifa: the town is sometimes credited with being the origin of the word “tariff” (your computer will even try and autocorrect it!). Why? Simply because the town invented the concept. Tarifa was indeed the first port in history to charge merchants for the use of its docks…
Our next and final stops are Cadiz and Seville, with a review of Gretchen. Stay tuned!