Cuenca, Castilla-La Mancha, España
Cuenca. When most of us hear this name, we probably think of the city in Ecuador. I have never been to Cuenca, nor Ecuador, but I can assure you that from what I know of the Ecuadorean city (mainly from Google images and research) it is quite different than the Spanish Cuenca.
Cuenca is located about 1-1/2 to 2 hours (depending on if you drive yourself or take the bus) from downtown Madrid. It is also fairly close to Valencia, so it makes an excellent day-trip destination from either city. It is a small city in comparison to Madrid and Valencia, but it is about the same size as Toledo, another beautiful city to visit in Castilla-La Mancha.
One of Cuenca’s main attractions are the casas colgadas, or “hanging houses.” They are houses from the 14th century that were built on the edge of a huge ravine. They literally hang off the edge of the ravine, overlooking the Huécar river. There used to be a lot of them, but today only a few remain.
The last time I was in Spain, I did not make it to Cuenca, so it was on my list of Spanish cities that I wanted to visit this year. I met a new friend in Madrid, V, who is actually from Cuenca. She told me she was going home to Cuenca one weekend and invited me to come along. I was so excited to finally see the casas colgadas and to learn about the city from a native. V was even nice enough to show me around and I am so grateful for that because I would have surely gotten myself lost if I had gone on my own.
Parador de Cuenca
Courtyard of the Parador
The first stop on my tour of the city was the famous Parador de Cuenca. It is a fancy, historic hotel for visitors to Cuenca. They have top-notch amenities, such as a spa and on-site restaurant.
The interior, as well as the exterior, of the Parador is magnificently beautiful. The halls are decorated with beautiful paintings and marble floors. I do not know the exact price of a night in the Parador, but I imagine it would be at least $200 USD.
La hoz del Huécar
The hoz del Huécar, or Huécar River Gorge, is probably one of the most impressive parts of Cuenca. It is huge and provides spectacular views of the historic center, the more modern part of the city, and its natural surroundings. Around the Huécar River Gorge, you can go hiking or walk. And, most importantly, you can take in the beauty of the casas colgadas from afar.
After looking at the Parador, in order to get closer to the casas colgadas and to see the Plaza Mayor de Cuenca and the historic center, you have to cross a narrow iron bridge. This was my second stop on my tour and I must admit I was more than a little terrified. V assured me that the bridge was safe and that she had crossed it a thousand times without a problem, but I still clung to the iron rail as my feet slowly made their way across the narrow wooden planks.
I eventually crossed the bridge and saw one of the casas colgadas up close. There was a sign that said they were from the 14th century. I could not believe it. They looked so well-preserved and intact despite centuries of use. Over the years, they have been used as homes, council houses and one of them is currently a restaurant. Whoever is in charge of the conservation and restoration does a very good job!
A little bit of the Casco Antiguo (Historic Center)
Cuenca has a lot of fun attractions, such as a modern art museum and a museum dedicated to the casas colgadas, but I wanted to take advantage of the nice weather by being outside and walking around the historic center of the city. Our first stop, just a few minutes away from the casas colgadas, was the Plaza Mayor de Cuenca. It was very different from the other plazas mayores that I have seen throughout Spain. The brightly colored buildings and tiled roofs made me feel like I had been transported to the Caribbean.
We continued walking along the narrow streets and taking in the beauty of the city during autumn.
The leaves had already begun to change colors and fall off the trees. Autumn and the changing of the colors of the leaves is something that many ex-pats miss when they move overseas. Luckily, here in the central part of Spain, this seems to take place at roughly the same time (give or take a few weeks).
No matter what time of year you come to Cuenca, make sure you wear good walking shoes because it is very hilly! I think the hills are actually steeper than Toledo’s. We eventually made it to the top of the city and stopped to have lunch. After a delicious an filling lunch, we started to descend to the bottom of the city.
Remains of the Castle/Muralla
Near the top of Cuenca, you can see the remains of the castle and muralla, or city wall. The castle was an Arab fortress which was captured by Alfonso the 8th for the Christians. Most of the castle is gone, but you can still see some of its remains.
A good portion of the city wall is still intact. You can climb to the top of the it and see spectacular views of the city and its natural surroundings.
Art isn’t only in museums.
As in many cities, Cuenca does have some interesting street art. There is graffiti, and really cool paintings and designs. One of my favorites was the one in the picture above. I agree with the statement “art isn’t only in museums,” because art is everywhere and it surrounds us in our daily lives. Buildings, bridges, and even streets and sidewalks could be considered art. Someone had to design them and construct them.
I am a huge fan of museums and I really think that we can learn a lot about the world around us and the history of our world by looking at works of art. However, I also believe we can learn a lot by just walking around our cities and public spaces and taking in our surroundings. I did not set foot in a single museum while I was in Cuenca, but I felt like I learned a lot about the city because I saw some of its most famous structures, such as the casas colgadas. I believe that city structures and monuments can often tell the story of a city better than paintings in museums. Centuries and centuries of inhabitants of the city had to pass by these structures everyday and each person had some kind of relationship to the city. In contrast, a painting is one person’s depiction of the world around them. It does not show the whole picture, merely a small piece, and it can often be biased. Buildings and monuments, however, capture the essence of the very people who walked the street and hold the stories of their lives.
What about Food?
In addition to buildings and monuments, food is another key component of a city’s culture. Cuenca has no shortage of delicious food and some of it is actually vegetarian, too. One of the most popular, non-vegetarian, foods in Cuenca is morcilla, or blood sausage. It was on almost every restaurant menu that I saw. Needless to say, I didn’t try it.
Another food that I saw everywhere, was queso de romero, or rosemary cheese. The one I tried was a mild sheep cheese and its edges were covered with rosemary. In the restaurant, it was served with olive oil. It is very tasty, and I even bought a block to take home with me to Madrid. It makes very good macaroni and cheese, by the way!
Another common food from Cuenca is alajú. It is a delectable dessert which is made of almonds, honey, bread crumbs, and orange essence. It is held together by two large wafers, similar to the kind you get at a Christian mass during Communion.
¿Colgadas, no colgantes?
So, you are probably a little curious about the meaning of the title of this post. Well, the correct name for the hanging houses in Cuenca is: las casas colgadas. However, many people continue to call them: las casas colgantes. Well, there is a slight difference between colgadas and colgantes. As you can see on the souvenir ashtrays in this picture, las casas colgantes would be houses that are suspended in the air, or hang from something else. This would be a very difficult architectural feat to accomplish.
A colgante is technically something that hangs from something else, such as a jewel or pendent that is attached to a necklace.. It is also used when talking about suspension bridges, or puentes colgantes. So, one thing to remember when you go to Cuenca-because I know you all will go there-is that the correct name is las casas colgadas. You will not see any casas colgantes in Cuenca- unless you buy a necklace!