On a cold spring morning, we arrived at Cuenca. It was in the middle of our pan Andulasian road trip in Europe and I was sleeping in the back seat with the baby. A banging car door woke me up and Tarek stepped out to stretch his legs. Dark pre-dawn made the street lamps shed pools of golden light and I could hear the loud rushing sound of water. “Where are we?” I asked sleepily. “Cuenca”, he replied, “in the land of Don Quixote”. I nodded, snuggled back in my cozy spot and pulled the sleeping baby close for comfort. We were going to have a long day ahead of us and I was in no mood, unlike Tarek for unplanned stopovers. Plus, our cool more than 10 hours drive from Granada to Saragossa was going to stretch longer due to the mountainous road and we had no plans to visit Cuenca. I remember watching Tarek look around, trying to sense the place in the misty light of the dawn when a delicate sunrise unveiled Cuenca. Till today, we are unsure whether it was the mother of pearl sunrise or the surreal looking Spanish town which took our collective breaths away. The rosy sunrise lifted the mist like veils from Cuenca and our first sight of the ancient town made us linger longer than planned.
You may also like: 48 hours in Girona
Table of Contents
The dramatic capital city in the land of Don Quixote
Cuenca is the capital city of the sparsely populated Castille-La-Mancha province of Central Spain. It literally seems in the middle of nowhere. But unlike, most little offbeat places, where slow travel takes precedence over an action-filled itinerary, this underrated Spanish town has a lot to offer. Just 100 miles away from Madrid, most tourists visit Cuenca for its incredible modern art culture. This ancient town houses some of Spain‘s finest contemporary art within its old walls and there is also the remarkable Cathedral Santa Maria de Gracia. Consecrated in 1208, the cathedral has a Virgin Mary statue dating to the 12th Century and its stained glass windows were designed by Gustavo Torner. Cuenca also shares the fame of being one of Don Quixote locations and its key attraction is the dramatic hanging houses.
Recommended Read: Girona Food Market photo essay
Cuenca has a surreal natural location
The location of this UNESCO world heritage site is truly awe-inspiring. Enclosed on three sides by the deep gorges of the Huécar and Júcar rivers, Cuenca old town stacks up against the sloping, curling finger of rock. Precipitous sides plunge down to the gorges and it is one of Spain‘s most surreal-looking places. This city has existed for a very long time and somewhere down in Cuenca‘s history, when the town ran out of space for expansion, many of its mansions created balconies that dangled right above the dizzying abyss. This resulted in the famous Casas Colgadas or the Hanging Houses. These buildings are truly unique architectural attractions and one of the reasons why photographers visit Cuenca.
An awe-inspiring city with a history to match
The strategic importance of Cuenca was realized by the Muslim Arabs in 714. They turned it into their defensive stronghold, right at the heart of the Al-Andalus Kingdom back in the 8th century and built a fortress between the gorges of Jucar and Huecar rivers. It was surrounded by a 1-kilometer long wall and Cuenca was born. The city thrived and prospered quickly on agriculture and textile manufacturing industries. The Moors made sure that their fortified city was taken care of for a very long time until the Christian influence again advanced into Spain. In the 12th century, even though Cuenca got captured by the Castillians the city continued to prosper because of its profitable livestock and textile industries. The city’s iconic cathedral also started to get built during that time and its Anglo-Norman architectural style was already creating ripples. It would go on to become famous not only because of the size but also as Spain‘s first Gothic cathedral which was heavily influenced by the tastes of Alfonso’s French wife, Leonor de Plantagenet. This can easily be regarded as the Golden Age for Cuenca, since post the 18th century, the city has been in constant upheavals. In recent years, that Cuenca has revived a bit and in 1996, UNESCO declared it as a world heritage site.
Similar surreal places: Rock cut palace of Yemen
You may also like: The dramatic Meteora monasteries of Greece
Charming old town
In a country crammed with gorgeous places, standing apart as a charming old town is not easy. Cuenca, however, manages that with grace and its old town is indeed extremely photogenic. Narrow meandering streets wind up and down steep mountain face and Cuenca‘s two rivers tumble along willfully. They look up to tall houses with wooden balconies literally jutting out over the sheer cliffs and steep cobbled paths snake around. Driving around Cuenca‘s old town is a daring idea even for the most experienced drivers and the reasons are sheer drops, hairpin twists and riveting beauty. We were there in spring when cherry trees were full of pink flowers and the sky was tender blue. The brightly painted old buildings added pops of pink, lemon yellow, teal and saffron to Cuenca‘s usual skyline and the rivers were deep emerald. Trees sported neon greens and the river gorges, mountainous craggy scenery, and hanging houses made Cuenca into real eye candy.
Spain‘s modern art mecca is one of the reasons to visit Cuenca
Surreal natural landscape. architectural heritage, Unesco listing…Cuenca has a lot to offer. Yet, somehow this incredible ancient city‘s real claim to fame is as Spain‘s contemporary art mecca. Belying its age, Cuenca has firmly established itself as the hub of abstract modern art and two of its most iconic casa colgadas (hanging houses) are now modern art galleries. Love for modern art has turned this city into a buzzing hub for artists and nearly every lane houses a gallery.
Similar surreal places: Masouleh, the Iranian village with no roads
Cuenca Travel Tips
The biggest reasons to visit Cuenca are that it is underrated and drop dead pretty. The dramatic setting of the old town often guarantees spectacular gorge views, and its cobblestone streets, cathedral, churches, bars, and taverns contrast starkly with the modern town. There are surprisingly lots of things to do in and around Cuenca and it makes a good day trip from Madrid. If traveling between Valencia and Madrid or Madrid and Barcelona, do a stopover at Cuenca and enjoy this often overlooked Spanish city‘s offbeat charm. One can easily spend a day exploring the lively Plaza Mayor, the cathedral, and the Saint Paul Bridge. Walking at the very end of Calle de San Pedro and Puenta de San Pablo offer best views of the magnificent panorama. The Casa Colgadas or the Hanging Houses are not to be missed and the Parador, which is a hotel that occupies the former convent of San Pablom make an unusual accommodation choice. If you happen to stay overnight at Cuenca, make a short outing to see the bizarre limestone formations of the Ciudad Encantada. In fall, on 21st September, Cuenca celebrates the festival of San Mateo. Expect parades, concerts, fireworks and running of the bulls through the narrow cobbled lanes of the old city.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE