Cuenca: Diamond in the Rough

When my aunt and uncle came to visit me in Madrid, they mentioned that they wanted to also see a town or two nearby. Something small, quaint, interesting, charming…and I thought, well that’s every town I’ve ever been to in Spain! I always say that every city and town in Spain has its own charm and that there is something great about each one. I recommended Segovia and Toledo because they each have lots to see, but I also wanted to take them to a new place that none of us had been to: so we chose Cuenca.

Cuenca is most famously known for its casas colgadas or “hanging houses,” which seemingly hang off the face of a cliff. The town itself was originally built on the side of a cliff, which makes the historic area a sight to behold with buildings and rock becoming one. The historic center also has an interesting metal bridge, a cathedral with unique architecture, a beautiful river and mountain views, a monastery, and old cobblestone streets lined with colorful houses. I’m so thankful that we decided to visit, but man was I afraid we had made a mistake when we first arrived.

We went by car to Cuenca, as it’s faster and more convenient than the train from Madrid. I basically put “Cuenca” into google maps and off we went into the unknown. When we first got into downtown Cuenca, I was met with disappointment–it was a bit of a ghost town, with no real charm. We parked the car and decided to walk around and look for a restaurant to eat lunch, then go see the hanging houses. After walking a few blocks down a main street, we realized that there weren’t any good looking restaurants. I couldn’t believe it! The first city I visit in Spain that I don’t like, and I’m playing tour guide to my family. Then I thought, if this place is known for the hanging houses, let’s go there and see if it’s any more alluring.

Getting to the historic district was a bit of a maze. It’s uphill, and the streets are all narrow with very tight curves. As we entered the historic district, I thought “oh wow, now this is more like it!!” There was a stark difference between it and the more modern downtown. So, note to anyone who goes by car to visit Cuenca: skip downtown and head directly to the historic disctrict (casco histórico). Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars, as my aunt said. I wish I would have known this information before the trip, so there you have it! That’s why I say Cuenca is a diamond in the rough, because there’s an extremely beautiful area to be seen once you get past the “rough” part.

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The old road and arabic castle. What remains of the 13th century castle are two towers and part of the original wall. 

Parking wasn’t too hard to find, although we did end up in one of the last lots. At least it was free! We started our journey at the highest point in the district, went exploring through the town, then walked back up to the car on a nature trail that goes through the canyon. It’s another unique thing about this city–there are many hiking trails. We even saw some people rock climbing, which makes sense because the area is full of rocky cliffs.

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View from the historic district looking away from the city
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On our way downhill, I really loved seeing the light colored brick buildings with tile roofing

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We got lucky with a beautiful day!
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This tiny street was two-way. Basically you get to play chicken.
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A small plaza near the cathedral

For lunch, we went to the plaza in front of the cathedral. Most of the restaurants seemed touristy and overpriced, but we were too tired and hungry to do thorough research, so we chose a spot and sat down. We all ordered some kind of stew like dish, and it was very good! My aunt ordered the pisto (a vegetable stew with a fried egg on top), my uncle ordered a white bean stew with partridge, and I got a bean stew with chorizo.

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The details in the architecture of the cathedral were amazing. 
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Where we ate lunch
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The colorful plaza, and slightly crooked houses
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Lunch! 
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The front of the cathedral, which dates to the 12th century

After eating, we continued our journey downhill towards the center of the historic district and the hanging houses. Although we got lost a few times, to me it was fine because that allows you to explore some of the normally overlooked side streets. I love finding peculiarities and hidden gems.

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Check out this narrow stairwell that leads to a little street!
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Layers of differing architecture show the history of the city
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We found another plaza with a view of a colorful city street
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This clock tower (Torre de Mangana) has changed a few times over the years. It dates back to the 16th century.
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Another view from the clock tower plaza

We then went in search of the hanging houses, where we got lost and noticed that Cuenca has a lot of stray cats. They seem to be pretty content, probably fed by locals and tourists passing through. Finally, we found the walkway to see the hanging houses from up close.

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Go down the dark walkway to see the famous houses

Once you pass to the other side of the buildings, you’re met with another great view of the river valley and the puente de San Pablo (the bridge). The bridge was originally built with stone in the mid 1500s, but was rebuilt after it fell in 1902 of metal in a style that was popular at the time.

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The bridge, which connects the monastery to the rest of the historic center
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Turn around and see the hanging houses that date back to the 1500s.
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Continuing down the path, you can see where the buildings meet the original rock of the cliff.
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Buildings on the edge
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My aunt on the bridge
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We stood a while admiring the architecture here
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View of the city from the bridge

After crossing the bridge, we decided to check out the convent (Convento de San Pablo) while we were there. It was built in the 1500s but since the 1990s has been a parador, which is another name for a really fancy hotel made in a historic building. We went inside and looked around the first floor. Close to the convent, you can take a hike up the nearby mountain to get an even better view of the city. We decided not to do the hike, as it takes a few hours.

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The convent from the bridge
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The hanging houses
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More views of the historic district from the bridge

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The convent is also on a cliff!

After seeing the convent, we decided to head back to the car. To get there, we could have gone by road or by trail, so we chose to take the trail to explore a little bit more. From the trail, you can see the houses and gardens of people living in the valley next to the river. There were some small farms, single family homes, and some interesting ruins of very old stone houses.

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The nature trail, full of flowers and old stone ruins

Once we got back to the car, we were pretty tired and ready to go home, with local beer from Cuenca in tow! I think we all recommend a trip to the city if you have the chance, or at least I do…because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Stay tuned for more of when my aunt and uncle came to visit, including Córdoba and Sevilla!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mark Pankratz says:

    Amazing place! Great presentation, Heidi!

    Like

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