Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Cuencos de Cuenca

the hanging houses of cuenca

A better title for this post might be "One day in Cuenca," because that was how long it took me to fall in love with this place, but I can't resist a cute pun, especially one that, as you will read, is just one of the special discoveries that will bring me back to this charming town!

Whenever I visit the Castillas I fall in love with Spain all over again. Living in Galicia and the Basque Country, as anyone from these places will be happy to tell you, isn't really Spain. But in the communities of Castilla Leon and Castilla la Mancha the blue skies open up and the meseta spreads before you, and I can't help but smile as I stare out the train window and remember the telenovela dramas about Spanish life in the sixteenth century that I sometimes watch with my friend Rosa. 

At some point in a googling wanderlust haze I got it into my head during the last year that I had to return to Castilla la Mancha to visit the town of Cuenca. It was so far away from anywhere I've lived or planned to go, though, that it seemed like one of those dreams that's maybe meant to stay a dream. But when my flight to Madrid this Christmas offered a few days to spare, an idea sparked that this was my opportunity to seize the day and finally echarme to get there.

Although my free time was limited to those few days, I can attest from experience that it is possible to see Cuenca as a day trip--and worth it! Of course, more time is better, but Cuenca is easily accessible from Madrid by bus and by train. In fact, the high speed train cuts the trip down to only an hour. If you are like me, however, and want to save the €20 one-way difference and take in all of that meseta scenery out the window, you can catch the local train for about €12 and enjoy the three-hour ride, or you can save time and money by taking the bus, like I did on the way back, for a total of €11 and two hours time. 

vistas de Cuenca 

My first impression of Cuenca was that it is much bigger than I imagined. The medieval town-on-a-hill that figures in all of the photos and tourist guides is as small as it looks, but the contemporary city for practical modern dwelling spreads below, and this is where the train (or bus) leaves you.

It is an easy walk to the old town, which is generally a good place to start as a tourist in Spain. Always wanting to be sure of the route (and given my track record), I stopped to ask a friendly-looking passerby which way to go to see the famous casas colgantes. He told me that there were no casas colgantes in Cuenca, which I met with a worried look; there were only casas colgadas, he continued, correcting me on my Spanish and adding a few jokes about his authentic Cuencan heritage that made his wife shake her head. I have since heard people say casas colgantes, which translates literally to "hanging houses," but I take his word for it that casas colgadas, more like "hung houses," is the proper term. He and his wife showed me the way, but you could always just follow the signs.

puente de san pablo

Of course, I still managed a few detours, but following the friendly directions, signs, and the river Huécar should lead you to the puente de san pablo, an iconic bridge that connects the San Pablo Convent to the town. It was first built in the sixteenth century and originally made of stone, but eventually wore down and was rebuilt at the turn of the twentieth century, this time in wood and iron according to contemporary architectural style. The bridge offers a classic view of the casas colgadas, and a picturesque ascent to the city center.

the corners that make me love castilla la mancha every single time

the cathedral

The main plaza meets all the main requirements for a scenic Spanish old town, complete with colorful houses, casual bars, and a stunning cathedral. It follows that this is also an obligatory spot for a café con leche, and savoring a moment of people watching and enjoying the view. The quiet atmosphere and early afternoon sunlight made this catedral one of my favorites.

Even if, like me, you're not thrilled by the idea of seeing another church in Spain, this one is worth a moment of appreciation as you pass through. In addition to its pretty spot in the square, it occupies a unique moment of history. The city of Cuenca was reconquered from the moros in 1177 by Alfonso XIII, and the church, inspired by his wife, was ordained to a make a clear contrast to the former mezquita. Although churches of that time period were typically Roman in style, the Norman influences in Alfonso's court led to the cathedral's construction in the Gothic style, making it the first of its kind in Castilla la Mancha.

perfect for strolling

To see Cuenca as you would on a postcard you must follow the winding streets upwards to the highest part of the city. The central road is most direct, but there is a small path bordering the town that is lovely and hints at the castle that used to stand there. I made it just in time for sunset, and I wasn't the only one. There are a few bars at the very top, and I got the impression that even if you were lucky enough to enjoy Cuenca every day, this was the spot to be.

this one's for mom

If it seems like I have forgotten the most iconic part of Cuenca, it's only because I am saving the best for last.

Today there are three remaining casas colgadas: The mermaid house, la casa de la sirena, which is now a restaurant, and the king's houses, las casas del rey, which now house the Spanish Abstract Art Museum. If you are only going to visit one museum in Spain... well, the Prado and the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen and a lot of other art museums in Spain are spectacular, but I highly recommend this one. I visit the Prado every time I pass through Madrid, but this museum just might be my favorite. 

The architecture of the house and the incredible scenery out the windows give the ancient building a mysterious air; the perfect atmosphere for discovering new places, and new art: Always enticing you to wonder what's around the corner. 

museo de arte abstracto español

But in addition to being exceptional, the museum has another, more personal, claim on my affections.

Spain is beautiful. Many people already know this, but I moved here with absolutely no expectations. I'd spent my Spanish-learning days dreaming of the Pampas and Che Guevarra, and simply thought that Spain would be a "good opportunity." But the diversity and physical beauty from one region to another took me by surprise and made a deep impression, and I have constantly found myself tinkering with photography and dreaming of art projects that might somehow express my experience in poetic testament. 

Eusebio Sempere must have seen it too, because his paintings did just that. 

peeping on eusebio sempere

The discovery was a real "aha!" moment for me, and I must not be alone! As I made my way back down to the bus station after the sun set I stopped to peek through an old keyhole, and what did I see? A painting by Eusebio Sempere! 

The short of this long ramble is that I loved Cuenca. I saw it in one day, but now I must go back! To repeat marveling at the work of Eusebio Sempere, drinking coffee by the cathedral, and getting lost in the pretty streets, and to do all the things I have now added to my wish list, like walking every hike in the region, eating at the casa sirena, visiting the ciudad encantada, and picking up a cuenco

cuenco is spanish for "bowl"

No comments:

Post a Comment