I finally left Seville, from where I sent my last postcard, as Spain entered what the government are calling the new normal. However, passing through Ronda I saw that the people do not necessarily agree. The term ghost town has, by necessity, been vastly overused in these pages, but what else can one say? The lovely old historic restaurants like Hermanos Macías, opposite Spain’s most historic bullring, and the classic Almocabar, named for the gate in the Moorish battlements it sits beyond, are both closed.
Similarly shuttered is my favourite Hotel La Reina Victoria. Built by the Algeciras Gibraltar Railway Company at the end of the 19th century to house British Army Officers on their holidays, and designed by the same architect as London’s Savoy, its combination of anglicised comforts and epic backdrop has relaxed and inspired guests for over a century, including the great Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
So, I push on through the wild and vertiginous mountain roads to stay with friends in the most picture-perfect of white-walled Spanish towns, Gaucín, the birthplace of opera’s most famous heroine, Carmen.
The Notting Hill of Andalusia, Gaucín has long been a favourite of English visitors, with the great travel writer Richard Ford writing 175 years ago: “Gaucin is most romantically situated on a cleft ridge… Ascend the Moorish castle [and] the view is glorious. Gibraltar rises like a molar tooth in the distance, and Africa looms beyond. In the hermitage of the castle was a small idol, El Niño Dios, [‘The Holy Child’] which, dressed in a resplendent court suit, was held in profound veneration far and wide.”
With all the sun of its latitude, but a heat much reduced by its altitude, and surrounded by great rolling cliffs and forests, valleys and rivers – the Río Genal is the cleanest in Europe – it has long attracted artists and has a vibrant resident community of them to this day.
As with the real Notting Hill, the professional artists moved there for its authenticity, and bohemians of a richer class soon followed with their greater wealth, pushing up prices, but also gentrifying in not entirely unpleasant ways for the visitor.
My friends – a financier and his photographer wife – live in a beautiful, vine-shaded sanctuary of a home which used to belong to Princess Diana’s favourite dress designer, the late Victor Edelstein. The billionaire Lord Sainsbury bought a house just outside the village, the CEO of Sothebys within, and the actors Hugh Dancy and Claire Danes spent some of their honeymoon here as well.
The best hotel to stay in, suitable to both the surroundings and the clientele, is the exquisite little boutique La Fructuosa, owned and run by a Belgian couple, Daniel and Catherine. They also have one of the best restaurants in town, with frequent guest chefs and musical accompaniment. While I am staying our food is provided by that innovative and individualist maestro, Guillermo Jacob Lorenzo, whose own famed restaurant in Ronda, De Locos Tapas, reopens this month, while Rocío Sánchez Ruiz played guitar.
Of a similar level of excellence is Platero & Co, run by Hellen and Barry from the Netherlands, whom the Michelin Guide called “a perfection… of rustic ambience.”
As a getaway, Gaucín is just as well served by taking one of idiosyncratic range of apartments available, from the Romano-Moroccan glories of Casa Mosaica, designed and run by Emma Cornish and decorated with work by her ex-husband, Mosaicist Stephen Windsor-Clive, to the more relaxed and easy-going hillside villa run by jazz singer Elizabeth Zeder and her husband Jonas.
This would better allow one to take advantage of the amazing local produce available at little shops like the organic groceries of La Tienda Verde, or the wines and cheeses of La Posada.
However, it is the views and the landscape that make this village what it is, and there are endless walks around the area, well described in person or in his books by Patrick Elvin, or the wider area, from Ronda to the coast, there is the famed Guy Hunter-Watts. For the equestrians among readers, there is the horseback option – by Klarina Pichler with Riding Andalusia, or you can even learn to play polo just down the road from Gaucín with its sister organisation Polo Andalusia.