I’m driving inland, following the 19th century railway line to Ronda. The route takes me past the hill town of Jimena de la Frontera, topped with the ruin of a 13th century Nasrid castle, and through cork oak forests and orange groves. Further north, I pass by the white villages of Gaucin and Algatocin, and can see even more in the distance. However, I can’t see the only blue village, painted for the filming of The Smurfs, and left that way as an enticement to the tourists.
From Ronda I head north west, taking a narrow, minor road through beautiful oak forest to Grazalema, a white village huddled into the hillside, sheltered from the wind and shaded from the sun. I feel lucky that I didn’t meet one of the large public buses on my way and hope they don’t continue further, for the road rises dramatically into the mountains, peaking at the 1357m high Puerto de las Palomas (Dove’s Pass). This 18km route is not for the faint-hearted or for those with a fear of heights as the road clings to the mountainside, winding down to the valley like a writhing serpent, with hairpin bends and sheer drops. At the bottom is the white village of Zahara de la Sierra, wrapped around a hill with a 12th century tower and overlooking a large reservoir.
A few days later, I take another route, east of Ronda, through bandit country. The first part to the village of El Burgo, birthplace of the notorious “Paso Largos”, reminds me of the Scottish highlands, craggy hills and barren land suitable only for goats and sheep. The road to Ardales is not signed but, after asking a local man, I traverse the small, bottleneck roads of the village and an old Roman bridge to emerge amongst olive groves growing on the slopes of the river Turon. It’s equally tough to negotiate the village of Ardales, whose narrow, cobbled streets were not designed with motorhomes in mind. However, I soon find myself running along the edge of a gleaming turquoise reservoir which seems in need of replenishment.
Beyond the reservoir, I enter dark, pine forest and, following signs to Bobastro, I climb up to a magnificent 360 degree viewpoint where I stop to have lunch. Cloud cover prevents me from seeing the coast but I know that it is there in the distance, and to the north, I can make out the top of the 400m deep El Chorro gorge. Retracing my steps back down through the forest, I am able to drive through the 4km gorge and emerge at the village of El Chorro, a mecca for climbers. I can’t see any on the rock face but I can see the 1m wide catwalk of the Camino del Rey, clinging to the cliff 100m above the river. Originally built in 1905 to provide access to the hydroelectric power station, it had fallen into a poor state, making it an even more exciting challenge for adrenaline junkies. After several fatal accidents in 2000 it was official closed, but is set to reopen soon after undergoing lengthy and expensive repairs. The Malaga to Ronda train line also passes through the gorge via a series of tunnels and bridges and the finale of the 1965 film Von Ryan’s Express, starring Frank Sinatra, was filmed here.
The last part of my scenic drive takes me to the untouristy town of Antquera which boasts many historical sites, including ancient Dolmens, Roman Baths and a Moorish fortress, as well as over 30 ornate churches. Unfortunately it’s Monday and they are all closed but it gives me a reason to return to the region in the future.
MH tips: The roads described are mostly narrow and winding. Some sections have recently been resurfaced while others are in a poor state. You may frequently meet farm vehicles and cyclists, especially during the weekend. Between Ronda and Antequera the route passes through some small villages with narrow streets which may not be possible to negotiate in a larger motorhome. There is also a 2.7m width restriction on the Roman bridge at El Burgo.