Mary & Tony's 2008 Europe, Mid-East, India & Malaysia Cruise Trip travel blog

Cuenca clifftop houses near our housesit

Cathedral & shops in Cuenca's Plaza Mayor

Cuenca's Cathedral

Cuenca clifftop view

Cuenca's famous 3 remaining "hanging houses" just up from our housesit

View from our housesitin Cuenca


There’s something Australian about the Spanish. Its not just the friendly relaxed people and their attitude to life that is appealing. In provincial Cuenca it’s their La Mancha landscape which in the south resembles nothing so much as the western plains of NSW with planted dry crops and merino sheep, or maybe it’s a spaghetti western we’ve been experiencing.

Also, and un-Australian but Hollywood-ish, there are the ubiquitous bars-cum-restaurants that greet road visitors on the periphery of each small town. Once or twice a day we pull up outside one of their garish facades and saunter in, saying to the bartender “Dos cafe grande con leche, gracias” (2 large coffees with milk please). We then enjoy the ambience atop a high stool with others at the actual bar.

Apart from thirst and a need for the toilet, there are two main criteria for our choice of bar – few people and preferably no smoke. Spaniards like all nations without British heritage are generally thin, however what they save in a healthy obesity index must be negated by a disastrous looming lung cancer index. Seemingly everyone smokes, in bars or wherever, and to non-smoking Australians the traditional walk-out is not an option otherwise no toilet-no coffee. So we walk in on what can be, depending upon our antecedents and the bar’s reputation, either clean or dirty floors. An astonishing tradition is to throw all paper, used toothpicks, empty sugar sachets, cigarette butts etc. on bar floors, thus affirming the bar’s popularity in the eyes of those who follow you. The filthier the bar floor, the greater the reason to stay.

Sometimes, like two days ago, a stilted conversation with the owner-bartender follows our entrance. It is enhanced marginally, and usually humorously, by lousy serviette drawings and an incredibly lousy well-thumbed “Thomas Cook Spanish Phrase Guide” (What it doesn’t have in it would fill a book!). Two days back, Felipe was the only sign of life at 2pm in the tiny provincial foothill hamlet of Tragacete. We have become Spanish to the extent that our daily tourist lives revolve around the fact that all Spaniards except those in bars are either at lunch or asleep between 2 and 4pm when all businesses except bars close. So over coffee, and with no common language, we discovered from Felipe that two famous rio’s – the Tajo and the Jucar – originate near his village. The noteworthy fact about this is that one flows to disgorge in the Atlantic and the other in the Mediterranean. However, along the way the swollen Tajo changes its name to the Tejo when it crosses into Portugal to disgorge into the Atlantic at Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, So Felipe lives at a great divide on the Iberian Peninsula and is justly proud of the fact.

After swapping names Felipe further explains to Mary that in Spain, the appellation of all Mary’s is conjoined with their second name. Thus Mary in Spain would be known as Mary Veronica or more likely, Maria Veronica. This is significant because a random Stokes survey has discovered that the first name of 75% of Spanish women, like Irish women, is Mary and differentiating is important.

The obligatory TV is running on Felipe’s bar wall and with the remote on the counter either he or his clients can switch channels as desired. Channel switching is, however, rare with men as 90% of bars in another random Stokes survey have soccer (aka futbol) on and that is the viewing of choice of 90% of Spanish men. I (Tony) by means of a dodgy serviette genealogical diagram manage to tell Felipe that my great grandfather was from a wine-growing Catalonian family near or on the French border (The border having moved north and south with some regularity over the centuries). He, with complementary innovation, manages to reply that he hates Catalonians, and particularly Barcelonans, because of their arrogance on the football field. Oh, and they also speak a different dialect. One can imagine that from such light issues, extended a bit, the seed of civil war might spring, and of that Spain has a long history.

We are now into our 3rd Spanish week and for a week have lodged in a stunning housesit on the edge of the rio Huecar gorge at its junction with the rio Jucar (yes, the same). The Gorges (or Hoz) have for centuries defined why the ancient Cuenca city is located where it is. The LP (Lonely Planet) assessment of the city is that it now has 50 000 people, is a World Heritage site and is, quote, “one of Spain’s most enchanting cities (with an) old centre bristling with evocative medieval buildings”. Our house is in the old centre just around the corner on the cliff from the “emblematic” (LP) three remaining hanging houses of Cuenca, and our lovely hostess has it in stunning condition.We have uploaded 6 photos of Cuenca's historic city on this site for you to see.

With the house come two cats – Spike and Slinky. Spike is black, 14 years old, of uncertain parentage and unlike other Spaniards, obese. Slinky is multi-coloured, 3 months old, of uncertain parentage and like other Spaniards, thin. Spike has become fat only with the appearance of Slinky who was brought in for his company. Spike eats Slinky’s food but this is not an issue for Slinky who doesn’t seem to mind. Hence, the reason why Slinky is thin and they have become best mates.

Yesterday we left the stunning housesit, its views across the hoz and Spike and Slinky, to mosey around the back roads of La Mancha in southern Cuenca Province, as distinct from the city. At midday we drove south on the N-420 and into Don Quixote country following a "Ruta Turisticas" where we could see the "molinos"or windmills tilted at by the Don. We stopped initially for one photo, then some more, of large iron sculptures of the Don and his faithful servant, Sancho, on their steeds that started appearing by the roadside at about Belmonte. Photographing is not now a major issue with electronic cameras as they have a delete button, which in our case is well-used each night. Hence, theway it goes is that Mary spots a Don + Sancho and Tony, the driver, dutifully screeches to a stop and hits the flashing emergency light to allow her to hang out the window and frame yet another award-winning shot.

Stopping is usually not an issue either on Spanish roads, or as we noticed last year Italian. In fact everyone does it, everywhere. Double park, triple park, blind corners, single-lane narrow alleyways etc. Doesn’t matter. Just stop, hit the emergency light, get out, unload your car, talk to your friends, do whatever and then hop back in and drive off. Because everyone does it, nobody complains, and certainly not the police. No-one toots or yells. You just swerve in and around cars everywhere or, if the entire road is blocked, wait with complete understanding of and empathy for, say, Paulo who needed to hault all traffic for 3 minutes whilst he did his thing. Two buses going in opposite directions on the main business street of Cuenca yesterday stopped in front of us holding up all traffic so that the drivers could discuss, probably, which futbol team would win. The rarest infringement on Spanish roads must be parking tickets. That said, we have seen two parking inspectors hand out tickets but such employment must also be an unusual.

We drove up a sidetrack approaching Belmonte to see our first four towering Molinos; and they are impressive large white erections by any standard. UNESCO money is maintaining them and each remaining cluster in a township has, so the brochures say, one that actually works. However, at none of the three clusters that we visited were we able to confirm this, though one brochure added that the working windmill was only activated on a special fiesta day. At Belmonte there was one other car in the large tourist car park. It was a Council car and the man inside drove off shortly after leaving us to it. It was 2pm, siesta time.

Winding through the usual narrow streets into Belmonte we came upon the walls, and then the huge 15th century Castilian castle which, according to LP, was for a while home to France’s Empress Eugenie after her husband Napoleon the 3rd lost the throne in 1871. Thoughts of him searching for it in the dark came to mind as we arrived at the top of the hill and the inevitable car park. This time there were three other cars. We all wandered around gauping at what would have been a fantastic view if not for the huge crane in the middle of the castle. Another Spanish treasure under repair and unable to be entered.

History is everywhere of course and beside it the flimsy 200 years of white Australian momentoes seem rather puny. Hence, we resort with Spaniards like Felipo to describing Aboriginal heritage and its oldest rock paintings in the world to bring us at least a little closer in comparative timelines and eminence.

We drove on to more molinos in Mota del Cuervo, passing en route through El Toboso, and a cafe at the bar. This time with no other guests we were served by two middle-aged women who were more interested in the TV than in serving or conversing with us. The TV program was an earnest discussion amongst a panel of women about, no doubt, why they take second place behind futbol in their husbands’ lives. We stopped briefly in the tiny village to photograph supposedly the front door of the house where Cervantes’ had Don Quixote discover the lovely Dulcinea. There must have been something inside the house that affected the author because there is little inspiration in the door and its facade.

The windmills of Mota... and of Campo de la Criptana, where we ended our trip, are the ones specifically mentioned in Cervantes’ book. Celebrations have occurred this year for the 4th century of the appearance of the epic tale and Campo shows 11 windmills in whitened splendour against the rolling vineyards of La Mancha. However, to reach them requires skilled navigation through the littered, graffitied alleyways of the new city.

The two bars at the top of the hill near the molinos were full when we arrived at 3.40pm and outside, young men were examining their old hotted-up cars and talking about mechanics and futbol, and occasionally women. Tony knows this because although the conversation was in Spanish that is, worldwide, what young men talk about. Meanwhile, the young women lounged in the hot sun waiting for something to happen, and no doubt talking about the young men and why women take 2nd place to futbol and cars in their young men’s lives. Occasionally, two of the men would call the women into a jalopy and roar downhill laughing through the narrow cobblestone streets to test out their latest twitch to the motor and release some pent-up testosterone; as young men the world over are want to do.

Mary meanwhile took photos of quality of the large white erections both on the cliff top and amongst the alleys just below the summit where whitened small houses are crammed together in the old Arab or Moorish quarter. At 3.59, a middle-aged lady’s red tiny car drove into the plaza alongside "Poyatos" molinos (all are named) and opened the tourist office door in the molinos precisely at 4. Mary was second in and got talking to the lady, who spoke no English, and to Jose-Luis, who spoke some. Thus, we came to acquire two tickets at 3 euro to inspect the workings of “The Little One” (Infante S. XVI), a windmill opposite the tourist office. The huge oak beams and innards are, if anything, more impressive than the colossi they present on the outside. They are by any accounts astonishing creations of the old folk presumably to mill wheat back then.

After the visit Tony sauntered back to the parked car and turned on the air-conditioning, while Mary got talking to the ticket-collector, Miguel (named after Cervantes), and Jose-Luis. After contributing hugely by pictograms and hieroglyphs for 30 minutes to the Spanish store of knowledge about Australian geography and the Stokes’ family, Mary wrung from them a road map about how to reach the nearest souvenir shop. Then, after two unsuccessful attempts and a third return for more directions, we found said shop. There, as Tony practised more Spanish ways by parking illegally on a blind corner in the old Arab quarter, Mary bought her windmill for the Stokes Christmas tree.

Homewards we then drove to Cuenca into a setting sun sending beautiful shafts of light through the clouds and onto La Mancha fields, enough to take one’s eyes fleetingly off the road sign-posted 100 kmh, but Spanish drivers routinely mis-read the signs to be 130 kmp.

So endeth two more glorious Spanish days. We have 3 more days at Cuenca and 9 in Spain, then on to Rome.

Hasta la vista los amigos, Antonio & Maria Veronica



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