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

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