September is when the historical bullring in the Spanish town of Ronda comes alive with its annual bullfight.

Chitra Ramaswamy

September has a special significance in the majestic city of Ronda in Southern Spain, the cradle of bullfighting. It is time for the annual `corrida goyesca' when the entire place comes alive with the Pedro Romero fair. An integral aspect of the festivities is the traditional Goyesque bullfighting dedicated to the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya and in memory of the 18th-century matador Pedro Romero, who gave the rules of modern bullfighting attended by the king of Spain.

Nestled in the hillside, Ronda is a historic town in the province of Malaga, built around the world famous El Tajo, the 150-metre-deep gorge of the Guadalevin river.

We began our tour of Ronda from our base at Benalmadena in Costa del Sol, where we stayed at the Sunset Beach Resort. Good winding roads through the mountains of the Sierra Bermeja made our less-than-two-hour drive delightful and enchanting. Ronda's aura of mystery and magic perhaps owes to the legends of bullfighters and bandits, and has inspired writers, poets and painters. The place features in the works of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Gustave Dore.

Our tour guide, Kareem, mentions that even the filmmaker Orson Welles desired to have his ashes scattered over Ronda after his death!

Standing in scintillating grandeur over the river is el Puente Nuevo (the new bridge), which once served as prison. Work on the bridge began in 1751 and was completed in 42 years. It divides Ronda into the old Moorish town and the more modern El Mercadillo.

Ambling at a leisurely pace, we were able to cover most of Ronda, including its small and big alleys, which led to various landmarks in town. These included the Alameda Gardens, the Convent of St Isabel of the Angels, Calle Virgen de la Paz, Puente Nuevo and the most spectacular of them all the bullring.

The world's only bullring built on rock, Real Plaza de Toros is also the oldest bullring in Spain and renowned for its unique architectural style. Six metres longer than the conventional 60-metre diameter of bullrings, de Toros is used only once a year during September due to the sheer expense involved!

With seating for 5,000, of which 2,000 are complimentary seats for the royal entourage, tickets sell for as high as 700 or 800 euros, says Kareem. "The official bullfight involves six bulls and three matadors," he explains, "and though each fight lasts only 20 minutes, each matador gets 100,000 euros for a fight. And it is the world's best matadors who come. Each bull costs at least 20,000 euros. So you see, we can't afford to have more shows here!"

True, but the annual bullfight has never been missed since it began in 1954, except in 1963 when work was carried out in the bullring. The Goyesque bullfight is still fought exactly as it was during the sport's inception; the bullfighter and his team are attired in the costumes of Goya's day and age. The staunch friendship between Goya and Romero is believed to have inspired this characteristic dress code and fight.

At first sight, de Toros looks like an amphitheatre. It may well be so, says Kareem, "because a lot of music and dance precede the actual fight and the matadors and bulls enter the arena to the accompaniment of music."

De Toros was designed by master architect Jose Martin de Aldehuela and inaugurated in May 1785 under the auspices of the Maestranza, the equestrian society responsible for the military and equestrian training of the aristocracy. Framed by Tuscan columns, the stately de Toros has a large baroque front and is surrounded by a double gallery of smaller arches resting on the columns.

A bullfighting museum, opened in July 1984, exhibits various aspects of the sport, including suits and costumes donned by the matadors down the ages; one section is dedicated to the Romero dynasty.

While animal activists condemn the sport, on the one hand, diehard zealots of the game continue to rear young bulls to the stipulated 500 kg weight and five years of age before fielding them on the arena. The money, the blood, the `fun' and daredevilry together ensure a packed gallery.

Our final place of visit was the Plaza El Socorro, practically the hub of Ronda shopping, with its milling restaurants and shops selling among other things wrought iron, pottery and leather works, for which Ronda is well known.

Photo courtesy: Ediciones A.M. & Turismo de Ronda, S.A.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 9, 2005)
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