Hanging out in Medieval Cuenca

Perched on a rocky outcrop high above two gorges forged by the Júcar and Huécar rivers, Cuenca is as dramatic a sight as any in Spain, especially the casas colgadas, houses that hang precariously from the steep rock over the gorge below. Walking its narrow, medieval streets the evocative history of this fabulous town seems to seep out of the stone walls and cobbled streets. I’d wanted to visit Cuenca for years after seeing a panoramic photo in the travel pages of a newspaper, despite the chilly March weather and occasional rain showers, it didn’t disappoint.

Cuenca is a beautiful place, full of atmosphere. It has a compact old town which is easy to stroll around, some excellent restaurants and lively, entertaining bars crammed full of locals and visitors alike. We had one of the best meals of our trip, fresh grilled octopus washed down with local artisan beer, in a small restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. The town also has a couple of really good museums, including the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español which occupies one of the casas colgadas.

We’d arrived on a Saturday and there was a buzz in the town as visiting Madrileños arrived for a weekend in the country. Cuenca is deservedly on the tourist trail, but on a weekend in late March we didn’t come across any other tourists who weren’t Spanish – which made watching the El Clasico game between Barcelona and Real Madrid in a local bar a lot of fun. Barcelona won, much to the disappointment of everyone in the bar except for two gleeful Catalans.

This is tapas country and every glass of wine or beer is accompanied by a sizeable portion of free tapas. I’ve always thought the Spanish approach to drinking the most civilised in the world: order a drink, get some free food, order enough drinks and you rarely need dinner. Although given how cheap a glass of wine is I don’t know how it can be economical. Elsewhere in Spain you might get olives, bread with cheese or chorizo; in Cuenca the tapas comes in large quantities and is largely pork-based. Delicious it may be, but after a couple of days I found myself saying no to yet more morcilla or pork scratchings.

Cuenca’s culinary delights are more than matched by its historical delights. Considered an exceptional medieval fortified town by UNESCO, it was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1996. The town dates back to Roman times, but it was the arrival of the Moors in the 8th Century that put it on the map; by the 11th Century it was a flourishing textile centre with grand fortifications making it a strategic point at the heart of the Caliphate of Cordoba. A near impregnable stronghold, the town finally fell to the Castilian forces of the Reconquista in 1177.

It may not show it today, but like much of Spain Cuenca suffered a steep decline from the 16th Century onwards. The grinding rural poverty, so poetically brought to life in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the oppression of the church, which came to typify the rural Spanish experience, was widespread in-and-around Cuenca by the early 20th Century. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cuenca was firmly in the Republican camp during the Spanish Civil War, and only surrendered to General Franco’s forces in the final days of the war.

Reprisals and imprisonment against Republican supporters were plentiful once Franco’s Nationalists took control. Some of these reprisals were revenge for the killing of priests (including Cuenca’s Bishop) and other Nationalist supporters during the Civil War. The whole of this region suffered huge economic decline in the post-Civil War period, and many of the inhabitants migrated to other regions of Spain. That trend has been reversed, and today Cuenca seems to be a prosperous little town with tourism increasingly contributing to the local economy.

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