Cuenca, another of Spain’s many World Heritage Sites, is a most enchanting city. It was inhabited during Roman times, but it wasn’t until the Muslim occupation that it won renown for its textiles. After being reconquered by the Christians in 1177, it became a backwater once again. The distinctive casas colgadas ‘hanging houses’ that draw visitors today date from the 16th century. The ancient town straddles an outcropping of rock standing between two river gorges. The resulting tableland in between offered a secure location for a fortress and eventually a town.
The modern city of Cuenca is located far below the ancient town so for the most part, it fails to detract from the dramatic buildings perched on the cliff tops. There are many other dramatic buildings in the old city and a mirador (viewpoint) at the northern tip of the town offers great views over the gorge and a former convent now converted into a luxury hotel.
I had never heard about Cuenca until I read about it in the Lonely Planet while we were preparing for our first trip to Spain last September. Whenever I hear about the combination of sheer rock walls and medieval fortresses, I feel compelled to see the sights. Though Cuenca is rather out of the way from the most famous places in Spain, I put it high on my list and kept twisting Anil’s arm to make sure we made it there.
When our daughter Adia joined us in Madrid at the end of our Year Four travels, we wanted to venture to some of the places we hadn’t been able to see when we toured Spain with my sister Donna the previous fall. It would have been great to for Adia to see Cordova, Seville and Granada, but we felt she should come back another time with Geoff and see those romantic places.
We were now very comfortable about renting cars in Europe after getting outside our travel comfort zone and renting cars in Lebanon and Tunisia. Spain was a piece of cake compared to driving in those countries. We had just returned a car we hired in Algeciras after driving through the Extremadura region of western Spain. We didn’t need to keep it in Madrid and thought we would make plans with Adia for her visit once she arrived, and rent a car again if she thought it made sense.
In the end, she agreed we would have more flexibility with a car, and it’s actually cheaper to rent a car to transport three people than it is to get around on the high-speed trains. Suddenly, a visit to Cuenca was not only a possibility; there was really no reason not to go at all. That’s when I got really greedy and added a side trip to see the ancient windmills at Consuegra as well. It made for a very long day, especially for Anil, as he was the designated driver. It wasn’t too easy for Adia either because we had rented a compact car and the rear seats were none too comfortable.
When we arrived at the urban sprawl that is modern Cuenca, we had a really tough time finding our way to the old city centre where the hanging houses are located. For some reason, the district wasn’t well signposted and we only had a map of the ancient citadel in our guidebook and no map showing how to get there from the highway. We had driven a long way and I wasn’t about to give up, but it was one of our more frustrating navigating experiences.
It didn’t help that we were hungry and it was too late for lunch as most of the places to eat were beginning to close for the afternoon siesta. We hadn’t figured that into our plan when we decided to include two destinations into our one-day excursion. We eventually found a place to get a light meal and it was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the hilltop opposite one of the river gorges.
Parking was an issue once again, as it always is in Europe, and finally we just abandoned the car and walked across and high metal bridge towards the famous houses, literally hanging over the rim of the gorge. We walked through the narrow gate of the citadel and once inside spotted a place to park. We raced back to get the car and maneuvered it into the small spot. Now we were free to explore the city at our leisure.
Luckily for us, this late in the spring, the sun doesn’t set too early so we spent the next two hours wandering the small streets, passing through the central plaza and admiring the cathedral, the monasteries and the multitude of other attractive stone buildings. There seemed to be only a handful of other visitors to the town that day so we walked through quiet streets with only an occasional resident or a group of children on a school outing to distract us from the architecture.
When we looked at the clock and realized that it was almost 7:00pm, we knew we had to leave soon as we still had a two and a half hour drive back to Madrid and the challenge once again of finding Exit 9 off the M30. This time we would get it right, or we would be back following the signs to the airport once again in order to find the route we knew to our hotel on Av. Alcala.