Key to the city

The door to Rilke's room in Spain was locked, but it turned out there are other doors to the culture.

Published February 16, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There is something elusive about the Spanish, an aspect of their spirit that defies definition. It has to do with their almost pagan instinct for pleasure -- all of that exuberant dancing and clapping -- but also with a kind of melancholy, an innate understanding of the tragic that Spaniards possess. In all my years of visiting Spain I had never been able to wholly understand that paradox. Even as a college junior, when I lived in Andalusia and believed that my sheer affection for the country would allow me to know what it meant to be "Spanish," I still could not grasp it.

That hope for some kind of understanding -- or some reconciliation with my inability to understand -- brought me here, not long ago, to Spain's southern Costa del Sol, boarding an early-morning bus for Ronda. From what I had heard, Ronda embodied the enigma of Spain: At once romantic and sorrowful, a fortressed village whose views from craggy cliffs were both lovely and sad, carrying the weight of the town's shadowed history.

I had also read somewhere that Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet, had lived in Ronda for a few months, in his mid-30s. I planned to visit the hotel where he had lived and to read the poetry that he'd written there. I thought that he'd probably grappled with questions about the Spanish similar to those I had.

The bus from Malaga to Ronda wound up mountainsides, past white clusters of towns. With each curve of the road, I felt myself curling back in time as we left the crowds of the Costa del Sol farther behind. I thought of what I knew about Ronda: A town perched at the edge of a mountain range and divided in two by the Tajo gorge. The Tajo drops 500 feet into a river whose roar, after the rains, can be heard from the streets above. In "Death in the Afternoon," Hemingway calls Ronda the perfect place, "if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone."

But I had also heard about Ronda's less romantic side. There are many dark stories of this place, and here is one: Pedro Romero, Ronda's renowned 18th century bullfighter, discovered his wife, Elena, with a lover. He stabbed the man then carried his wife through the streets to the Tajo gorge, where he threw her into the void. (Prosper Mirimie would later base his "Carmen" on that story.)

As the bus approached Ronda, the town rose out of the morning fog, a Brigadoon that had slept for a hundred years and was about to awaken. We snaked through narrow streets and curtains of mist until we stopped at a small depot, and I stepped out. Obligations I had for the next evening left me only 24 hours in Ronda.

The Hotel Reina Victoria, where Rilke stayed, is a white turn-of-the-century manse at the top of Calle Jerez. I'd read that Rilke's room was open to visitors and set up just as he'd left it: a bed, a chair, a little desk, a few books he'd left behind. But when I inquired, the receptionist brushed me off.

"The key isn't here just now," she said. "Come back tomorrow." When I told her I was leaving in the morning, she shrugged. "Come back later, then."

Disappointed, and determined to gain entry to that room later, I went in search of other clues to the Spanish sensibility. I headed for the Tajo gorge.

The gorge drew me, I confess, more because of its gruesome history than its dramatic views. Besides the story of Elena and Pedro Romero, there was another intriguing episode in the gorge's history. Ronda is said to be the setting for the event, described in Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," in which townspeople loyal to Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War were forced to run down the main street toward the gorge. They stumbled through lines of peasants armed with flails before being thrown over the cliff. (No one has proved that story true, but it is known that hundreds of nationalists were murdered in Ronda.)

I walked down the main avenue toward the gorge, the same street where Hemingway's doomed Franquistas ran. I reached the Puente Nuevo, the 18th century bridge that overlooks the Tajo. But there I was again disappointed, this time by an enormous crowd, thronging to see the view.

I crossed the bridge into the Old Quarter, where simple, whitewashed homes stood beside mansions with wrought-iron balconies. I found the ramparts, the city's fortification, still partly standing. I walked along them, though the height scared me. Ronda had been quite a protected place, settled first by the Celts, who called it Arunda, then by the Romans and later by the Arabs, whose capture there opened the way to the final conquest of the Moors, at the Alhambra in Granada.

I passed the Plaza de la Ciudad, where the tower of the church of Santa Marma la Mayor was once a Moorish minaret. I saw signs of Ronda's Arab roots throughout the Old Quarter, with its tile-work, arching doorways and window casings.

I headed back over the bridge to the setting of another of Ronda's dramas: "La Maestranza," one of Spain's oldest and most famous bullrings, built in 1785. When there is no bullfight, a small entrance fee gets you into both the ring and its bullfighting museum, several long rooms built into the curve of the ring. The museum features displays of brilliant trajes de luces -- matadors' "suits of lights," heavy and compact, which add bulk to the frames of the matadors. High on the walls hang stuffed heads of the most noble fighting bulls, most without ears, taken as trophies for the matador. Torn and bloodstained ruffled shirts of gored bullfighters lie in glass cases. Other cases hold photographs and newspaper articles immortalizing the best-loved matadors who have died in the ring, including Manuel Rodrmguez, known as "Manolete," who died in 1947. A photo shows him in his funeral bed.

Most important perhaps are memorabilia from the Romero dynasty, beginning with Francisco Romero -- known as the Father of Modern Bullfighting -- born in Ronda in 1698. It was Romero who first came off his horse to fight the bull on foot and to use a muleta (cape), defining the art of modern bullfighting. Also in the museum are the suits of his grandson Pedro Romero (of the Elena and Pedro story), perhaps the most lauded matador in Spain, known to have killed at least 5,000 bulls in his unusually long career.

The museum also features Francisco Goya's dark "tauromaquma" scenes. Inspired by the Ronda ring, many of these lithographs depict the cape-work of Pedro Romero, of whom Goya was a great admirer. For two weeks each September, in fact, the Goyesca Feria commemorates Pedro Romero's birthday. The festivities include a horse-and-carriage procession through town and bullfights featuring matadors in 18th century dress.

Outside the museum, I climbed a dark stairwell to reach the spectator stand for a better view of the ring. It is graceful, with curved benches and wooden beams overhead, a red-tiled awning hanging over double arches and more than 175 columns. I climbed down to the ring and stood behind the barreda, painted the red-yellow-red of the Spanish flag, where the matadors wait before they enter the ring -- and where they run behind, sometimes, when the bull starts to charge.

I walked into the ring and thought of bullfights I'd been to in Sevilla, years before: The sound of tinny horns and snare drums, the scent of wine and black tobacco infusing the spectator stands. The suits of lights in glimmering gold and black, or electric blue and pink. The matador's white smile and flushed cheek. But also, the bull, sprung from its pen onto that ring of orange sand, facing death.

There in the Ronda ring, I remembered the contradiction of that morbid Spanish ritual: During the season of the corrida -- the bullfight -- there is no end of partying. The corrida is the reason for the fiestas, and the fiestas define, somehow, the death in the afternoon at the corrida. It is a contrast echoed as well in flamenco, in the insistent swirl of the dancer's skirt against the music's mournful key.

Early evening, I returned to the Hotel Reina Victoria. A stout uniformed doorman, who'd observed my earlier encounter with the receptionist, took me aside and explained that the key to Rilke's room was lost. Another tourist had walked off with it a few days before.

"Come back tomorrow afternoon," he said. "Perhaps the tourist will return it, or we will have found a locksmith."

I shook my head. "I have to leave early in the morning."

"You should stay," he said, frowning. "One should always have one more day in Ronda." Then he added lightly: "A vivir que son dos dias." Live it up: Life lasts just a couple of days.

That old Spanish saying caught me off guard, made me hesitate for a moment and think about changing my carefully planned itinerary. But I quickly brushed the thought aside. A change would inconvenience the friends I planned to connect with the next day in Malaga.

Later I sat at a table in a bar whose doors were open to the night, and to the sound of guitars strumming in the plaza. I drank chilled, dry sherry, ate a tapa of grilled tuna and a flan for desert. I watched a small group of Spaniards standing up at the bar, clearly all old friends. I remembered back to my college days in Spain and how, when the hour would grow late, my Spanish friends wouldn't think of going home. Instead they would linger at a favorite bar, then move to another, insisting that I come too. They would drink red wine from glass tumblers, eat with their fingers from small shared plates of grilled mushrooms or garlic shrimp. And if an alegrma played from a radio at the bar, they would clap and stomp their heels. And if a solea played, someone at the bar might begin to sing in a voice mournful and slow, until everyone was silent. And no one thought it strange.

That is what the Spanish intuitively understand, what they acknowledge in the way that they live and in their rituals around the bullfight and in flamenco: The line between laughter and despair is fluid, each informing the other. Life lasts "just a couple of days," as the doorman said; one might as well enjoy it.

In Ronda the next morning, I awoke early and made my way to the bus station. The station doors were locked, and the lights were off. A cab driver out front told me that I must have misread the schedule: My bus to Malaga wasn't due for several hours. So much for my itinerary. Soon, of course, I was back at the Hotel Reina Victoria for one last try at Rilke's room.

The doorman didn't seem surprised to see me. "One should always have one more day in Ronda," he said again. Still, he shook his head. "No key, seqorita."

I started to turn away when he spoke again: "But have you seen the garden?"

I followed his pointing finger through the back door. There, a garden of palms and century plants grew thick, overlooking the Tajo gorge and river, which ran full and brown that day. Unlike at the Puente Nuevo the night before, there were no other tourists; I had the view to myself. I sat on a bench, enveloped by the scent of pine and of the garden wall's brick, wet with dew. Then, something out of the corner of my eye made me turn.

There was Rilke; It was a life-size bronzed statue of the poet. He stood with a small book in one hand, looking out to the gorge and beyond, sharing the view with me: The groves of olive trees, the earth parsed into plots, the misty blue sierras. Birds chattered around us -- while from the gorge, the river roared in an ominous undertone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Since that trip to Ronda, I have heard various things about Rilke's fabled room. One disappointed visitor I spoke with was told that the room was under renovation and could not be viewed; another told me he'd heard that, in fact, the room didn't exist. I've encountered no one who has seen it. And although I, too, failed to glimpse the quarters where he'd stayed, I did not leave Ronda disappointed.

As with the best journeys, I didn't find what I expected, but I did happen upon what I was looking for. The key to beginning to know Spain, it turned out, was not to be found in the portal to Rilke's room or at the Tajo gorge. Rather, I glimpsed it by opening myself, just a little, to the words of a wise doorman: A vivir que son dos dias.

Boarding my bus for Malaga that afternoon, I hoped to keep the essence of Ronda with me. Rilke, who after a few short months in Ronda moved on to Paris, apparently shared my wish. I settled into my seat and read these lines from his "Spanish Trilogy":

Let me, though, having once more the thronging of towns
and tangled skein of sounds and chaos
of vehicles round me, uncompanioned, --
let me, above the enveloping whirl,
remember sky and that earthy brim of the vale
where the homeward-faring flock emerged from beyond.

And as the bus wound down the mountain toward the thronging of the Costa del Sol, I recalled that "earthy brim" of the Tajo: That moment in the garden, listening to the rapturous song of the birds -- and to the minor chord of the river ringing from the gorge below.

By Lucy McCauley

Lucy McCauley is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass.

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