How to Impress the French

Sitges – June 13, 2013

On the recommendation of Jason and Georgina, I came to Sitges to spend a couple of nights. It’s a small bohemian beach town about half an hour south of Barcelona and it is adorable! It happens to be Gay Pride weekend here so you can imagine the dancing in the streets!

Anyway, I was having dinner by myself last night and these two French women around my age sat at the table next to mine.  After a little while, one asked me in very broken Spanglish if I was traveling alone. None of us spoke a common language well enough to communicate worth a flip so we proceeded to have one of those very animated conversations where you act out your story. When I said I was from Texas, Delphine kept pretending to pull out a pair of Colt 45 pistols from her imaginary holsters and shoot me. Ugh, the stereotype (tongue in cheek).

It was an exhausting conversation so I decided to show them some pictures of Chulila and the impressive canyons I had just come from. I zoomed in on a rock climber and they were very impressed. It wasn’t until a little later when they were being so damn nice to me and eyeballing me in amazement that I realized they thought I was the rock climber. As soon as I realized the mistake, I zipped my lips and let them believe it. Honestly, it just would have been too hard to explain.

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If you look really closely, you’ll see a guy in an orange shirt climbing this cliff

The Molar

The Molar – June 8 – 11, 2013

Earlier this week I visited a medieval village (weird, I know) called Chulila.  I had not heard of Chulila before this trip and only learned of it when I found an Airbnb listing for a darling cabin in the woods about half an hour north of Valencia. The photos were so cute and the description so attractive, that I booked the cabin without really having any expectation about where I would be traveling.  What a great shot in the dark!

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Georgina and me

My hosts were Jason and Georgina from London.  They moved to Spain about 10 years ago and have a lovely house with a pool (that they had put in themselves…I can’t imagine a concrete truck getting up the drive!) all nestled into a mountain above the town of Chulila. The cabin was one that Georgina used for writing but they recently began to rent it and Airbnb. I am likely one of the lucky few who might have the privilege of staying in the cabin with such wonderful hosts, as they are trying to sell the property and move back to London.  If you are in Spain and find yourself in this area, don’t hesitate to book a few nights here.

IMG_6079Upon my arrival I was greeted with a bottle of champagne by the pool and each morning, a charming basket full of breakfast goodies was left on my front porch.  There is something so fantastic about a) a champagne welcome and b) having breakfast delivered to you in a picnic basket!

The first full day I spent in Chulila included a gorgeous hike through a canyon IMG_6140below the village down to a lagoon called Charco Azul (blue pool) where, unbelievably, I stumbled upon a group of people attempting to cross the lagoon on a Gibbons Slackline (modern-day tightrope).  It was incredibly windy so it was not surprising that they did not make it very far across the line.  But it was darned entertaining…watch the video here.

The valley is really a gorge with steep rock walls where I spotted numerous rock climbers. If you like to climb rocks, this is a great destination.

If you look really closely, you can see a very brave guy hanging by ropes from the side of this rock.

After I hiked up out of the gorge, I enjoyed a light lunch in the center of the village and then walked up to the remains of the old 13th century castle that dominates the town from the top of a hill that Georgia said is nicknamed, “the molar.” I can see that.

Brought tons of high-tech athletic clothes for this trip and ended up wearing this outfit to hike.

I had planned to leave the next day but over wine later that night, Georgina and I made a plan for me to stay one more day so we could get massages at a thermal spa called Balneario the next afternoon. I mean, who passes up a thermal spa?

Unfortunately the spa was closed but there was the Emerald Lagoon around the mountain, not far from the spa so we challenged the Skoda rental car to a somewhat perilous climb. After a few extremely narrow switchbacks on a gravel road that hugged the side of a mountain, we came to a point where the road was impassable. With no other option, I put the Skoda in reverse and backed down the hill. Fortunately, there was just enough of a patch of grass at the bottom of that slope for me to get turned around. Would have seriously put my driving skills to the test if I had had to back UP the opposite side of the ravine (with a stick shift!).

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Later that night, Jason cooked up some steaks for us and we had a fabulous dinner and even more fabulous conversation under the stars. I feel so lucky to have had the pleasure of spending time with Jason and Georgina and hope that our paths will cross again someday!

 

Winding Roads & Waterfalls

After reluctantly leaving Cuenca, I headed northeast into the mountains of the Serranía de Cuenca National Park, established in 2007 in the Castille-LaMancha region of Spain.  I was driving up to a town called Tragacete to find waterfalls near the head of the Júcar River.  It was a gorgeous drive with stunning views and whimsical rock formations lIMG_6072ying around the fir and juniper trees.  Just past a town called Uña, I came across a gorgeous lagoon.  Like so many other lakes and rivers I have seen in Spain, this one also had the same milky turquoise color.  It must be from high mineral content as the water is very hard.

After winding through numerous gorges on what felt like a thousand switchbacks, I finally made it to Tragacete. For some reason I was imagining a cool little town full of tourists and restaurants with verandas overlooking the river (#1 rule of traveling…let go of expectations so you can see what you are supposed to see).  What I found instead was a tiny deserted town with almost every business closed and two restaurants that seemed to be open but were not at all inviting.  So I skipped that lovely lunch and cold beer I had conjured up in my head and found a sign pointing to the “casades” about 2km up a narrow dirt road.

The weather was quite gloomy and damp and for a minute I considered blowing off this excursion, but I had come this far so no point turning back.  On up the hill I finally found the entrance for the footpath to the waterfall. It was impressively well-maintained with sturdy wooden handrails along the more perilous parts of the trail. The walk was luscious…everything was so green and the fall was beautiful and loud and a bit eerie. I was the only person there. So worth the effort.

Path to waterfall at Tragacete

Waterfall on Rio Júcar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuenca: Spain’s Whoville

I had planned to be hiking the Camino de Santiago right now but I arrived in Madrid last week to learn that the Camino Primitivo in the northwest of Spain not only had rain (which I expected), but thunderstorms on the radar for the first two days I was meant to hike.  And by hike, I mean walk an average of 15 miles a day through the mountains.  With a backpack.  I like a challenge but I will not suffer needlessly.

So I did what any comfort-loving pilgrim would do and headed south and is how I found myself in Cuenca, Spain.  I had heard of  Cuenca from my friend, Gordon, who described to me the “hanging houses” built into the edge of a cliff.  Oddly, there is little information about the origins of the “Casas Colgadas,” but they are thought to have been built between the 13th and 15th centuries. While only three remain today, at one time these hanging houses lined the edge of this breath-taking medieval town perched between two river gorges.

The old town of Cuenca is built on a mountaintop and skirted on three sides by gorges formed by the Júcar and Huécar rivers.  The history of Cuenca dates back to 714 when muslim arabs seized much of the Iberian peninsula.  Because the location was perched high on a hill and encircled by two rivers, it had significant strategic value. The inhabitants of this fortress enjoyed prosperity for many years, with textiles and livestock being the primary industries.  But the 11th & 12th centuries found Cuenca embattled and finally conquered for good by Alfonso VIII of Castile in 1177.  Now part of the Castille-La Mancha autonomous community of Spain, Cuenca was granted World Heritage Site status in 1996. 

Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca World Heritage Site

When you are driving from Madrid, you will approach Cuenca from the west and enter the new part of the city.  I was using a Tomtom in my rental car for navigation and forgot that I had only input the name of the city and not the address of the hotel I had contacted.  The woman’s voice on the Tomtom navigated me to the heart of the new city and proudly announced that I had arrived at my destination.  I was sitting on a nondescript busy downtown street.  What?  But I realized my mistake and found my way to the foot of the old town.  Old Cuenca is positioned so high up on a long promontory northeast of the city, that I couldn’t see it at all on my approach.  My little Skoda 5-speed rental car earned some big points for power in getting up the insanely steep and narrow cobblestone streets as I ascended to the top of the old town.

I wish someone could have recorded me as I did this.  I’m pretty sure it went something like, “Holy shit, no way!  Oh crap, really?  Really, am I going the right way? Am I allowed to drive up here?  Are you kidding me with these buildings? OMG, no way can me and the other car squeeze past each other.  Expletive, expletive…” you get the picture.

Entrance to Plaza Meyor, Cuenca

Calle Alfonso VIII

I drive quite a bit in foreign countries.  It’s one of my favorite things to do when traveling.  And oddly, this is not my first jaunt driving into a fortress or castle, but I have to admit this one was a bit harrowing.  I just had no idea how far up I needed to go or what awaited me at the top (like, could I turn around?).  Unbelievably, I spotted a sign for a parking garage tucked into an 600 year-old building sitting on at least a 45 degree incline.  I got myself parked and immediately walked to the hotel across the street and had a glass of wine in the bar.

There is one main road, appropriately named Calle Alfonso VIII, which extends to the furthest point of the promontory with smaller side streets flanking the main plaza about halfway up.  It was drizzling and chilly when I arrived around 5pm and had to walk up and down that steep road for almost an hour before I found my hotel.  I didn’t have a map, only an address and I’m learning that street numbers in Spain tend to repeat.  It’s like they refuse to use more than two digits for a street address and so at 99, the numbers just start over.  But on this street, it was more like 11-54 and then it started over somewhere and suddenly you are at 26 again.  Maddening!

Finally I found my hotel. The side of the building said “hostel” and is why it didn’t occur to me to read the small sign next to the door the first two times I passed it. But if this place is a hostel, then I’ve clearly misunderstood the broad use of the term.  My room at Tabanqueta was absolutely adorable and comfortable.  It had just been renovated with new wood floors, double-paned windows to keep out the wind and street noise, a very modern bathroom (with more toiletries than any nice hotel sans the St. Cecilia in Austin), and hands-down the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in.  Not kidding, it was that good.  And for 35 Euro/night, I would recommend this place without hesitation.

Cuenca, Spain

Plaza Meyor, Cuenca

I spent the rest of the evening exploring the little passageways, being dazzled by the views, and eating calamari at a little sidewalk café in the main plaza next to the Santa María de Gracia cathedral.  The architecture is so varied in Cuenca…you have everything from gothic to baroque to rococo to modern. I popped into some of the little tourist shops to pick up postcards and a bottle of wine from the region, but couldn’t find a corkscrew to buy so I went into a proper wine shop where the proprietor, appropriately named María, told me that they don’t sell them (odd) but that she could uncork my bottle for me. Upon seeing the bottle I had purchased, she also told me I had made a bad selection and sold me a better bottle called Fontal Crianza (2009).  I still had not seen the infamous hanging houses but was too tired from the cartoonish drive into the old town and then marathon hiking up and down the streets looking for my hotel to hunt down the houses, so I tucked myself in for the evening.

The next morning, I pondered staying another night in Cuenca.  I was smitten with the town and that ridiculous bed.  But I had a reservation for a cabin in the woods near Valencia that night and so boogied out the door to find the mysterious las casas colgadas. My hotel was near the top of the hill and so I only needed to walk a little further past the remains of an ancient Arab fortress called El Castillo, through the Arco de Bezudo and past a couple of restaurants to where I had noticed a tourist office the day before.  For whatever reason, the tourist office was not open at 10:15am on a Saturday (even though the flyers in the window announced tours beginning at 10).  I spied a map on a park sign at the edge of the cliff and then found the entrance to the trail that would take me down through the gorge.

I was immediately blown away. Cuenca, SpainAll the rain has made Spain very green and this path was lined with a million bright red poppies.  It was so picturesque that I kept repeating (out loud), “Stop it! OMG!  Stop it!”  A lady rounded a corner on the trail as I was squealing to myself about how I might die of delight and I’m pretty sure she thought I had a screw loose. After about 100 meters, the path made a switchback and then descended into the gorge.  I was dazzled (worth repeating) with every step.  I passed a few fenced gardens and a crumbling stone house with some graffiti and what appeared to be the remnants of a swimming pool (can you imagine what that place looked like before??).

Cuenca, SpainAbout halfway down the 3km path, I was passed by a group of trail runners (lots of opportunities for nice outdoor activities around here). And while I was getting a better view of the walls of the old town built right on the edge of the cliff towering above me, I still had not seen any houses actually hanging over the edge. The path ended on the bank of the Huécar River and as I sat on a rock enjoying the fresh morning air and the sound of water babbling over rocks, my gaze turned up over my shoulder and then, through the trees, I saw the hanging houses looming over me.

Hanging Houses, CuencaIt all looked a bit fake (as so many medieval towns do).  And I am always trying to imagine how in the world things like this were built centuries ago. There are only three actual “hanging” houses left, one houses a modern museum and another is a restaurant.  As I craned my head backward to see these slightly lopsided houses suspended precariously over the edge of a cavernous cliff, I was reminded of Whoville and imagined the Grinch popping his head up over the house and wrapping his skinny green fingers around the balcony. Even the enormous drooping bright green fur trees and tall slender topiary trees fit the scene perfectly.

I will most definitely return to spend more time in Cuenca and would recommend at least a few days to anyone traveling in this region.  This town not only offers incredibly rich history and stunning views, but also an impressive network of trails along both the Júcar and Huécar rivers as well as an extra-wide paved walk/bike path adjacent to the N2105 that heads north out of town.  I saw numerous cyclists along this stretch as I left Cuenca.  And in case you were wondering if I was enjoying this place, I kept shouting, “NO WAY!” and having to pull over to take pictures of the scenery as I tried to leave. Again, dazzled at every turn.

Cuenca, Spain

Sandy beach next to Rio Huécar