Visit: 9th-10th June 2014
Somewhere between Valencia and Madrid in the region of Castile-La Mancha lies Cuenca – a little-known but fantastically situated clifftop town steeped in history. Originally built up by the Arab Moors, from 714, it presented a strategically dominant location, sandwiched on high ground between the gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers. After falling under the control of the warring religions several times, it was recaptured for good by the Christians in 1177.
Louise, Ross and I arrived by train from Valencia, which took only an hour or so. The station we came into – Fernando Zóbel – is several kilometres outside of town, which caused Louise some consternation as she wondered what we were doing alighting in the middle of the countryside!
Cuenca is the sixth most populous town in Castile-La Mancha, and I believe most of its 56,000 people live in the new town, as opposed to the old town up on the cliffs. The new town sprawls around the base of the hills, and isn’t exactly what tourists come expecting to see. We discovered we had accidentally booked ourselves a hotel in the new town, giving us a fairly long and steep hike up to the old town for the two days we were there.
Not to worry though, as walking up the hill proved to be well worth it, putting us in a town that time forgot. Cuenca’s centrepiece is its cathedral, built 1182-1270, which was the first Gothic cathedral in Spain.
We went inside for the audio guide tour (€3.80), and Ross & Louise insisted on listening to every one of the 37 stops. It was actually quite interesting to hear about the interior in such granularity, and to find out what the various pieces of iconography actually stood for.
The cathedral fronts onto the town’s main square, Plaza Mayor (which just means “big plaza”, according to Louise).
There are several cafe/restaurants on the plaza, and it was at here, at Restaurante San Juan, that we ate at on our first night. The meal was very heavy on the meat, which we didn’t really mind. This local salad consists of goat’s cheese, ham, walnuts, green tomatoes, onions and salad leaves.
The next day, instead of ascending the hill again, we decided to take the bus up. When a number 2 arrived we jumped on, but realised we were heading in the wrong direction. So, for only the cost of two bus journeys (the driver made us pay again on the return), we got to see a part of Cuenca most tourists never see … its industrial outskirts!
An hour or so later we were at the top of the hill where we wanted to be – in the old town. It was about midday, the sun was beating down and the views were amazing. Exploring the rocky outcrops, it felt like the wild west. More Mexico than Spain.
There weren’t really any safety barriers, so you were pretty much free to walk around and fall off as you pleased. I like that freedom to take your own risks.
We stopped for lunch up here, in what was probably the best cafe we visited. As well as having a great view of Cuenca (as in the picture at the top of this post), it served up some excellent bar snacks and lunch. The pork scratchings were quite familiar to us as Brits, though they were warm and less brittle than those you get at home, and the dough ball contain pieces of chorizo.
After lunch we walked into town. It is not only medieval sights to see in Cuenca – you should also check out the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art. The station we had arrived into was named after the Spanish-Filipino painter Fernando Zóbel, who was inspired to paint many of his abstract landscapes by the countryside surrounding Cuenca. There are plenty of other artists exhibited in the museum, and the setting seems perfect. Somebody there has had the good idea of putting in windows in the style of picture frames, with the intention being to showcase nature’s beauty as a piece of art.
Cuenca has other museums – I briefly visited the Cuenca Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the area. It didn’t really work for me, though, as the displays are solely in Spanish. I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be any coverage of the Christian-Muslim battles for control of the town, as that strikes me as surely the most interesting period of its history.
The museums are built either within or close to some of the famous hanging houses of Cuenca. These are buildings with balconies that jut out over the cliff edge, as you can see behind us in this photo. The bridge you can also see in it leads across the valley to a still-working monastery.
Well, after a very pleasant time in Cuenca, the next morning we had a train booked for Madrid, just an hour’s journey away. One of the most pleasant feelings I know is “not being hungover”, and I managed to experience this on every day of the trip. It probably had something to do with the small servings of beer you get in Spain – very civilised. Consequently, we were able to do things like enjoy a beer pre-9am on the train to Madrid. Now, having a beer on a train on holiday is pretty much obligatory, but the novelty was actually enjoying it!
I only spent the one day in Madrid, as I had a flight booked home that evening. Since we were getting there early, though, there was time for a lunch and a visit to the Reina Sofia (home of Picasso’s epic Guernica and various works by Dalí). Highlights from my day included a very comfortable outdoor bar round the back of the Royal Palace and Ross being told to “shh” by this man for giving away his secret!
Flights for the trip: