St Pauls Convent, Cuenca, Spain. photos by Rosalie Bebawi.
Cuenca, Spain: Off the Beaten Path and into the Beauty
For many, a trip to Spain usually requires a heavy travel book full of cities and sites that are “not to be missed”. It seems almost impossible to take in all of the different cultural and geographical scenes that this incredible country has to offer,at once. However, one does not have to see every famous landmark in order understand the unfathomable beauty that is Spain.
It suffices to find a small quiet corner on this chaotic peninsula and surrender yourself to the wild Iberian essence in order to know that you have truly arrived. Time after time I have found that there is no greater place to get carried away by Spain’s uncanny beauty than in the small Manchego town of Cuenca.
Cuenca is a small town located in the central region of Castilla la Mancha between the two rivers of Júcar and Huécar. These sacred rivers have caused the town to descend in a canyon like manner creating two large gorges between the old and new town. However, this town boasts much more than it’s tremendous landscape.
It has been considered a holy refuge to many, leading to an almost overcrowding of churches, cathedrals and monasteries; including the Saint Paul Convent, the Lady of Grace Cathedral, and the monumental statue devoted to the Holy Heart of Jesus.
The Hanging Houses in Cuenca, Spain.It is almost difficult to imagine how numerous buildings and statues could be built on this canyon-top town, but the Cuencanos have gone even farther by adding the infamous Hanging Houses, or Casas Colgadas, a series of wood and stone, cliff- hanging buildings, which look as if they are ready to topple over at any second.
The Hanging Houses
The Hanging Houses were built in the 15th century over one of the main gorges of the river Huécar and are the only remaining samples of this type of architecture left in the town. They are home to a museum of abstract arts and a restaurant where one can enjoy Manchego specialties such as Morteruelo, a paté of hen, hare and partridge; made for those with strong stomaches.
Unlike many other Spanish cities, there is a very delicate balance between nature and culture in Cuenca, which can be seen through the skillful excavations of each architectural endeavor. Bearing this in mind, it is no wonder that this small town was named a World Heritage in 1996 and aspires to become a European Capital of Culture by 2016.
A Manchego farmer.
Riding the AVE
As a world traveller and a true fan of the Iberian peninsula, every trip to Cuenca always begins with a need to get away from whichever noisy city that I am currently living in. It starts with a train ride on the AVE, a comfortable and rapid mode of transportation.
An AVE ticket from Madrid to Cuenca, usually costs around 30 euros, so for those looking to save money, there is also a regional train called the Cercanías which only costs 12 euros, but is a much longer trip (about 3 hours).
The Hotel Alfonso’s dining room.Upon arrival and still in my state of urban consciousness, I hurry around and worry about everything possible, from where to eat, which lodging to choose or how to see it all as quickly as possible. Before long, I calm myself down and go back to my basic instincts, knowing that the best way to experience Cuenca is to feel it out.
With that said I continue to go back to the Hotel Alfonso VIII, a semi-modern three star hotel, which is moderately priced and boasts spectacular views of the entire old town from the panoramic top floor dining room, known as La Terraza.
Once settled, I put on my comfortable walking shoes and get to exploring. I follow the street signs leading to the old town and before I know it, I come upon the river Huécar.
From here on out, concrete sidewalks, turn to paved cobblestone, the sound of traffic is replaced by the sound of running water and there is nothing left but a deep silence and the smell of burnt firewood to greet the senses. I hear a gentle echo of dogs barking as I see all of old España in the little old man crossing the street. He wears a straw hat and carries his tools seeming untouched by by the rapid urban progression that this country has experienced in the past fifty years.
Bridge St Paul in Cuenca.I come around the corner to the Hanging Houses, they are not big, but they are grand. They hang mid-air, fearlessly, challenging the laws of gravity. They are carved out of a traditional wooden charm, while being so progressive in architecture that one is forced to think outside the norm when admiring them. My neck croons as I cannot stop staring at them. I photograph them from every possible angle, but still cannot help but feel that I have failed to capture their true beauty.
I move on, making my way closer to them, up a steep hill. I am now in the crux of the old town, to my right are the Hanging Houses, to my left the bridge of Saint Paul (leading to the Saint Paul’s Convent), and to my front and back is an overwhelming juxtaposition of stone houses, churches and foliage, each fighting for a space in this gorgeous landscape. I have arrived and now it’s time for some hearty grub.
Stopping at a Meson
I make my first stop at a Mesón, or typically rustic restaurant, where I sampled ajoarriero, a traditional manchego dish made from eggs, potatoes, garlic and cod fish, all mashed into a deliciously flavorful paste to be eaten with rustic bread. I dove into the dish, face first and wolfed down every last bite. If all pastes could taste this good, then I look forward to the retiring home.
Colonial architecture in Cuenca.However, my travel partner, Luis was not so lucky. He chose another Manchego dish called Morteruelo, also a paste, but made from different game meats such as hare, hen, partridge and pork. The dish tasted of strong livers which seemed to have been aged in red wine and had an aftertaste reminiscent of the scent of animal hide. It was not good, but Luis respectfully ate it all
After the interesting meal it was time to make our way over to the different sites. We cross the bridge of Saint Paul, an endeavor which would be difficult for anyone with a fear of heights. We enjoy Saint Paul’s convent, where Luis tells me that his father spent time, before becoming a certified priest.
Old town Cuenca.Flamenco
We make our way back towards the rest of the old town, when suddenly we hear the sweet sounds of gypsies playing flamenco. I don’t know why, but I have always had a soft spot for gypsies, and this time as I stop to admire their performance, I am asked by one of them, to come sit next to him. Flattered, but uncomfortable, I trudge over feeling awkward by the fact that I am not familiar with the flamenco dance.
However, I cannot help but become completely entranced by the beautiful music, full of feeling and vitality. It was the first time that I had ever gotten so close to these interesting people and I felt so lucky. I gave them all the change that I had and moved on.
I could go on forever about every monument that I have seen or every beautiful person that has touched my heart in Cuenca, but this would soon become redundant. What I have learnt from this special place, which keeps me coming back, is that Cuenca is not a location, but rather a state of mind.
It is a return to a simpler Spain, a rural place where architecture and nature grow together monumentally and where one can sample a forgotten hearty taste. It contains a mystical feeling which has urged countless spiritual leaders to pay homage to its grounds through statues, churches and cathedrals.
It is a culture where the strange gypsies walk amongst the traditional farmers and where the hanging houses impose quaint fearlessness. Most of all, it is a place within us all, a storybook dream come true, an innocence expressed through quintessential beauty that many have imagined, but few have seen.
Rosalie Bebawi spent four years living in Spain, today she lives in San Diego.
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