Position: 40° 2′ 51”N 2° 5′ 56”W
Perfectly executed rendezvous in foreign countries always amaze me. Transporting two groups of people from opposite ends of the earth to a place none of them has ever seen at an agreed time is for me, even in this digital age, simultaneously prosaic and awesome. Cuenca has two train stations. An old one and a new one. High speed trains go to the new one. Just outside of town. Built in the ‘Modürne Eurostile’ of so many EC-funded projects, the new station looks like an airport. Naturally, Carol and I went to the other one. The old one. Thanks Google Maps. Wade texted us and we spun our little VW Golf around and headed in the right direction. Like the pilot of a cargo plane who crashed just short of the runway at SFO famously said, “…statistically, we were spot on”. Even if we were 20 minutes late.
It was March 7. Corona virus was already present in Spain, but life continued normally.
Cuenca sits perched on a narrow isthmus of a hill sandwiched between two rivers. Besides providing natural defence, the steep hills gave landowners clear views of the fertile valley to the south. Occupied for at least two thousand years, the newest parts of the city have long since expanded onto the valley floor. Situated about 170 kilometres east southeast of Madrid, Cuenca (pronounced Kwenka) ranks as one of Spain’s most beautiful, and most touristed spots. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has all the necessary trappings for success. It is close enough to Madrid that a high-speed train takes around three hours to get there. A local university keeps the median age of the population down, and energy in the many delightful bars and restaurants up.
So steep and narrow is the hill Cuenca sits on, the casas colgadas, or hanging houses buttressing the town’s outer walls, appear to float above you. The effect is doubly thrilling when you make out the scaffolding and workers laboring to keep the buildings in place.
The Tres Balcones, our apartment, opened on to the main street and backed onto a cliff. Looking over the local Parador Hotel and Huécar River, we enjoyed the full moonrise directly from our balconies. For the next couple of days we explored the town, hiked the gorges, and were grateful the cold air mass moved off to the north.
Our first group hike led us across the Huécar via a precipitous bridge. From there we climbed the valley’s eastern side and with the help of the All Trails app we wound our way back towards town. Reasoning that because the trail was well marked and well-trod there must be a way off the mountain at the far end, we forged on towards the municipal theatre. On the sheer rocky knoll 30 feet above the street we scratched our heads looking for a way down. It didn’t feel like a collective senior moment, but it might have looked like it. Finally, Lauren took the lead and scrambled down to where she could direct the rest of us to safety. That done, it was time for a beer.
Both rivers run through a series of sluices as they pass through the lower part of the city. Pub-goers with trays designed to fit over the concrete walls lining the rivers gathered to drink and commune in the bright, warm sunlight. Turning back towards our flat, we climbed straight up, past 16th century monasteries and modern museums, back to the cathedral dominating the old city’s main square.
The following day Wade peeled off to take photos, while Lauren, Carol and I walked up the west side of town through the Júcar River valley. On our return we scrambled up the vertiginous hillside and discovered the Santuario De Nuestra Señora De Las Angustias. This small sanctuary clings to the cliff and has both a chapel and a crypt. The view to the west along the valley is stunning. And for reasons unknown, whimsical plaster crocodiles lurk in the small, tidy gardens; perhaps to entertain children while their parents pay their respects. We got back in time for a short siesta.
One hundred metres uphill from our flat, the Antonio Pérez Foundation museum beckoned us. Wade, Lauren and I all worked for Antonio Perez at one point, just not the Antonio Pérez whose foundation is based in Cuenca. Housed in a former convent for Carmelite nuns, the museum includes collections of Antonio Saura’s works, along with the art of ‘found objects’, carvings, prints, and modern photography. It is one of the best exhibits of 1950s experimental art I’ve seen in years. The experience was made even better because we were the only ones in the place. And who knew? Despite a collection spanning several more buildings around the province, even Wikipedia lacks an entry for Mr. Pérez. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Cuenca, make time for a visit to the Foundation. Entrance costs two euros.
With as much Cuenca under our belts as we could manage, the next morning we headed for what might be the prettiest town in Spain, Albarracín. Stay tuned…
Editor’s note: Besides being a fine fellow, Wade is also a gifted photographer. Here are some of his photos from Cuenca. You can see more of Wade’s work at: Wade Owens Photography