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Thick as Thieves

Posted on 2/16/2021 12:00:00 AM in Travel Trivia

The scenic town of Ronda was once home to storied bandits who used the jagged cliffs and caves to hide away after robbing the well-to-do.

Question: Where in the Spanish countryside did outlaws sometimes play the role of Robin Hood from the 18th century until 1934?

Answer: Ronda, Spain

The rugged mountain town of Ronda, Spain is known for practically inventing bullfighting, but it also has another rough and tough past—banditry. Set amongst a backdrop of inhospitable mountain terrain, valleys, and hidden caves, Ronda was a stronghold for legendary Andalusian bandits from the 18th to early 20th centuries. Known as bandoleros, these folk heroes preyed on wealthy passersby, stole gold and other precious treasures, and led wild horseback chases through the Sierra Nevada.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a huge gap between the few wealthy, land-owning families and the many poor families who worked the land. The region was one of the last areas in Europe to do away with the feudal system, and there was practically no way for the majority of the population to improve their life’s quality. With a near-continuous succession of wars in Spain since 1492, the region was nearly drained of all wealth except those in the upper echelons of society. The riches from the New World solely benefited the monarchy while the general population was left to fend for themselves.

This destitution faced by the lower classes set the stage for desperate bandoleros who began to ransack the wealthy members of society who passed through the area. Bandoleros, who hid out in caves and valleys, robbed aristocrats traveling from the coast to Madrid of their expensive belongings. They also took a page out of the legend of Robin Hood, giving some of these riches back to the poor residents of their villages and attacking tax inspectors who preyed on the downtrodden.

Some of the bandoleros were dangerous outlaws and fugitives on the run for their crimes, while others were penniless men who turned to banditry as the last resort for themselves or their families. The most successful of the bandoleros became local heroes—the most famous was a man by the name of El Tempranillo. He was well known for his gallant reputation towards the ladies he robbed and for giving a generous amount of his gains to peasants in his village (more on him below).

As the romanticized image of these thieves grew, many European travelers journeying through Spain sought out the danger and thrill of being robbed by a bandolero. Some expected they would be confronted by a band of outlaws, and the women were disappointed when they were not. However, by the mid-19th-century, most of the bandoleros were not Robin Hood-like characters but were real murderers and violent criminals. Banditry had become a serious social problem in Ronda. In 1844, the Spanish monarch Isabella II established an order to completely eradicate the bandits. It took 90 years, but the last formal bandolero leader died in 1934 during a shootout in a mountain cave near Ronda.

Despite the violence and danger inflicted on the region, the legacy of the bandoleros continues—there’s even a museum dedicated to their stories in Ronda. These romanticized characters continue to live on in the local culture of Ronda and beyond.

The Life of Famed Bandolero El Tempranillo:

  • Born José Maria Hinojosa Cabacho in 1805, El Tempranillo grew up with a poor family in the Cordoba region of Spain.

  • He was only 13 years old when he murdered his first man and took up the life of an outlaw. The legend goes that he either killed this man in defense of his family or because of a slight against his mother. Either way, he managed to evade arrest and joined a gang of young bandits.

  • He later established his own gang of bandoleros in a cave of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the main route into Andalusia from the north. Here, he and his gang preyed on wealthy passersby, mainly by forcing the travelers to relinquish a portion of their items in return for safe passage through. If they refused to pay his fee, they would be killed.

  • El Tempranillo was known about the region for his respectful reputation among the ladies and for redistributing his wealth among the poor. This generosity made him a heroic figure among the poor in Andalusia.

  • Stories say that he once told a wealthy lady in her carriage that her hand was so beautiful it did not need any adornments, proceeding to remove all of her rings and wishing her a safe journey home.

  • He famously declared “the king rules in Spain, but I rule in the Sierra” and went by the nickname of the King of the Sierra Morena.

  • Eventually, his robberies and antics grew to such popularity with the public that King Fernando VII offered him a pardon in return for working for the state.

  • He was made the chief of the protection and public security in Andalusia and served as the head for 60 mounted guards in the region.

  • Surprisngly, this turn in his life would ultimately cause his death. In 1833, while he was serving as a guard, he was killed in a shoot-out pursuing another bandit.

  • At the Bandolero Museum in Ronda, El Tempranillo is the most prominent figure among the exhibits. You also may run into businesses in Ronda bearing his name, such as the El Tempranillo Winery.

Explore the tumultuous history of Ronda where the bandoleros once roamed during Back Roads of Iberia: Spanish Paradores & Portuguese Pousadas.

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