Cuenca is a treasure in the centre of Spain, just an 1-1/2hours from Madrid, that unfortunately gets missed by most visitors. This relatively small city, just 56,000 population, has so much history, architecture and natural beauty all packed into a small area that in almost any other country in the world it would have a constant stream of tourists. But in Spain, with so many other places to compete with, Cuenca gets little more than a second glance.
What to see in Cuenca:
Walk the streets
As you approach Cuenca you will almost be surprised to see cars as this town whisks you far back in history. It would seem more appropriate to see some knights in full regalia riding prancing steeds than to see a car snake its way down the narrow road. The moors were the original inhabitants of Cuenca—building a strategic fortress on the ravine between two meeting rivers. When you look at the original city you will wonder how any army ever even considered trying to conquer it. But the Christians did eventually come and claim it as their own in 1177 and started to build on top of what was already there, and slowly spread down the hill.
Downtown Cuenca has done a great job at keeping its original charm. The streets are cobblestoned, narrow and windy. Take your time walking through the maze of streets as you will come across many fascinating nooks and crannies in the quaint side streets. The main plaza not only has an impressive cathedral but across the square, there are colourful buildings with shops. Of course, no Spanish square could exist without a few cafes and their outdoor tables livening up the area.
Take your time to find the interesting corners in Cuenca—they are well worth seeing.
A cliff-hanging experience
You may have heard of the Hanging gardens of Babylon, but have you heard of the Hanging houses of Cuenca? As Cuenca was originally built as a stategic fortress between the rivers Jucan and Huecar many of the buildings are perched precariously on the ridge of one of the ravines. Some of houses balconies are actually hanging off in open space above the ravines that drop 100’s of feet to the river below. These homes have helped make Cuenca a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Having a respect for heights—truefully I get very wobbly at the knees looking down from high-up spots—I believe I would be terrified if I were to glance over the rails of one of the flimsy looking balconies. One of these homes is a restaurant, so if you are brave enough to look over the ravine from the lofty height of a rickety wooden structure, you can actually do so.
Stroll the San Pablo bridge for the best view of Cuenca
You have to cross the Puente de San Pablo bridge to get to the centre of old Cuenca. Although the bridge was built in the 16th century you don’t have to worry about falling through as it has been kept up very well. Even for a person like myself with a huge respect of heights, it wasn’t a nerve-wracking as this is a very stable bridge. From the bridge, you get the best view of the hanging houses, the entire ravine side of Cuenca and the Parador hotel.
Walk along the wall
Much of the wall of Cuenca is still intact. It is well worth the effort to walk to the highest point of Cuenca and climb onto the wall—by stairs. From this vantage point, you have an excellent view of the city, the snaking maze-like streets, the ravine and the terrain beyond.
A small piece of advice—which I seem to repeat in many of my articles—wear comfortable shoes! The streets are uneven cobblestones and Cuenca is built on a hill so you will be walking up and down hills and stairs continually.
Mix modern with the old
You would be forgiven for thinking that everything you find in Cuenca is old, an antique and full of museums. (there are some fantastic museums by the way) However, one of the most famous of the museums is the Museum of abstract art. (Museo de Arte Abstracto de España) Cuenca is considered the birthplace of modern abstract art in Spain. Ironically this museum is situated in one of the casas colgantes (hanging houses). The museum has a permanent collection of 129 paintings and sculptures as well as temporary exhibitions that are constantly changing.
Museo de Arte Abstracto Español: web
Telephone: 34 91 435 42 40
Visit the Parador of Cuenca
Paradors in Spain are always worth a visit. This one is no exception. The Parador of Cuenca was originally a monastery but now is a Parador hotel on top of the Gorge with one of the best views of Cuenca and the Casas Colgantes. In visiting the Parador you will not only get some of the best views of the town, but you can also soak in the history of the building itself which was a monastery until very recently. The actual king Felipe and his wife Letizia, went to this hotel on their honeymoon when they were married in 2004. So if you decide to have a meal at the Parador or stay the night you know that the hotel is worthy of royalty and has high standards.