Monday, May 1, 2017

Enchanted by Cuenca

Cuenca turns out to be one of my favorite stops during our month-long trip to Spain.

Our two days in Cuenca are a delightful surprise as we enter the final week of our month in Spain. Nearly everything about this little city, located in the Castile-La Mancha region, delights me. In addition to the architecture, art and heritage of the city itself, the surrounding region is quite breathtaking too, as we discover on our second day when we visit Ciudad Encantada — the Enchanted City.

Our visit to Cuenca, Spain, starts with a walk along the Río Júcar.

Our temporary home is located along the Río Júcar at the base of the steep hill that leads to the city center, and a walk along the river is the perfect renewal therapy after our two-and-a-half-hour drive from Valencia. The little apartment we've rented has a bombed-out-shell look from the outside but turns out to be cozy and clean, and our kind host has even provided for tomorrow's breakfast.

Iglesia Virgen de la Luz in Cuenca

'Turbas Generación' by artist José Luís Martinez Gómez in Cuenca

It's nearing cocktail hour, so we set out to the ancient walled city. As usual, our first stop is the tourism office, which we easily find in the Plaza Mayor. However, it hasn't reopened after siesta yet, so we find a sunny spot for una cerveza y vino tinto and people-watch to pass the time.

Ken stops for a chat with A. Federico Muelas, poet/
journalist/screenwriter who was born in Cuenca.

Arches are incorporated into the design of Cuenca's
ayuntamiento (town hall)

We enter Plaza Mayor through the arches of the ayuntamiento (town hall), designed by architect Jaime Bort in 1733. The plaza's most striking building is La Catedral de Cuenca — Spain's first Gothic-style cathedral — built in the 12th century on the spot where the city's ancient Muslim mosque had been located.

Exterior detail of La Catedral de Cuenca

We get advice and a bonus book from Cuenca's tourism office.

At 4:30, the Oficina de Turismo reopens and the very helpful woman here supplies me with a 50-page glossy guide in addition to the usual map. She says that since we have a car, we must also drive to the mountains — advice we will take tomorrow.

Plaza Mangana in Cuenca 

From the year 711, Cuenca was under Muslim rule. Four-hundred years later, attracted by its strategic location at the confluence of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, Christian armies conquered the city. Eventually, Muslims and Jews settled in their own neighborhoods, while Christians controlled the rest of the city. Some of the ancient city walls are still standing and each street seems to contain vestiges of Cuenca's rich past.

No one is certain of the origins of Cuenca's casas colgadas (hanging houses).
The Museum of Abstract Art is housed in two of the hanging houses in Cuenca.

Perhaps the most emblematic feature of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are las casas colgadas or hanging houses. No one is sure of the origin of the three houses — some claim Muslim roots, others say medieval. The buildings were restored in the 20th century and the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español is housed in two of them. True to their name, the buildings hang from the cliffs above the Rio Huécar. The best view of las casas colgadas is from the Puente de San Pablo, a narrow footbridge.

Puente de San Pablo in Cuenca

Ken considers whether or not to cross the Puente de San Pablo in Cuenca.

Cuenca relied on agriculture and textile manufacturing throughout much of its past, but today a vibrant arts community is located here, and along with tourism and recreation, the city seems to be thriving.

Cuenca's Parador de Turismo, a hotel, originally was the Convento de San Pablo.

After a great night's sleep we drive through the Serranía de Cuenca Nature Reserve to Ciudad Encantada. Located in a mountain canyon nearly 1,500 meters above sea level, the site contains curious rocky formations that have been sculpted by Mother Nature into figures that look like animals, objects and humans. I'll let the website explain the natural phenomenon:
"The reason behind the existence of all these fanciful shapes is the different hardness and composition of the rocks. At the top there is magnesian limestone, grey and more resistant to erosion than the one below, which has a reddish tone. The lower part erodes faster than the upper part, creating shelters and cornices."

Rock formation at Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca

Rock formation at Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca

Ventano del Diablo (Devil's Window) offers a view of the
Rio Júcar in the Serranía de Cuenca Nature Reserve
Another view of Ventano del Diablo (Devil's Window) in the
Serranía de Cuenca Nature Reserve

Perhaps it's the combination of the ideal-size city and the nearby natural splendor, but there's something about Cuenca that makes me pretty confident I'll be back one day.

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