Cue the music by Morricone as we step off of the train into a landscape that is sere and spare. A cool wind blows and the sun beams down from a silent, cloudless sky. A town sits on a hill off in the distance. It looks so far away. Could that be Cuenca, our home for the next 48 hours? Will Clint Eastwood be waiting for us, an open bottle of whiskey in his hand?
It was Cuenca in the distance, and we took a long taxi ride up to our accommodations - in the new town at the base of the hill. This part of town looks a lot like any other Spanish city built in the twentieth century and by the time we arrived all resemblances to Spaghetti Westerns had disappeared, Morricone fading into the background.
After checking in we began to wind our way up the hill, toward Las Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses of Cuenca.
We found them and saw, from our angle looking up, what looked like two houses hanging over the edge of a cliff. They were the cliff in a way and they were very impressive. But at this angle it looked like that was all there was to the whole "hanging house" thing. We had been expecting something like the sudden drama of Ronda and our first glimpse did not live up to that expectation.
We walked further into the old town, up the the hill, and it was indeed lovely. The kind of Spanish hill town one would expect. With its strategic location on the rock above the river and the rest of the valley, one could imagine inhabitants of this town, be they Muslim or Christian - or even groups that pre-date either - holding their invaders at bay.
We ate lunch in the old town. It was good - local specialties in a modern, slightly sterile restaurant adjacent to a hotel - but not great. At prices slightly higher than what we would have paid in Madrid, it was a little disappointing.
The rest of the day was spent on siesta and emails. Then evening came and we revived ourselves for a stroll through town. As this was March, it got dark pretty early and a cold Castilian wind began to blow. Much of the town had shut down, save one street. It contained a number of restaurants and cervecerias. After a bit of wandering we stopped at La Paca and walked inside.
Do you know the feeling of walking into to a place and feeling like somehow you are out of synch with everything going on inside? The place was warm and quite full, all the tables taken by people chatting energetically and drinking and ordering food. We (or at least I) were cold, a little drowsy, a step behind everyone else. I wondered if I really wanted a beer, was I hungry, was the food here good, should we just go get some rest?
We quietly took a seat at the bar and ordered beers. The servers were pleasant and patient, and grew less intimidated and more relaxed. As I sipped my beer I concluded that I was a little hungry, and we perused the offerings on the counter. The seafood salad looked good. Turns out it was good. Very good. And it was complimentary with the drink. We ordered a few more things, the four of us realizing that we were all a little snack-y.
While we ate, drank, warmed up and got up to speed, we began noticing that all of the food being served looked good. We watched the locals enjoying themselves and began to remember that we were indeed in Spain and that meant no matter where we were there was going to be good food, drink and company to be had.
Walking back to our inn we decided it was good we had most of the next day to spend here. We needed a little more time to dig into Cuenca.
The next day, after churros y chocolate at a packed place near La Paca, we took a cab straight away to the very top of the hill, where a statue of Christ looks solemnly over the valley. From here you could better see the drama of the landscape, and the Casas Colgadas. The whole town is perched on a delicate spine of rock and from above everything looks as if balanced in some complicated way. As if created by an artist, working to represent Castille in abstract.
We understood far better at this point the beauty and the drama. The disappointment yesterday seemed absurd at this point. We just hadn't seen it from the right angle.
After the exhilaration of the view from the top, we headed back into the old town and to the Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol. This is a museum featuring Spanish abstract art, housed inside one of the hanging houses. It is jarring at first to think of - abstract art from the late 20th century housed in one of the oldest of buildings in a classic Spanish town. Enter and it all makes fantastic sense.
The art itself is very worth seeing, with great pieces by a number of Spanish artists I was not familiar with, like the one above - Brigitte Bardot, by Antoni Saura - which we all enjoyed. But what makes this museum unique is the combination of the art with the building it is housed in.
Literally hanging over the Huecar gorge, the building's windows open up scenes of equal, if natural, abstraction that simultaneously compliment and oppose the art on the walls. A small museum, but one worth experiencing for as long as one can, eyes moving from wall to window and back again.
We, however, had to get to lunch. And we went with a restaurant whose approach to Spanish cuisine matches the museum's approach to art.
This was Olea Comedor, a restaurant in the newer part of Cuenca that serves inventive cuisine steeped in Spanish and Mediterranean flavors. Our companions had heard about it, saying it was known for its innovative approach.
Lunch was indeed a delight of unexpected presentations and flavors. We lingered as long as we could, even ordering three desserts to split among the four of us, until we had to leave to pick up our bags and head for the train to Valencia.
Back at the inn the owner's husband insisted on driving us to the station. We piled into his Mercedes and off we went, back out of town, into Spaghetti Western land. On the way he told us why the station was so far away. It seems it was built thinking that the town would grow closer and closer to it. That was years ago and it hasn't yet happened.
I was kind of glad the town hadn't grown out to the station. It had left what was waiting for us a mystery. I am also glad we spent the time to explore it. If you ever go to Cuenca, give it a chance. In fact, apply that concept to anywhere you go. Walk into that busy bar on a cold night. Visit the museum that seems out of place. Look for the restaurant that you hear takes a more creative approach. You'll never know what you'll discover until you actually look for it.
P.S. One of my more popular posts is this one on climbing Mt Rigi in Switzerland. If you liked that post you might want to check out this post from Jen Reviews on the 100 best things to do in Switzerland. It is packed with details.