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The Game in Spain

Ronda is the best known of the white towns because of its spectacular setting, built as it is on the two sides of the narr ow but exceedingly deep gorge of the Guadalevín River. One wonders about the founders of Ronda, why they undertook this feat. Two ancient principles seem to have held sway: "Hold the high ground" and "because it's there." Confronted with a gorge, something in human nature wants to jump across it, and if that's impossible, you want to build a bridge. It was a tragic urge in this case. The architect of the original bridge was sent down in a basket to look at his handiwork, the wind took his hat, he reached for it, upset the basket and fell to his death. The gorge is so deep that during the many years when horses routinely died in the bullring, standard procedure was simply to dump the carcasses over the side. It is said that long after the practice ended, vultures still gathered there in summer, presumably telling tales of past feasts. Ronda is the place where "modern" bullfighting began, with the creation of a code of conduct by the great torero Pedro Romero. The ancient plaza de toros, now containing a museum of the sport, still stands, and it gets used each September for the corrida goyesca--fight s wherein the toreros wear the costumes of the eighteenth century.

On an ordinary weekend, Ronda is quiet in the dazzling sun. For me--feeling like an ingrate as I say it--the charm of the place is almost excessive. Though there are few visitors at the moment, I feel the gazes of visitors past; it is one of those places that feels a bit eye-worn. I am happy to be pushing on to less perfect towns, like little Grazalema, a few miles away (which has its own Pamplona-style running of the bulls each summer), and Arcos de la Frontera.

Arcos itself is no slouch when it comes to views. Built high on a bluff overlooking the Guadalete River valley, it affords a long prospect over irrigated fields, grazing land and, fifty miles away, hazy mountains. From the balcony of the hotel room I can gaze vertiginously downward on hawks riding the thermal updrafts. In the cool of evening on the village's labyrinth of narrow streets, life emerges in front of houses and in little bars: romping children, grandmothers on chairs, men in intense but plainly merry dispute over something. For a visitor--who encounters the occasional smile but mostly a pleasant obliviousness--there is both an easefulness and a satisfying mystery about the town.

The Andalusian character has come in for a lot of analysis. The influential Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote, in an essay called "A Theory about Andalusia," that the soul of the people is "vegetative" and "indolent," by which he didn't mean to be as condemnatory as he sounds: "Theirs is work inspired by laziness and aimed at achieving more laziness. . . . This point of view becomes more understandable if we remember its converse--the ostentatious, petulant and impertinent air which work assumes among people who make it their ideal."

Perhaps the best advice Ortega y Gasset has for the traveler is the most basic: "One of the essentials in any attempt to understand the soul of the Andaluz is his extreme age. It must never be forgotten. This is perhaps the oldest people on the Mediterranean shore--older even than the Greeks or the Romans."

In recent years, proof has been found of an artistically accomplished Bronze Age culture here--the Tartessians--and Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Visigoths, all had their moment. In 711, under the leadership of Tariq ibn-Ziyad, the Moors of North Africa invaded. Arabic culture dominated the region for eight hundred years, though the Moors spent their last couple of centuries under continual assault from the Christian rulers of Spain. In 1492, as big a year for Spain as it was for the Americas, the Moors were driven from their last stronghold, Granada. And it was from Andalusia that Spanish exploration of the New World began. Andalusia has resembled a tidal estuary, receiving, mixing and breeding new life.

At one time or another in Andalusia, the weight of history will make itself felt; for me the fir st of such moments occurred at the great cathedral of Seville, the third largest in Europe. Its creators are said to have wanted to build a cathedral so big that "everyone on beholding it will take us for madmen." They failed because of an excess of art. The sixteenth-century building validates the extravagant language of architectural criticism; here is a building that does indeed look like "frozen music" and, conversely, one whose aliveness and movement you can feel. You can see, in the enormous stone columns in the nave, the force flowing from the vaults 184 feet above, borne into the ground.

A Gothic cathedral is usually enough to test the limits of historical imagination, but then you realize that this one was preceded by something as magnificent--a Moorish mosque that was demolished but is recalled by its one remnant minaret, the Giralda. Atop this tower, 322 feet above the city, you can look out over the cathedral and down the Guadalquivir River, where the tri umphant ships of exploration returned from the New World. You reflect that at this time Seville was beginning its decline. The ethn ic cleansing instituted by Ferdinand and Isabella had taken its toll, and the society was depleted of much of its talent. (For a place five hundred years past its peak, contemporary Seville is impressive, by far the most graceful and stylish of Andalusia's cities; with myriad little shops and squares, it is in some quarters nearly Parisian.)


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