Carved in the cliffs of the ‘El Tajo’ gorge is a surprising mine and fortress that dates back to the Moorish era when constant wars in Al-Andalus required the city governors to protect water supplies to the people and defenders.
The Water Mine was built during the reign of Ronda’s King Abomelic at the beginning of the 14th century, when Ronda was an independent Islamic kingdom on the frontline between the Christian north, and the newly developing Islamic Nazari Kingdom in Granada. To reach the water mine it is necessary to first enter the gardens of the House of the Moorish King.
In popular culture, the mine is rumoured to be the secret hiding place of Abomelic’s gold, and many people in Ronda still believe that underground chambers and palaces may still be discovered. This is unlikely however, and many of the rumours could have been started by slaves freed after the city fell to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1485.
Within the mine there are 231 steps carved into the rock that lead to the river below, a total distance of 60 metres, and the bottom 30 metres contain an impregnable fortress from which the city defence could protect essential water supplies.
The fortress is a marvel of medieval Islamic engineering, and unique in all of Spain. The chambers were built using a complex latticework of stacked vaults that made it possible to defend the lowest chamber and the entrance from chambers higher up the fortress.
At one time it wasn’t necessary to leave the fortress to collect water, a water wheel with buckets was used to bring water from a well in the room of the spring (‘Sala del Manantial’), and then slaves would form a human chain to pass water in skin bags called zagues from the bottom to the city above.
The fortress at the bottom of the water mine was also thought to be a secret escape from the city because the location of the fortress cannot be seen from the Arab Bridge which was the main entrance to the city. However, to make sure the city was defended, the weapons room included a small window above the door, that could be used to pour boiling water onto attackers.
Another interesting aspect of the fortress is that the stone walls prevent sound traveling, and in the room of secrets it is said that if a person stands in the centre of the room, he cannot hear what is said in the corner.
Directly above the fortress, about 25 metres above the river, there is a terrace known as the Terrace of the Conquest, from which Moorish and then Christian conquerers could watch the river for signs of attack, and this is now known to have been the first line of defence of the water mine. It is below the hermit’s grotto, and is so well hidden it cannot be seen from any direction.
Recently Ronda has been subject to numerous grandstanding exercises over the fate of the Casa del Rey Moro, arguably one of the best known buildings in the old town. Last month the owner in a moment of frustration at not getting approval to build a five star hotel hung a banner claiming that 200 jobs in Ronda have not been created due to planning consent issues, he was promptly arrested and his banner removed by the Policia Local, starting a vicious series of recriminations between the owner and the mayor of Ronda.
Almost all of the Ronda and Spanish press have reported the story, the owner of the palace has not been slack in getting his opinion out, whilst on the opposite side the mayor and senior PSOE councillors have called for the palace to be expropriated. Ignoring the politics for the moment, here are the facts of the story as known by Ronda Today.
The Facts of the Situation
Jochen Knie, a German expatriate who owns a five start hotel in Sevilla bought the Casa del Rey Moro in 1996, an agreement signed by the then mayor of Ronda, PSOE Juan Fraile, with the explicit intention (mentioned in the contract of sale) Knie would renovate the building and construct a five star hotel in the city. At the time, the town hall pledged to alter the municipal zoning plans so that the hotel could proceed.
Within the original contract of sale was a stipulation that Knie or his nominated company, Casa del Rey Moro S.L. would repair and open to the public the gardens of the palace and the mine which descends to the Guadalevín, the river that separates the two halves of Ronda. The garden and mine were assessed by archeology experts from the Universities of Sevilla and Málaga, and opened to the public in 1997.
The first consent for the hotel was rejected as containing too many changes for a culturally important building in 1998, and a second plan drawn up which has yet to be approved or rejected. Building consent in the Casco Antiguo, the old town, is notoriously difficult to obtain owing to the preciousness of the area and to a legal fact that the Ayuntamiento is not empowered to approve consents within the area, in fact consent must come from the Junta de Andalucía.
Fundamentally, the problem with building consent in the old town, the Padre Jesus district, most of the old part of Mercadillo, and the Barrio de San Francisco is that zoning plans must be approved by the Junta de Andalucía because of their historical and cultural importance, in fact the Ayuntamiento has no power to create the zoning plan, and no power to approve or deny applications for building consent. Essentially the Ayuntamiento is legally not competent in these areas, not from lack of experienced people, more because the Junta de Andalucía have a legal obligation under Spanish national law to protect areas of cultural importance and other cities such as Antequera, Marbella, Córdoba, Granada, Cadíz etc are in the same position.
Consequently the situation has dragged on for 14 years without a satisfactory solution. Furthermore, several key players in the drama have become fed up and legal action initiated from at least three of the parties against each other.
Jochen Knie has filed a notice for compensation against the Ayuntamiento de Ronda to the value of 6.4 million Euros for breach of contract, a lady who sold a property to Jochen Knie in return for having her home rebuilt has initiated legal action against the Casa del Rey Moro for restitution, and now the Ayuntamiento is starting proceedings to have the palace expropriated ostensibly due to damage caused from neglect by the owner.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Policia Local are considering charges against Jochen Knie for breach of the peace and hanging his banner without permission, whilst Jochen Knie has denounced the Policia Local, Rafael Lara, and Antonio Marín Lara through the Policia Nacional for wrongful arrest and other allegations after the public dispute that occurred on Saturday 27th March 2010.
Ronda Suffers the Consequences of the Dispute
Altogether the recent events are a terrible shame and bring Ronda into disrepute, made worse when sensationalist local newspapers allow themselves to be used by the various parties for political point scoring. Foreign visitors to Ronda who have been interviewed by Ronda Today report reading about the dispute in a prominent local English newspaper and despairing that the Casa del Rey Moro was in imminent danger of collapsing. In fact this is far from the truth as attested by architects and engineers who are familiar with the building.
In a recent statement by the mayor of Ronda to a journalist from El Pais, Antonio Marín Lara extended an olive branch to Jochen Knie describing him as a good business person and offering to reduce council fees for presenting his building consent application to just 5% of normal fees.
New Zoning for the Casa del Rey Moro
At the current time, it is still not possible for the hotel project to go ahead because the current zoning plan lists the Casa del Rey Moro is a cultural monument, though in fact the only parts of the property that have a high level of protection are the garden and mine, the palace itself is a relatively recent structure with the main building and towers being constructed in the early 20th century. The palace itself is listed as a category B protected building of Grade 1 and 2 which is not especially high and does allow for renovations, but currently does not allow for a hotel to be constructed.
The (hopefully) soon to be approved zoning plan for Ronda changes its designation to “turistico” which would allow the building of a hotel, of course abiding by the restrictions placed on all construction within a culturally and historically important area that requires the exterior of a building to be protected without insensitive changes. Quite simply this means in the case of the Casa del Rey Moro that all existing windows, doors, special architectural embellishments, the towers, the colour etc must remain the same after renovation.
Jochen Knie confirmed to Ronda Today that his architects are aware of the restrictions and would not be building a UFO as has been described by the mayor in recent press interviews, you can see for yourself what the architects envisage by watching the YouTube video alongside this paragraph.
What then is the future of the Casa del Rey Moro? Legal advisors tell Ronda Today that the mayor’s expropriation claim is unlikely to succeed because the building is not in a sufficiently degraded state for the courts to award expropriation, though they may require the owner to shore up certain parts of the building. Furthermore, several PSOE and PP activists in Ronda have expressed the opinion the mayor is simply playing politics by appearing to act in the interests of Rondeños, many of whom would prefer to see the palace restored as a museum for the benefit of the city.
Architects in Ronda have also expressed the opinion that the new zoning plan will soon be approved making it permissible for Jochen Knie to continue with his hotel project, albeit 14 years late, and barring delays could see construction start within the next 2-3 years. Knie’s compensation claim is progressing very slowly and likely won’t be settled for another 10 years or more, by which time a new mayor will most likely have to deal with the findings.
In addition, Knie has confirmed to Ronda Today that the dispute with the former owner of a property purchased by Knie is close to reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
It seems then that in fact there is no story to report, yet Knie and the mayor have both gone on the offensive over a situation that probably needn’t have occurred, politics as usual is the winner, whilst ordinary Rondeños sit back scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss is. Strategically, Knie’s actions can’t be considered any other way than as a publicity stunt to draw attention to his project, whist the Policia Local’s actions in entering the property and arresting Knie have been described by at least one local lawyer as unwise and possibly in contravention of Spanish and EU law.
Ronda Today hopes the issue of what to do with the Casa del Rey Moro reaches a speedy conclusion, because this certainly isn’t good for Ronda in the public eye, and has the potential to affect the efforts of the Office of Tourism as they compete with larger cities for a shrinking slice of the tourism Euro.
Spain, and in particular the Costa del Sol, is one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, and from Marbella, Puerto Banus, Benalmadena, Torremolinos, Mijas Costa, Fuengirola, San Pedro, Málaga or Estepona Ronda is only a short drive, between 45 minutes and 1hr 15minutes away, and is rated one of THE must-see destinations in Spain.
Aside from the small and compact size of the city of Ronda, everywhere can be reached on foot in less than 30 minutes walking, Ronda has also been home to people spanning 30,000-40,000 years, most of whom have left their mark in the form of nearby cave paintings, bronze age burial chambers, a ruined Roman city, and the Moorish quarter.
Ronda makes a perfect weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Costa del Sol, in fact Rondeños have a word that describes their lifestyle, tranquila, very peaceful. It certainly describes Ronda well. Here’s a list of monuments you can see if you have 3-4 hours to wander around Ronda.
The Bullring (Plaza de Toros)
Often referred to as Spain’s largest and oldest bullring, it’s real significance is it’s beauty as an architectural wonder, and as the bullring where Pedro Romero, the father of modern bullfighting perfected his art. The museum of bullfighting is located under the seating in the rear of the building.
Ronda’s Plaza de Toros is owned by the Real Maestranza de Caballero de Ronda, and is an exceptional building that is open to the public. It contains 136 tuscan columns that hold the stands, and the entire plaza is built from rock quarried locally.
Yes, if you really want to, you can pretend to be a bull and run around the rueda, nobody will laugh, we’ve all done it.
The Puente Nuevo
Universally recognizable, the Puente Nuevo is one of Spain’s most photographed monuments and stands 98 metres above the tajo gorge. It’s a truly impressive site, all the more so because the rocks used to build the bridge were quarried from below on the river bed, and then hoisted into position using an innovative system of pulleys.
The bridge featured in Ernest Hemingway’s award winning novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, though we’ll leave it to your imagination to decide if his story was true.
Originally built when Ronda was an independent kingdom, the Mondragon Palace isn’t much to look at from outside, but inside contains the Municipal Museum of Ronda and some beautiful original courtyards and terraces.
It was from here that the Catholic Kings accepted the surrender of the last Muslim governor of Ronda in 1485, but since then the palace has reverted to more peaceful uses, in fact being a popular wedding venue for Rondeños and visitors alike.
Moorish King’s House and Gardens
Back in the early 20th century before war descended on Spain the Duquesa de Parcent owned several houses in the Moorish Quarter, the largest of them being her own residence which became known as the Casa del Rey Moro, the Moorish King’s House, owing to the impressive dungeon and fortress carved into the living rock beneath the palace.
Legend has it that during the Moorish era Christian slaves would be chained to the steps and made to pass jugs of water from the river to the city water tanks above. During the Duquesa’s ownership of the palace the terraced gardens were redesigned by Forestier in the style of French aristocratic gardens of the era.
Back in Moorish times, public baths were a very popular social setting, and also a mandatory stop for visitors to Ronda who were required to cleanse themselves physically and spiritually in the adjacent Mosque before being allowed to enter the city proper.
The Arab Baths in Ronda have undergone extensive renovations in recent times, including restoration of the gardens and making the baths accessible to mobility challenged people.
Getting to Ronda
Coming to Ronda is easy, there are buses from Málaga several times per day, as well as buses from Torremolinos that pass through Marbella on their way to Ronda. Train services are also quite frequent from Málaga. Of course most people drive to Ronda, either using the San Pedro to Ronda road, or taking the road from Málaga to Coín and then following the signs to Campillos but turning off well before on the road to Ronda.
Arriving in Ronda can be confusing, the city has a ring road that is far out of town, but following the signs for the ‘Centro Cuidad’ on both roads will bring you to a large roundabout with a train line running over it. At this roundabout you’ll enter Ronda on the main dual carriageway through the city known as Avenida de Málaga, and the very end of which you’ll find the huge underground carpark “Parking Martinez Astein”.
From the carpark, exit at Avde de Málaga, and you’ll find yourself standing at the top end of a long pedestrianised street, this is Carrera Espinel, loving known locally as La Bola. Walk to the very end of this street (around 800m) and you’ll be standing directly opposite Ronda’s famous bullring, the Plaza de Toros.