The Art of Taking it Slow

Ronda, Spain

Ronda at sunset

Two and a half hours before midnight, the whitewashed walls and polished cobblestones of Ronda’s Barrio de San Francisco are momentarily painted an olive oil gold. We follow the creeping sunrays down an unassuming callejon on Calle de Angelita Aparicio, the echoing slap of our sandals the only sound in this corner of the cloistered mountain town.

At the end of the dipping alleyway, we are greeted by a gated plot of land where José Luis, a Rondeño with salt-and-pepper hair, invites us in with a wave of his hand. Crouching down to rummage among the shoots, he explains that the small garden is “just a hobby” and, chuckling at our fascination with his simple pastime, he hands over a zucchini the size of his forearm.

“A gift,” he says.

A few minutes later he adds a fresh cucumber to the mix, clumps of dirt still clinging to the knobby skin.

José Luis and his garden
Views from his garden

For many travellers, each day spent on the road is a desperate race to hit the top tourist attractions before the sun goes down. Detailed itineraries in hand, they eat quickly, walk fast. Each day is swallowed before it can be chewed.

But for others, the act of travel is less planned. Days are spent wandering. A twenty minute walk could take an hour. Detours are welcomed, and locals become the best of guides.

For the ancient Greeks, these two kinds of travellers can best be described by the way in which they relate to time: “chronos” for a sequential sense of time, “kairos” for its qualitative counterpart. While chronos treats moments as a box to tick off, kairos is slowing down to appreciate both the expected and unexpected.

Slowness, as a concept, began in 1986 with the slow food revolution. After the first McDonald’s opened in Italy on Rome’s Plaza de Spagna, thousands assembled to protest. Then-journalist Carlo Petrini, made a name for himself by passing out plates of penne pasta to the protestors, according to TIME Magazine. Three years later, Petrini found himself at the forefront of what is now known as the Slow Food Movement, an international organization dedicated to the preservation of local food and the traditional lifestyle.

With tapas and sobremesa serving as the national pastime, the region of Andalucia is especially ideal for this kind of unstructured exploration. One town in particular has made Petrini’s slow living principles its mantra.

Ronda, surrounded by the Serrania de Ronda and punctuated by craggy outcroppings, has managed to maintain agricultural traditions dating back to the Reconquista. Its valleys are peppered with olive and almond groves, grazing sheep and Pajuna cattle; from the foothills, it is easy to hear the faint whinnies of Lusitanian horses.

If, from a distance, the town does not look very much alive, it is because residents are probably gathered around one of the many plazas. Retirees in Panama hats shuffle around in groups of three, chatting over drinks. Families gather for al fresco dining, their kids kicking around a ball until late evening. And there is no need for security cameras, as all the terraces are equipped with observant abuelas drooped over chipping banisters.

Escuela Entrelenguas on Calle Espíritu Santo

Nestled in a corner of one of Ronda’s winding streets, Entrelenguas invites both transient visitors and settled expats to learn more about Spanish language, culture, and tourism. Mar Rodriguez, Javier Criado, and Alejandro Montesinos — three Rondeños specializing in these areas — founded the centre in the summer of 2014 hoping to provide a different approach to tourism in their hometown.

Espousing the slow philosophy, Entrelenguas serves as a hub inviting cross-cultural links between travellers, businesses, and residents.

The hip locale is complete with a mosaic-encrusted bar, an indoor swing, and the friendly presence of Pongo, the dalmatian. On one side of the office space is a brightly-lit classroom with whiteboards; on the other, an array of artisan products from wine to fans. The back terrace also boasts one of the best views of the white city and its surrounding countryside.

Pongo and the office
Views from the terrace

In its five years, Entrelenguas has formed several partnerships offering an authentic taste of life in Ronda. With flamenco classes, leather workshops, organic farming experiences and free hikes, the centre provides many immersive Spanish opportunities.

According to Montesinos, “the goal of these cultural events is to meet other people from Ronda.” This, he added, is what many people who pass through their centre are most looking for.

For British retirees John and Annie, Spanish classes at Entrelenguas are key to helping them become Spanish citizens. They have been taking classes for the past three months and are proponents of the centre’s novel approach.

“There’s no way you can understand the culture of a place with ordinary tourism. You have to get under the skin of the place,” said Annie. “We’ve been in Ronda for twelve years now, and we’re still discovering new things.”

“We came with the intention of assimilating to the culture,” John added.

Driven by a desire to counteract the influx of mass tourism, the centre’s three founders believe in protecting the customs of the town they grew up in.

“Many places attract tourists by making up products. These places are not real, and they aren’t being honest with tourists,” said Rodriguez. As a native who doesn’t dance flamenco or condone bullfighting, she emphasized the need to show travellers other sides of Spain not covered in glossy travel brochures.

“We know the local produce, the local wines. Those other places are contributing to the clichés of Spain,” she added.

However, for the traveller pressed for time, it isn’t always easy to differentiate between the manufactured and the authentic. It was surprising to learn that the “paella individual” so often advertised in Ronda’s restaurants was an invented phenomenon catering to the checklist traveller; the overpriced dish is a far cry from the family ordeal that is cooking and sharing a cauldron-sized paella on a Sunday.

To help guide travellers away from the trite, Entrelenguas offers a map highlighting the places in town that have been vetted for authenticity. Distinguishable by an “Experience Local” sign outside each storefront, these shops provide the best seasonal goods. By sourcing their products entirely from Ronda’s surrounding land, they also contribute to the town’s sustainable development.

In the old town, for example, is La Tienda de Trinidad. With an impressive line-up of jamón ibérico and jamón serrano hung from the ceiling, the shop’s assortment of chorizo, goat cheese, wine, and beer from which to sample from makes for the full Andalucian experience.

Miguel, the owner, recommends visiting the bakery down the street, Antonio’s Panaderia Alba, to pick up some fresh bread first. Slicing it in two, he expertly drapes several slices of jamón on top and drenches them in olive oil. This classic bocadillo is the perfect accompaniment to a stroll through the town.

Jamón in La Tienda de Trinidad

Across the Puente Nuevo, past the camera-happy sightseers, sits El Lechuguita, a bar offering the more than 80 different tapas at less than a euro each. Owned by three brothers, the bar’s unpretentious decor and standing-only room does nothing to reel in unsuspecting tourists. And that is precisely its charm.

But just five minutes away, in Ronda’s bustling Plaza España, is the town’s first and only McDonald’s — a sight that would have made Petrini weep.

Maya taking a break near Puente Viejo

Our shoes slip on Ronda’s Puente Viejo, where centuries of travellers — both friendly and conquering — have worn down the sloping streets. The walk to the bus station is one that we severely underestimated. Under the sweltering sun, carting our suitcase up the bridge had become an almost Sisyphean task.

Earlier that morning, we had carefully wrapped the zucchini and cucumber José Luis had so thoughtfully gifted us. Sandwiched between a sun hat and a water bottle, the vegetables jostled around in our suitcase during the two-hour journey back to the Costa del Sol.

Travel, in many ways, is a sort of dislocating experience.

As a passerby invited into someone else’s home, attempting to adapt is not always pretty. The sweat stains from trekking 30 minutes in the wrong direction are souvenirs we didn’t always plan on leaving with.

But 80 kilometres away on the coast, as we dig into our zucchini stir-fry, it becomes obvious why it’s worth it. Far more than the picturesque sights, memory stores the faces of people who gave you directions to places unlisted on maps. The kids who showed you shortcuts to the best views in town. The bulbous figs growing on the side of the road that you attempted to pick.

And the simple kindness of a farmer.

Originally seen in The Olive Press.

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Regina Lankenau

Regina Lankenau

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It’s the principle of the thing | Assistant Op-Ed Editor, Houston Chronicle | Princeton ‘21