City guide: Cuenca

My ventures into the central region of Castilla La Mancha have been fairly few and far between so far, and I hadn’t heard much of Cuenca when I first visited it. I had been told that it was worth visiting from the very few people who knew about this city, and my research didn’t do it justice when I was preparing my trip there. I loved Cuenca so much that I returned there a year or two later with my parents, and no doubt I’ll go back the next available chance I get. It was one of the best traveling surprises of the year for me.

Cuenca itself is not too difficult to get to from both the Mediterranean, and the Capital despite its seemingly remote location. There are regular AVE services from Madrid and Valencia which stop at the Fernando Zóbel station on the outskirts, and Regional services which connect the station in the city with Madrid via Aranjuez and Valencia via San Isidro station (sometimes they stop directly at Valencia Nord). The AVE takes about an hour both ways and the regional takes about 3 hours both ways as well. There’s no airport in Cuenca, so again, Madrid or Valencia are the nearest airports and regularly connect to various parts of the UK. Buses can take you to many major cities including Teruel and Zaragoza, as well as other provincial capitals of Castilla la Mancha, but these are very infrequent and some destinations, such as Tarragona have only one bus per day.

Cuenca is a really strangely located city, and you are going to need some good shoes for walking. The old centre of town straddles a ridge and overlooks the newer part which is sprawled across the plains, and the two rivers, the Jucar and Huecar meet at the bottom of the old quarter. When you enter this part of town, you quickly notice that you are overlooking two canyons with virtually no buildings on the other side of them. Cuenca is also one of the highest provincial capitals in Spain regarding altitude, reaching more than 1000m high. Only Segovia, Ávila and Soria are higher.

The Altitude does play its part and winters here can be cold, especially at night where it often goes below 0 degrees, and daytime temperatures are around 10 degrees in January. Summers are hot, around the low 30s more often than not, but nights are usually comfortable. I went there around April both times I was there, and I was wearing a light jacket in the morning and taking it off, or unzipping it by the afternoon. Cuenca has so many steep hilly parts in the old part, so you may feel rather hot and sweaty more from the exercise rather than the temperatures. Take sun cream though, as the sun here is really strong, and I got burned the first time I was there.

Cuenca is a bizarre place to get around, and my advice is to have good walking shoes, because you are going to do a lot of it. What you need to know straight away, is there are not many places of interest at the bottom with a few exceptions of the parks and area around the river, as well as the Plaza de España. The commercial centre of Cuenca is also the best place for shopping and many bars line streets leading up to the old quarter and are notably cheaper. The neighbourhood of San Anton is also worth a look on the other side of the Rio Júcar. When you cross the much smaller Rio Huécar, you are instantly climbing and this is where your sense of adventure starts to run wild.

You will notice quite quickly, that the multicoloured buildings are rather stacked and high compared to other cascos in Spain, and you can easily get lost. Your objective is to first head to the Torre de Mangana, a small clock tower on the hill, and there, you are greeted by your first views of the city and the plains, and you start to see impressive views of the Júcar Valley and that there is still a lot of exploring to go. Within 5-10 minutes you make it to the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor and you would’ve walked through the arches of the Ayuntamiento to get there.

This is the area that is a must visit, and the Cathedral has a rather unusual façade and no towers, and from here, you can reach the most iconic views and monuments of the city, stick to the main street, and you will reach the highest point and ruins and remnants of the old castle and muralla. The neighbourhood of El Castillo is the end of the city where not only are you greeted with beautiful stone houses like a village, but with views of practically the whole city and the plains. You are literally at the end, and there isn’t another settlement for another 15km.

The biggest attraction by a mile, which you can also see from the highest point, is the Casas Colgadas or hanging houses, which you can see from the Puente de san Pablo, an Iron bridge which connects the old quarter with the San Pablo Monastery now a Parador hotel. These houses are the last examples of architecture of its kind in Cuenca, and are part of the UNESCO world heritage site. Inside, you will find a modern art gallery, open all year round. My advice is to really take your time and explore and don’t just walk through the heart of this city and out the other side. My favourite street is actually Ronda Julián Romero, where you can enjoy the maze of the ‘Rascacielos Medievales’ or Medieval Skyscrapers and the views of the Huécar valley.

The natural features of Cuenca are one of the most prominent of the whole country, and you don’t have to walk far to reach it. Just follow either of the rivers, or the main street to the top of the old quarter and you find yourself in the canyons and mountains of the Serranía de Cuenca. It’s common to spend a weekend here with one enjoying the sights of the city, and another hiking along it’s many routes, all of them will lead to either a view point from the top of the mountains, such as the Mirador del Rey and the Cerro del Socorro, or to religious sites such as the Ermitas de San Julian and San Isidro and natural sites like the Cueva De La Zarza. La Ciudad Encantada is another really popular natural park easily accessible 25km from the city.

After walking around for hours and climbing some serious steps, you’re probably thinking about looking for something to eat right? Luckily for anyone with a big appetite, Cuenca has a lot of hearty dishes and many places don’t skimp on portion sizes, especially in the older parts of town. There is a notable difference in cost if you eat in the old quarter compared to the commercial centre of the city, with menus del día costing about 3€ or so more from what I saw. The old quarter has a number of bars for a night out, practiaclly next to the Plaza Mayor, but many locals like the district around the corner from the Diputación de Cuenca in the newer part of town. A restaurant I went to on the plaza mayor was well worth the 15€ menu del día, and is called La Mangana and I’m surprised at the 3,7 rating on trip advisor, should be way more.

The food in Cuenca is has a great mix of meat and vegetable dishes and doesn’t offer so much in the way of fish dishes compared to the coastal regions understandably. A lot of the dishes are not well known in the rest of Spain which is why I want to go back and try some more. Dishes most iconic of the region are zarajos (balls of fried lamb intestines, tastes better than it sounds if you like lamb.), pisto manchego ( similar to ratatouille served with a fried egg on top), sopa castellana, gachas (a paste made with flour, garlic, and pancetta), borrachos (cakes soaked in alcohol, and alajú ( a sweet nougat type with honey and almonds). But the most iconic dish which is ironically considered a starter, is morteruelo, a hot paté served with crackers and toasted bread.

One of the best things about morteruelo, alajú, and many other dishes in Cuenca, is that you can find them in numerous shops around the whole city, ready made, and the taste is practically the same (locals might contest that though). It must also be mentioned that a liquer from here is extremely popular locally, known as resolí. There are variants, but you will have either coffee, aguardiente, or aniseed types, all sweet and go great with alajú. You can buy ceramic bottles in the shape of the Casas Colgadas filled with resolí in many shops around the city, which would make an amazing gift for someone.

Easter is a big deal in Cuenca, like pretty much all of Spain. But the processions, known as Las Turbas is very famous nationally, and having seen them, it is well worth it. The only thing you have to be aware of is the stream of one- way pedestrian systems in place during those times, which includes lots of queues and going up and down stairs naturally. The fiestas of San Julian, the patron saint of Cuenca, has tonnes of teatrical displays, bull fighting and open-air concerts. The Fiesta de San Mateo, alongside Asturias, is celebrated here, but adds a twist of bulls roaming around the Plaza Mayor, though nothing like the Encierro of Pamplona from what I’ve heard.

So that’s pretty much it at first glance for Cuenca. It’s not well known to brits at all, and you can find so many things to do there, and it is a place with a lot of pleasant surprises. You can eat like a king there and since you are going to be walking a lot, you will welcome those portion sizes. Despite the hassle getting there, Cuenca should be on any list to visit if you are spending time in Madrid or Valencia and fancy an adventurous weekend. Go there, that’s all I’m telling you to do.

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