Madrid to Ronda
We landed in Madrid, a six-hour drive north of Ronda, just before dawn on Dec. 23. We picked up our Avis rental ($350 for the week, paid in advance online) and drove to the discount hotel we’d booked.
The sun rose just as we drove over the top of a ridge, and Madrid spread out before us, as if carved from ivory tinted orange in the wash of sunrise. I had to rub my eyes. Could it really be that beautiful?
It was. Madrid has the filigreed look of Paris, but unlike Paris, deep in December it was blasted with sunshine and 60-degree afternoons, filled with splashing fountains and rustling palm fronds, even while the mature shade trees still bore their autumn colors. The streets buzzed with well-scrubbed, well-dressed strollers. The shopkeepers and hotel desk clerks were not merely friendly but kind. We forced ourselves to stay awake and wandered the central neighborhood around our hotel, which was just across Madrid’s botanical gardens from the Prado, one of the world’s great museums and a lot more visitor-friendly than the implacably gargantuan Louvre. We were so glad that we’d laid-over there, and looked forward to the partial day we’d have on our return.
But the next morning was the test. It was one thing to flee Christmas in theory. It was another to wake up early on Christmas Eve, cruelly jet-lagged, with a six-hour drive ahead of you in a foreign country to a destination that didn’t even have a street address to feed into the GPS. In fact, as we would find out, it didn’t even have a street.
But from the start, the journey to Ronda was like gliding downhill on a sled. We’d left so early, the hotel wasn’t yet serving breakfast, so we picked the first spot we saw on our way out of town with lights on: Beaming waitresses, sweetly amused by our Spanish. Superb chocolate pastries, just out of the oven. Delicious coffee with hot steamed milk.
The highways were wide open and impeccably smooth, the countryside began as interesting and progressed to breathtaking as plains gave way to mountains. Another random stop for lunch at the equivalent of a gas-station convenience store yielded sandwiches of profoundly flavorful Serrano ham and tangy goat cheese. We ate at outside tables in the warm sun overlooking the thousands of acres of olive trees that studded the rolling hills. When I pumped gas, I discovered that my standard-transmission Volkswagon Gulf diesel was getting more than 40 miles a gallon — which was handy, since the gas cost the equivalent of $6.80 a gallon.
We got to the outskirts of Ronda — i.e., a two-lane highway looping lazily through green mountains that stabbed at the clear blue sky with massive, jagged peaks of shale — around 2 p.m. Steered the last few miles by the property caretaker giving directions on a throwaway cellphone we’d picked up in Madrid for $25, we drove the last quarter-mile over a deeply rutted dirt track that ran beside a rail line, then into a gated compound on a gravel drive.
Our place was called Finca de los Olivos — Farm of the Olives — a ranch-style house with a vine-draped, trellised porch on two sides. On the short side of the L, a small pool sparkled in the sun and led to another trellis-covered patio. Both porch and patio had full-size dining tables for al fresco meals. Inside the house were three high-ceilinged bedrooms, Spanish tile floors covered with oriental carpets, a wood-burning stove in the large living room and a very cozy, well-equipped kitchen. As everyone unpacked, a fire flickered in the stove and quickly dispelled the lingering morning chill. Then we drove into Ronda.