If you’ve heard of Cuenca – most of our friends said “Where?” when I mentioned our proposed trip - then I wouldn’t mind betting it was Las Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses perched precariously over a gorge, that you have heard about. They are what Cuenca is famous for, however we discovered that there are many more places of interest in this fascinating mediaeval city. We enjoyed our short visit and managed to pack a lot into our two days.
To do justice to Cuenca you really need to spend a few days there as we did, however if you are staying in Madrid or Valencia you could visit on a day trip taking the high-speed Ave train. Less than one hour and you will be in Cuenca’s brand new station, but a word of warning; it is about 4k to the centre of Cuenca from the new train station.
Although our journey from Alicante to Cuenca took more than two hours, the time went very quickly. We had spotted Estrella online fares when we booked, which meant we travelled first class for the cost of a second class fare. We settled down into our comfortable seats and soon afterwards were given a free newspaper, the Renfe magazine plus a pair of earphones so that we could watch a film or listen to music.
The catering service then began with the offer of a cold drink and packet of nuts, followed by a hot towel, and then we were handed the drinks list. Our train had left Alicante at 16.05, so the meal we were given was Merienda, which consisted of a sandwich and cake, accompanied by cava, wine or soft drinks. Coffee was served after our snack and finally we were offered spirits or liqueurs to round off our meal. What a civilised way to travel!
As we had carefully printed off directions from the “train station” (for which read “former train station”) to our hotel, it was a bit of shock to alight from the train in the middle of nowhere! It was obvious that it would take us far more than the promised ten minutes to walk to our hotel. There were plenty of taxis waiting outside however, as we were travelling on a budget, we took the bus instead, at a cost of 1.10€. The bus was almost ready to leave, so we had timed it well, though as the buses run every 20 minutes it wouldn’t have been a problem if we had missed it.
By the time we checked into Hotel Pedro Torres it was almost time for dinner, however having had lunch in Alicante plus a snack on the train, we decided that wine and tapas would be more than enough for us. This was a good decision as we discovered that most of the bars in Cuenca give you free tapas with your drink, so it proved to be a cheap night out, made even cheaper when we wandered into the opening night of an art exhibition and were offered wine and a selection of nibbles, including cheese and cold meats.
After a buffet breakfast in our hotel the following morning, we decided to walk up to the old town, although the helpful receptionist had told us we could take a bus there from outside the hotel. We soon discovered why she had said that, as it was a very steep uphill walk, though luckily being September it wasn’t too hot. We were rewarded though with the best views of Las Casas Colgadas from the opposite side of the gorge. We walked as far as the Convento de San Pablo, which now houses the Parador of Cuenca (at a room rate of 168€, it doesn’t exactly count as budget travel!) as well as the Espacio Torner art gallery.
Unfortunately the Espacio Torner was closed, though according to the information on the back of our city guide it should have been open. Even more unfortunately, from my point of view, the quickest way to access the old town on the other side of the gorge was via the Puente de San Pablo as shown in the photo above. I am NOT good at heights and walked very carefully over the bridge, my eyes firmly fixed on the other side.
Once safely across the gorge, I could relax a bit as we explored the winding streets of Cuenca, discovering yet another treasure each time we turned a corner. We found the city guide very useful in highlighting the museums and art galleries where entry is free: Antonio Pérez Foundation, Antonio Saura Foundation, Santa Cruz Handicrafts Centre, and the Church of the Virgen de la Luz.
The Science Museum, where the helpful English-speaking guide told us that their one rule was that you had to touch everything, is free at weekends, and the Cathedral is free on the first Monday of each month. I have to admit that one of the highlights for me was the Science Museum, maybe because I am just a big kid and loved playing with all the exhibits.
If you are retired make sure that you carry some ID to prove it, as you will get free entry to the Museum of Cuenca, an archaeological museum, which I also enjoyed wandering around. Possibly because it made a change from all the modern art in Cuenca! You will also get half-price entry to the Túneles Alfonso VIII and the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, which is not to be missed, as it is in Las Casas Colgadas. I found it a bit surreal to be looking at modern art in a mediaeval building.
Walking around Cuenca we had worked up quite an appetite, so we decided to stop for lunch at 2pm. John had spotted a 10€ menú outside Restaurante Don Pablo on Plaza de los Carros, so we agreed to investigate the inside of the restaurant. When the waiter brought the menu we noticed that the price shown was 12€, however he reassured us that the price we had seen outside was the price we would pay. We both enjoyed our meals and wouldn’t have minded if we had been charged extra, as the food was very good.
We discovered that many of the restaurants had special menus in the evening, as well as the usual menú del día at lunchtime, however our choice was a bit limited by the fact that I don’t eat meat. We struck lucky though at Restaurante Aljibe, which is part of Hotel Convento del Giraldo – yet another converted Convent!
Their Menú Noches for two people cost a total of 40€. Well, it was my birthday, so we decided to break the budget for once! We shared three delicious starters followed by a choice of main course (I had the Risotto de Mar, which was very tasty) and then a selection of desserts to share. A very good rosado wine and two bottles of mineral water were included in the price.
We had tapas in two bars on Calle de las Torres: El Fuero and La Leyenda de la Cruz de Diablo, both of which were good value, especially as we only paid 1.20€ for a glass of wine with free tapas, and as an added bonus the staff were very friendly. We also had the 10€ menú del día in El Fuero on Saturday before we left Cuenca, which had a wide selection of dishes, including a yummy salmón a la naranja.
Our verdict on Cuenca, the city of the Hanging Houses? It is worth visiting, not just for Las Casa Colgadas, but because there are so many other places of interest to see in the old town. Be warned though that, with all the free tapas and reasonably priced menus, you will probably need to go on a diet after you get home!