A walk through Medieval Cuenca

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.

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.