Inaugurated in 1785, Ronda's Plaza de Toros is one of the oldest in Spain, younger and smaller than that at Sevilla, but home to one of Spain's most famous 'schools' of bullfighting, on foot rather than on horseback as at Jerez and Sevilla. The legendary Pedro Romero (1754-1839) is said to have killed nearly 6,000 bulls here and at other corridas (bullfights). Its most recent superhero was Antonio Ordóñez (1932-1998), fêted by his friend Ernest Hemingway in his book The Fatal Summer. Ordóñez's sons and grandsons have also fought at Ronda, but today the Plaza de Toros is a museum, open to tourists, and used only in the spectacular September Goyesca bullfights, in which combatants dress in the manner of Goya's portraits of 18th century life in Spain.
The mysterious Celtic precursors of the ritual of the corrida have long been lost in the mists of legend. We have seen that it was with the coming of the Moors that "bullfighting", to use that useful, if inaccurate, description invented by the bemused and largely disgusted English, finally began to develop some of the attributes that we would recognise today. And the most popular form of the ritual in Moorish times was that which is known as rejonear, with the bull being confronted by a man on horseback armed with a lance.
The honour of being the first Castilian to lance a bull from horseback is generally given to Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, "El Cid", but so many legends were woven about the life of that overblown mercenary buffoon after his death that we can happily take the suggestion with a generous pinch of salt.
Nevertheless, after the restoration of Christian rule to the newly united peninsula, bull-lancing from horseback remained Spain's most popular sporting pastime among the aristocracy. No court function worthy of the name was complete without its associated tournament, and although participation was restricted to the aristocracy, the peasants in the villages and fields were already staunch aficionados. Even the disapproval of King Philip V, and the condemnation of the church, failed to dim the popular enthusiasm.
Under the Moors, long abandoned Roman amphitheatres were pressed into action as venues, and where these were not available, improvised arenas were thrown up either in the fields outside a town or village's walls, or increasingly in its main square, or plaza. These were temporary structures, often constructed for a single corrida and then dismantled, but it was obviously only a matter of time before someone had the idea of making them permanent.
The Plaza de Toros in Ronda was not the first such. There was a plaza in Seville as early as 1747, where a picador named Marcos Saenz had the dubious honour of becoming the first bullfighter on record to die in the ring. The first matador to join the list was the ill-fated José Cándido, who ducked when he should have dodged at Coriano, Puerto de Santa María on June 23rd 1771.
Ronda's impressive stone-built and deliberately neo-classical bullring was completed in 1784, twenty years too late for the founder of the corrida's most celebrated dynasty, Francisco Romero, who had died in 1763, but just in time for his already legendary grandson, Pedro, who was thirty years old and in his prime. He would become synonymous with Ronda, its romance and its myths, and the ring in which his legend was forged would outlive all of its ephemeral predecessors to become the most venerable symbol of Spain's peculiar and controversial art. Romero himself became so famous that a distinctive uniform was designed for him by Spain's greatest living artist, Goya. This is still worn in special commemorative corridas, and the annual corrida goyesca in Ronda, held in early September, which includes a competition for the most decorative horse-drawn carriages and a flamenco festival. Tickets for the corrida are highly prized and difficult to get, so the advice to anyone wishing to attend is ask early and often.
Visitors who have no stomach for the corrida, but who nevertheless would like to snatch a vicarious whiff of the atmosphere, may visit the ring on its off days. Recently, great improvements have been made in this respect. The sections open to the public, which once extended only to the ring itself and a small museum, now include the stables and other behind-the-scenes areas. For once "fascinating" is an almost inadequate description. There is an excellent gift shop, which also now serves as the entrance, and it still appears almost obligatory for visitors from all over the world to have their friends and partners take the inevitable photograph of them in the centre of the arena, waving their jackets and handkerchiefs at imaginary bulls. Plus ça change…
The bullring is on the "modern" side of the Puente Nuevo, close to the town's impressive custom-built parador hotel with its incredible views into and across the gorge.
In view of the impact that Pedro Romero had on the art and spectacle of bullfighting, not to mention the economy of Ronda, it is perhaps surprising that neither of the statues standing in front of the bullring are of him. They represent two much later maestros - Cayetano Ordoñez "Niño de la Palma", and his even more celebrated son, Antonio, whose rivalry with his brother-in-law, Luis Miguel Dominguín was memorably chronicled by Ernest Hemingway. Pedro Romero's monument is in the Alameda, although in a sense his monument is everywhere. Across the street from the bullring, a fine restaurant bears his name, and it reappears regularly all over town.
GPS Location: 36º 44' 31"N 5º 10' 02"W View on Google Maps