A few years ago there was much anticipation (or fretting, depending upon your view of these things) that a newly opened high speed rail link from Madrid to Cuenca would result in the town finally taking centre stage on the tourist trail. The fear was that this small and quiet town would suddenly be inundated with marauding tourists making the place look untidy. Until then the beautiful, and more easily reached, city of Toledo had been Castilla-La Mancha’s destination of choice for tourists.
March may not be the best time to test this theory, but while tourism is definitely on the rise, out of season it is pretty low key. The narrow alleys and cliff top trails of this charming town were often free of people. Summer, I’m told, is a different matter.
Comparisons between Toledo and the smaller, cliff hugging town of Cuenca don’t really work. They’re very different places, as a visitor the experience you have can’t truthfully be compared. I loved wandering the streets of Cuenca, stopping into some of the lively bars and restaurants on and around the main square, and generally absorbing the timeless atmosphere of the town. The two towns have similar populations, yet Toledo feels cosmopolitan while at heart Cuenca feels like a big village.
The old, historic centre of the town perches high on cliffs that tumble vertically down to the two rivers, the Huécar and the Júcar, that cut through the rock to form the gorges on either side. We stayed just up the hill from the Plaza Mayor in the Hotel Leonor de Aquitania, itself perching on a cliff with spectacular views of the gorge below. I got up early and walked through deserted streets to the top of the town to take in the fantastic views. The sun finally broke through the cloud to illuminate houses and churches built from yellow sandstone.
In the early morning it is a peaceful place to absorb the panorama, only occasionally interrupted by the chatter of people walking in the gorge. From the top of town there is a well marked trail down the cliff side. The trail brings you to the Puente de San Pablo, the iconic red metal bridge that spans the gorge to connect the town and the towns most expensive hotel, the Parador de Cuenca, itself housed in a former 16th Century monastery. From the bridge you get wonderful views of the equally iconic Casas Colgadas, Cuenca’s hanging houses.
Walking back over the bridge a road takes you through one of the old town gates. From here we explored the town lower down the hill before finally wending our way back into the Plaza Mayor. The dominant feature of the plaza is the slightly bizarre looking Gothic Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Gracia.
Construction started on the cathedral in 1182, shortly after Cuenca was captured from Moorish forces. Its development has seen a mismatch of styles squeezed together, culminating in the Gothic facade added in 1902. The new facade was necessary because the old one collapsed. 827 years after construction began, it remains a work in progress.
Cuenca is an atmospheric place during the day, at night it is a place that feels alive with medieval intrigue. Few people were on the streets; in the quiet night air sound travels a long way in the narrow alleys and amplifies up from the gorge. Footsteps or voices echo up and down the cobbled lanes, making a stroll back from the local bar after a couple of glasses of tinto a marvellously eerie experience.