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Carmen, revisited

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Ronda, in Andalusia, Spain 1990:

As we wandered the streets of Ronda, an ancient little city set on two sides of a craggy gorge in the southern Spanish highlands, we were struck again by the odd jumble of an old city’s architecture and ambiance.

Perhaps because I live in an essentially homogenous town, built in only about 30 years, I crave the diversity of older cities. Most are a fascinating mix of modern and ancient, their textures irregular, with carved pilasters and ornamented balconies delighting the eye with variety.

So with Ronda. In the old section, block and plaster predominate, commingling Gothic, Renaissance, Tuscan, Carthaginian, Moorish, and Baroque, while in the newer parts of town, drab Post-war townhouses alternate with storefronts. An aerial view shows faded red tile roofs almost everywhere, yet typical Spanish iron window grilles may be bordered with neon.

Like many crowded European cities, designed with narrow wagons in mind rather than cars and trucks, Ronda has closed many streets to vehicular traffic. The pedestrian plazas thus created are wonderful avenues to window shop and sample vendors’ wares, full of jostling locals. Tree-shaded benches invite rest and people-watching.

When we travel in Europe, we have the luxury of time, but not a lot of money, so we head to inexpensive bed and breakfasts. In Spain, these tend to be small family-run hotels rather than private homes.
The one we found in Ronda was clean enough, but “dingy, with wallpaper falling down and a water pump shhh-BANGing about every three seconds, and no hot water!” according to my journal. Our third-floor room had a single small window opening onto a light shaft, and that pump must have been located at the base of it. Dave and I convinced ourselves that (a) they couldn’t possibly let that thing run at night, or (b) it wasn’t that loud and we’d be tired enough to sleep through anything.

Wrong twice. The relative quiet of nighttime only amplified the pump, which did indeed run all night, albeit less frequently when no water was actually drawn. I suppose we slept some.

I did get the owner to knock a few pesos off the rent next morning. He insisted the pump could not be heard in our room. At least I think he did; he spoke even less English than I do Spanish.  

Anyhow, as we roamed the curving streets of the oldest sections of Ronda, a fellow with the best English we had heard in this off-the-tourist-track town fell in with us, pointing out fascinating tidbits like locations where “Carmen” was filmed, the palace where monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand lived after Ronda was retaken from the Moors, and the site of the first bullfights in the world. More on that later.

He told us that the wrought iron grilles covering street-level windows had less to do with barring thieves than with keeping pubescent daughters and their would-be suitors properly separated. He told us how the room under the New Bridge (new in 1788) was once used as a jail, on the theory that even if a culprit somehow escaped his chains, he’d never survive the jump to freedom.
He led us into the shaded inner patio of a friend’s home, so we could see the delightful fountain – lined with colorful tiles and surrounded with flowers – so typical of Spanish homes. And he showed us the 365 steps up which Christian captives carried wineskins of water, night and day, from La Mina, the water-mine, a spring deep in the gorge, to the palace of their Moorish master. (No wonder they installed water pumps.)

You won’t be astonished to learn that the gentleman was a professional guide, off-duty, but oh-so-willing to be hospitable to American guests of his city. Naturally, we offered to pay him, and naturally he named an outrageous figure, and naturally Dave – never one to haggle – paid it.  

He felt it was worth it to learn a whole lot more about Ronda than we dreamed was there, and the fellow did spend the evening with us. I think we even bought him dinner.

But back to bullfights and “Carmen.” In what is now a shady park in front of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, the first bullfights in Spain are said to have taken place. A bullring, in use to this day, was later built in the “new” part of town, in 1784.

Prior to the early 18th century, bullfighting was an equestrian sport of the aristocracy. Philip V, first Bourbon king of Spain, put a stop to “the barbarous custom,” and so the lower classes –  who had heretofore taken part only as assistants or servants to the horsemen – made bullfighting their own. Having no horses, they met the bull on foot, and eventually these former servants (or at least the survivors!) became very proficient in killing bulls. They traveled from town to town, gaining celebrity.

The guidebook says, “In Ronda, the art of bullfighting found a style, a philosophy, and a way to understand life.” Words like “truth,” “genius,” and “an illustrious bullfighting dynasty” appear in reference to the school which emerged in Ronda. The fight always ended the same way for the animal, his body dragged to the butcher shop across the dusty street from the bullring.

A German friend became annoyed with us for objecting to this truly savage “sport.” “You don’t understand,” he said. “For the Spanish, bullfighting is a religious experience.” He was half right: We don’t understand, and don’t plan to anytime soon.
A creature is tortured, sometimes drugged, weakened by being stabbed in the spine, and eventually killed in front of a roaring crowd. A religious experience? Not for the bull.

Ronda is proud of its role in the film version of Bizet’s magnificent opera “Carmen.” Our guide showed us where Placido Domingo stood for this scene or that; told us how loads of dirt had been trucked in to cover the paved streets; pointed out the building that was converted to appear as the Sevillian cigarette factory where Carmen worked.

When we returned to Stuttgart, we learned that “Carmen” was going to be shown at a small theater attached to the planetarium. We went, and to our horror, discovered that the opening scenes are at a bullfight, in Ronda’s renowned bullring. Knowing full well that Spain does not have the animal protection laws we have here, we realized that what we were seeing was, in fact, a bull being tormented and stabbed, with plenty of close-ups of terrified eyes and blood running from wounds.

Otherwise the film was superb. I was kept busy trying to understand German subtitles for an opera sung in French about a Spanish seductress.  
Domingo sings divinely, although a wooden actor; Julia Migenes-Johnson is a sexy, earthy Carmen with a wonderful voice. Dave bought me the video (with English subs), so we can revisit Ronda at will. We avert our eyes during the opening scenes, however, and just listen to the overture.

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