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Homes of Bullfighting and Prehistoric Cave Art in Southern Spain
Susan Klann

On a fall trip through southern Spain we paged through guidebooks in search of prehistoric caves along our route. Our grail: caves where art created by primitive man had not yet been closed off for preservation. Four years earlier, on a two-week stay in Bordeaux, France, a highlight of the visit for our extended family had been a trek into the Rouffinnac caves. There, small carts had rumbled down a four-mile track deep into the caveapostrophes heart where man had traveled to create fantastic drawings of mammoth, horses, and other animals. Along the way we passed hundreds of large vertical clawmarks left by hibernating bears. Now that was atmosphere!

Of all the cathedrals, art, and architecture of the towns we had visited, these simply but gracefully worked paintings, in charcoal, yellow, and red—requiring such effort on the part of the artists, who often didn’t live in the caves but went there for reasons still unknown—moved us the most. We felt as if we were witnessing the beginning of the artistic sensibility within man, the roots of masterpieces treasured today.

Happily for the paintings, but sadly for tourists, the cave art is often sealed off or removed nearly as quickly as it is found. Only scientists, archeologists, and art historians are permitted to study and admire the work created sometimes as many as 25,000 years ago.

Driving along the Costa del Sol, which has in many spots become a cliffside jumble of resort development, we turned inland at Nerja and drove a short distance to the well-known Nerja caves. These huge caverns attract lovers of stalactites and stalagmites as well as those interested in prehistoric cave art. While the guidebooks indicated that the original art might no longer be on view, we decided to doublecheck. A quick conversation at the ticket office confirmed that only reproductions could be seen at the museum.

Not good enough for us!! While we understand the need to preserve the paintings, the thrill of seeing them by flickering lantern light on the cool cavern walls where artists first placed them can’t be equaled in a museum setting. We were set to spend the next night in the mountain town of Ronda, known for its claim as the home of the art of bullfighting, its 1740 bridge over a spectacular gorge and its unspoiled white town. We decided we would detour the next day to the Piletas Caves, set high on a cliff. These lesser-known, smaller caves have not yet closed off all their paintings—some said to be as old as any in Spain.

Ronda has a spectacular setting among mountains and high pastures. Its jagged gorge along the Guadelevin River is overset by a graceful arched span that one cannot help but be drawn to-especially in the afternoon, when the sun is setting and the golden light infuses the pastures in greens as vivid as Irelandapostrophes and the stones of the gorge and bridge glow.

The town itself is elegant, with an array of both practical and well-heeled shops, squares and lovely parks. The Plaza de Toros, built in 1785, is here, and Ronda continues to be known as the home of bullfighting. A museum of bullfighting is nearby. There are also a number of lovely old palaces you can tour as well as gardens. (Any hotel will give you a map of the town highlighting major attractions. You may find yourself asking for additional help, however. Spain is one of the toughest countries I’ve visited for finding one’s way around tiny winding streets where street names change in just a block or two.) You can escape the busier streets quickly by walking up the smaller side streets and meandering among pretty whitewashed homes with colorful trim and flowerboxes until you find a café, as we did, alongside a small park. Even in November it was warm enough to lunch outside in the sun while enjoying the sight of a horse and carriage wisking tourists through the tiny streets. We visited the Museo Del Bandolero, a great little museum that pays tribute to the bandits who once roamed the treacherous mountain passes in this part of Spain and made life miserable for travelers and merchants. The amount of documentation and collections of everything from clothing to letters to journals of these banditos was astonishing.

Told that tours through the Cueva de la Pileta would leave every hour, we headed out of Ronda about 9:00 a.m. the next morning to arrive at the trail leading up to the cave by 9:30. A guide escorts each group through the cave. The scenery was stark but beautiful, with limestone escarpments jutting out from the high treeless slopes. We parked and climbed a steep rocky path toward the entrance to the cave. Visitors with heart conditions are warned against attempting the tour. The entrance was a 5-ft-high wooden door set in the rock behind a barred door, reminiscent of a fairytale. There was no guide in evidence, just the plaintive bleats of a flock of goats being put out to pasture from their shed far below as a small white farmhouse and its outbuildings came to life.

The wind came up, leaving me happy that I was warmly dressed and grateful for the small wooden shelter that no doubt offered drinks and other refreshments in the busier summer months. A young British couple arrived up the path, followed by the guide. We waited about another hour before beginning the tour, however, so that a decent-sized group could be amassed—in this case, about 12 of us. Still, thanks to the beauty around us, the memory will be a pleasurable one of waiting on that cliffside. Buzzards soared high in the sky; several wayward goats gave us a start when they came clambering down the rocks to reach their companions far below; all sorts of birds flickered among the small-sized pines eking out an existence among the cliffs; and we enjoyed a lively discussion about our various cultures with the British.

When the guide finally opened the large lock and swung open the doors, he was gone for about half an hour, turning on lights far inside the cave. Once in, several of us hoisted kerosene lanterns and set off on the mile-long tour, which initially leads up steep steps past stalactite and stalagmite formations, then through some grand chambers, intersected by narrow passages of carved stone steps before winding up in the final large chamber, the Chamber of the Fish, where the some of the most interesting paintings of all reside. These include fertility symbols, images of humans, and a fish that is so well-drawn it is difficult to believe it is the work of a Paleolithic artist. Along the way visitors pass pictures of horses, goats, and more.

While the Cueva de la Pileta has closed off some of its paintings to protect them, enough remain visible and the setting is striking enough to make it well worth the brief detour when you are traveling between Seville and Ronda, or along the coast with an eye toward visiting Ronda and its environs. It is hard to imagine a more lovely setting for a cave entrance, and although we visited in the late fall, I imagine it would be a great place to take a picnic in the warmer months combined with the visit to the cave.

Where to stay in Ronda: We stayed at the Parador de Ronda, which appears old from the outside but is modern in the lobby. Best is its location, right on the edge of the gorge. Our room looked out over the bridge past the gorge towards the high valleys and mountains beyond. Tel: 95-287-7500 or Fax 95-287-8188. This is one of Spain’s many Paradors, a series of historic and newly built hotels run by the government that are generally beautiful, well-located and well-run.

Dining: We ate at any of the cafes throughout the town, with excellent tapas and other delights to be found. We enjoyed an excellent dinner, featuring local mushrooms that had recently come into season, at our Parador.