This time last year, before the impromptu arrival of frigid winds and unyielding frostbite to our extremities, myself and a group of friends decided to evade the humdrum of inner-city living and escape to Cuenca for a couple of days’ break. Cuenca is a small, Medieval city built by the Moors in the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha, located some 140km east of Madrid centre (about 2h30m by bus), that sits on a steep headland at the point at which two deep river gorges meet. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site owing to its wealth of monuments and both religious and secular architecture.
Casas colgadas (lit. Hanging houses) sit precariously on the cliff’s edge, their balconies literally jutting out above the abyss and decorate the famous Cuencan backdrop that features on every postcard, coaster and souvenir tea towel available for sale.
From a photographer’s point of view, it is the ideal place to wander around with your photographic equipment (drone owners, I’m talking to you) and just get lost capturing the city’s evident historical richness.
On the morning of, we packed up our things and headed down to the bus station to meet our friends. I said to my then-boyfriend-now-husband that we should pick up some breakfast before departure to stave off motion sickness and a potential breakup because I don’t handle being hangry particularly efficiently. So we traipsed into the local chino and loaded up on “supplies” should our coach veer off the road and leave us stranded in some thorny underbush in the middle of nowhere or should our journey take longer than the predicted 2.5 hours and we start perishing from starvation. You never know.
So after our little pitstop, we arrived at the station to a group of our friends already gathered and chatting at the platform. Besides our group of 6, there was a healthy handful of other people also visiting Cuenca for the puente. See my last post for more on that.
Given its proximity to Madrid, Cuenca makes for the perfect weekend-away destination because if you get there and find you absolutely despise it, you can leave like nothing even happened. So we boarded the bus and set off, armed with coffee (because it was early) and our loot from the corner shop because, really, what’s a 2-hour bus ride without totally inappropriate and unnecessary snacks?
We arrived in Cuenca mid-afternoon when the sun was still shining but shops had started closing for their daily siesta. We sat down outside a small restaurant to a round of tinto de verano and a plate or two of chorizo a la plancha to kill time before we could check in to our Airbnb.
Elderly women sat at outdoor terraces enjoying a cold beer and some tapas as teenage boys went galavanting around the narrow, cobbled streets in their tiny, battered cars. Unsavoury music blared out of their open windows along with the tail-end of a cloud of marijuana smoke – common fare when you live among the youth in Spain. We sat and observed life here – the surroundings were tranquil and docile, but the people activity throbbed violently through the streets.
After checking in to our Airbnb, we quickly connected ourselves to their wifi and calculated a plan for the rest of our time in Cuenca. By now the sun was threatening to set and Joe, the photographer of the group, was itching to photograph it from a viewpoint just around the corner from our accommodation.
We followed him after picking up a couple of bottles of vino tinto, a packet of turrón and borrowing a corkscrew from our Airbnb host whose souvenir shop was conveniently located directly underneath our apartment. We sat at the nearby bell tower and watched the sun shoot streaks of magenta and ochre across the sky whilst sipping sneakily camouflaged glasses of home-made tinto and dislodging caramelised almonds from our teeth.
The next day we woke up and prepared ourselves for our first full day. After showering and snacking on semi-stale galletas María as a breakfast pre-cursor, we left the house in search of something more substantial to keep us going. We headed up the main tourist street that runs right through the centre of downtown Cuenca and discovered a square lined with restaurant terraces. Bingo!…or so we thought.
We attempted to secure a place at the first one after swiping an empty table and dragging a couple of spare chairs up to it to accommodate our larger party. The waitress boldly approached us and announced that no one would be serving us. Odd, especially for early morning.
So we hot-footed it across the way to a more welcoming breakfast spot. Table for 6, please.
And with that, we sat down and ordered breakfast. Two slices of thick toast with butter and jam, coffee with non-dairy milk (decaf for me) and freshly squeezed orange juice with pulp – all for the princely sum of 2€.
After sufficiently fuelling ourselves for the day ahead, we headed on over to the cathedral which was just a matter of feet up the road. I have a particular penchant for religious buildings, despite not being religious myself. I think that there is something incredibly humbling and emotive about walking around a building depicting an enormous portion of a place’s history, and I make a point to visit at least one cathedral, chapel or church wherever I go.
Armed with an audioguide, and thankfully, a warm scarf, we navigated catacombs, alters, tombstones and cloisters whilst drinking in the information we were provided with.
Joe we decided that a spot of hiking was in order. Now, I’m all for a stunning viewpoint, believe me. However, when the promise of a quick and presumably painful death is just a stumble or a stagger away, I’m a touch hesitant. But, what’s a trip to Cuenca without seeing the casas colgadas? They are beautiful, and add a great deal of cultural richness to this tiny little town. We crossed a rickety, wooden-beam bridge whose ironwork was laden with sentimental padlocks with peoples’ initials written on to reach the other side and enjoy the view.
Tip: If you happen to suffer from vertigo, do not, I repeat, DO NOT alert your friends to this. I can guarantee that one of them will pretend to push you over the edge or attempt to rock the bridge. Seeing you ashen in the face and frozen with fear serves as impetus at best, or an embarrassing photo opportunity at worst.
If you’ve read my Cinque Terre posts (here and here), then you know that I am no stranger to being unprepared for a hike. By any means. And while back then I assumed my lack of preparation came in the form of being inappropriately dressed, I’m now starting to consider it more a case of being hideously unfit, and that it doesn’t matter if I am kitted out head to toe in “hiking gear” with a walking-stick-thingy in hand, I would still qualify as “unprepared.” In cardiovascular terms.
Thankfully my husband (who used to run 70 miles/week in his hey day) was right behind me, quite literally giving me the push I needed to continue.
The view from the top was spectacular. And well worth the climb and crucifying calf cramp. We basked in the glorious sunshine and enjoyed the tranquility that often comes from being above the hubbub. I spotted a golden retriever and therefore my tranquility went out the window because I’m a dog obsessive with no chill.
Our descent involved squeezing past throngs of people on exceptionally narrow streets and stopping at viewpoints on the other side of town. If you’re the outdoorsy type and you appreciate the raw, unspoilt beauty of nature, then this is the place for you.
We finished our hike with some well-deserved tapas in a local restaurant before checking out of our Airbnb and making our way to the bus station.
One thing I do love about a semi-nomadic lifestyle, is that you have plenty of opportunity to visit places that are mostly overlooked in favour of the bigger, more vibrant cities. I am definitely not a city girl, so locations such as Cuenca satiate my need for intimate and relaxed living. No pretence, no fanfarronería, just unaltered and organic culture and architecture.
Had you ever visited or even heard of Cuenca before this post? Is it somewhere you would like to go? Let me know in the comments!