Costa de Sol, Sotogrande

Costa de Sol, Sotogrande

A lady in the oceans, Barbara Athanassiadis
A dive in the Great Age of exploration is certainly a dive in the oceans which in the 15th century were unknown and cartography incomplete. Part 6

Ι was sleeping when at 2.00 p.m. HARMONY V silently left the port of Cádiz to continue her voyage towards east. Surely, the seagulls would have surrounded us and, most surely, the large waves of the ocean made us rhythmically swing up and down. It is said that when sleep is sweet, it makes you feel like being in a fairy tale, but unfortunately, I lost my fairy tale when I abruptly woke up and looked at the clock. Captain Andreas had told us at dinner the previous night that we would cross the Strait of Gibraltar at 7.00 in the morning. Ιt was 7.30. I quickly got dressed, wearing an extra sweater because it was still dark and chilly. Ι climbed to the upper deck and, grabbing a cup of coffee always waiting for us at the lounge bar, I went to the bridge where Captain Andreas had kindly allowed me to enter knowing the purpose of my journey: Not only to visit gorgeous places for the delight of the eyes, but also to catch out the secrets of seafaring like Christopher Columbus.

Captain Andreas was at the bridge with a cup of steaming coffee next to the mahogany steering wheel, which served nothing since everything was done by pressing buttons. Looking at them, frankly say, didn’t make me feel at all like Christopher Columbus. “I fell asleep and I didn’t see the Strait of Gibraltar. I don’t forgive myself”, I said with a deep disappointment in my eyes. “We are in the Strait, we are still crossing it”, he replied, pointing to the far left the coast of Spain, where the lights of the small towns were sparkling like yellow diamonds. Οn the other side, it should have been Morocco, sunk in the dark; somewhere far away some light was reflected. I was surprised! I don’t know why maps mislead me. The Strait seemed like a dot when I was looking at it sitting comfortably in the armchair of my library at home. It seemed to be as straight as the Dardanelles on the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, so straight that I could touch the rocks and push them to open as Hercules did. And worst of all, on the maps the facing shores looked like two tips to be crossed in five minutes, while we were sailing and sailing and the night would become day and we would be still crossing the Strait. “What’s the distance between them?” I asked with a weak smile. “About 14 kilometres” he replied calmly. “It takes two hours to cross the Strait. Around 8.00 o’clock we will enter the Mediterranean Sea.” I listened to him with mixed feelings. Of course, it wasn’t what I imagined, but the Earth is what it is, and won’t do me the favour to keep up with my fantasies. What I realized, however, was that we stopped swinging up and down, leaving behind the large waves of the ocean. “Are the waters always calm here?” I asked. “Usually they are,” he said. “We left behind the big tides of the Atlantic which often delay or accelerate our journey. The crossing of the Strait was scheduled for the daylight, but the ocean obliged us to cross it before the sun rose. It doesn’t matter, though, because you’ll soon see the Rock of Gibraltar at sunrise, and I am sure you’ll be enchanted”.

A huge, steep promontory emerging from the sea while across the way the sun was rising over the coast of Africa.

At 6.30 in the morning, while we were still asleep, HARMONY V left the Rock heading east. When I opened my eyes, I saw from the window that we were approaching a marina full of elegant sailboats. I raised my eyebrows. Usually, in the ports, we were the smallest ship, but here, it seemed, we were the largest. We were in Sotogrande, one of the most luxurious Mediterranean resorts in the famed Coast del Sol, 25 kilometers from Gibraltar. The wealthiest families of Spain and many Brits have built villas in the traditional Andalusian-style, making it Europe’s most expensive real estate. There were five golf courses including the unique Valderrama Golf Course, the best in the country; some say in Europe too.
History seemed to abandon me in this sophisticated setting with the chic shops, smart restaurants and beach clubs; but History’s attraction came back, fluttering like a butterfly. Leaving the yacht in the afternoon, we passed Marbella, for which I nourish the most beautiful feelings for its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Our Spanish guide revealed to us that its small jewel-like citadel was founded by the Romans and later was occupied by the Moors, who called it Marba-la. Its charming layout with the very narrow streets and beautiful flower pots on the walls of the houses delighted the Moroccan scholar and most known traveller of the Medieval times, Ibn Battuta. He described it as: “a pretty little town in a fertile district” because it was surrounded by orchards with fig and mulberry trees.

This idyllic image followed us when, heading uphill into the hinterland, we soon found ourselves passing one of Europe’s most exclusive resorts, named Zagatela, whose outstanding villas with the magnificent views to the sea, not even Marbellans, know who the owners are.

We were going up the hills, higher and higher embraced by the Sierra de las Nievas and Sierra de Grazalema, covered with cherry trees, Aleppo and maritime pines, and where golden eagles fly along with hawks, falcons and vultures on their peaks. I was wondering why the Arabs were looking to settle in such remote places off the coast. It was precisely for this reason they moved away from the coast: to find safety and be connected through inland passages to the cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada.


So, we arrived in Ronda, the most beautiful city of Andalusia, the birthplace of modern bullfighting, with its elegant mansions of the local aristocracy, closed behind wonderful iron-wrought balconies. When, by chance, a heavy wooden door was opened, the most delicious patios of the world were revealed.
The way Ronda was built is amazing! The Guadalevin river that runs through the city divides it in two and has carved out a steep canyon more than 120-meters deep. It is the most spectacular town in Europe. Three bridges were built in different eras to span the gorge: the Roman Bridge followed by the Arab Bridge and the New Bridge, Puente Nuevo in 1759, which took forty-two years to complete!
We visited a rondeňο mansion to get an idea of the local architecture, a blending of Moorish, Andalusian and neo-Gothic styles. The patio with an exuberant decoration of floral motifs; rooms with beautiful Ronda walnut furniture of the 18th century; and tapestries of the Royal Factory attracted our attention. But when we got out to the garden, we forgot the interior of the house, and we exclaimed in delight at its beauty and its breathtaking view. It was built on the edge of the cliff, the Sierra Grazalema in front and the El Tajo gorge under its feet.

And now let’s talk about bullfights, a tradition that goes back to Spain’s remote past. Generally, at the squares of cities, we see statues of kings, politicians or war heroes. Here in Ronda, though, in the Alameda Park and under the foliage, we saw the statue of its most important citizen, the bullfighter Pedro Romero, the father of modern bullfighting.

“Why is he a legend?” I asked our courteous guide. “Well, because he considered the bullfight as an art”, she explained. “You must know that until then, bullfight was considered a macho exploit to a bull’s slaughter. Pedro Romero founded the first bullfight school in Seville; he established innovations such as the use of the cape, muleta; and the kill of the bull face to face and not riding on a horse”. Next, she amazed us by saying that he, himself, killed over 6.000 bulls without receiving a single goring!

33. Matador Statues outside the Plaza de Toros Text 6 Ronda

What does bullfight have to do with Goya, here in Ronda, and it’s called Corrida Goyesca?” I asked.
“Because Goya painted bullfights in bright colours, and was a fan of Pedro Romero, to whom he designed his most stylish bullfighting costumes,” she replied, adding that both of them lived in the late 18th century. While we were all ears to her explanations, our eyes were turning around to catch glimpses of the Rodeňos who were strolling in the picturesque streets. It was Sunday afternoon and they were enjoying their paseo under the bright sun or sitting in cafés and tapas bars. The atmosphere was full of Andalusian vivacity! “Now, I will show you the chapel where bullfighters pray before they get into the ring,” our guide said.

34. Plaza de Toros Text 6 Ronda

She took us inside the Plaza de Toros and threw us into the magic of things we heard for the first time.She took us inside the Plaza de Toros and threw us into the magic of things we heard for the first time.8Oh, yes, you don’t enter Ronda’s venerated bullring by walking. The matadors first parade riding through the town in the finest of period carriages, looking radiant in their Goyesca costumes. They are not the only ones. The Damas Goyescas parade too riding in horse-drawn carriages wearing ornate dresses and mantillas. They are eagerly applauded by the crowd that shouts: “Guapa! Guapa!” Our Rondeňa guide was so excited by her town’s stories that she couldn’t make a pause. Andalusians speak and never take a breath. “Every year some of Ronda’s ladies,” she continued, “are chosen to be the Damas Goyescas. They wear gowns seen in Goya’s paintings of bullfights and pageantry. But today’s dresses, that cost a fortune, even though they respond to the 18th century’s fashion, are more splendid and beautiful.”

35. Damas Goyescas Text 6 Ronda

The sun was setting when we left Ronda. It took about an hour to descend the valleys and reach the sea, where HARMONY V was waiting for us at the Sotogrande marina. Before dinner, I went to the upper deck to contemplate the night. Myriads of stars were scintillating in the sky. I was wondering how my journey from the Great Age of Exploration evolved to the wonders of Ronda. Yes, of course, flamenco, toreros, pure white horses, Damas Goyescas… Andalusia had the power to seduce me with her great beauty.

36. Ronda Text 6 Ronda

47. Trade mark Barbara Athanassiadis
by Barbara Athanassiadis, a travel writer


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