Clinging to the past in Cuenca

Clinging to the past in Cuenca
Cuenca’s casas colgadas, or "hanging houses," were built in the 14th century and remain a symbol of the city. (Tino Soriano)
I fretted the whole way to Cuenca. We had been in Madrid for a few weeks in January, and I needed a break from the noise and crowds of that vibrant city. Cuenca, it seemed, was the perfect respite: an isolated medieval town perched atop twin gorges in a stunning defiance of gravity.

Now I wanted my boyfriend to love it too. But Geoff is not easily impressed, and the day we left Madrid for the two-hour ride east, we were running late. Our train wouldn't arrive until evening. Would Cuenca disappoint in the dark?

I shouldn't have worried. A few anxious minutes passed as our cab took us from the train station through the nondescript modern part of town. But as we rounded a corner, Geoff issued an uncharacteristically effusive "Whoa." Some genius of a town planner had placed spotlights at the base of Cuenca's cliffs so that against the black night, beams of orange-tinged light shot up the deep crevices, illuminating a pile of stone houses above. We would spend much of the next day debating whether Cuenca was more breathtaking in the sunlight or at night.

I had visited briefly once before and fallen in love with the sheer drama of the place. The Roman legions passed through this town, which lies at the confluence of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, but Cuenca didn't become an important urban center until the 11th century under the Omeya caliphate. King Alfonso VIII, a Catholic drawn to the idea that the city's cliffs could serve as a natural defense, conquered Cuenca in 1177.

By the 19th century, Cuenca had evolved into two halves separated by a river gorge: the upper old city and the lower modern district. Today its 40,000 residents play host to tourists, mostly day-trippers who come to gawk at the landscape and the town's architectural curiosities, medieval structures precariously nestled at the edges of the cliffs.

We decided to stay for the night and absorb as much of Cuenca as we could. While I entered our hotel, the Parador de Cuenca, Geoff dawdled outside and admired the view. Perched directly across a gorge from Cuenca's old town, the hotel began life as the convent of San Pablo in the 17th century. It was turned into an attractive state-run lodging in the 1990s.

Inside, a kind of grand solemnity prevails on the ground floor, where long halls trace the perimeter of a peaceful cloister turned patio. Upstairs, the guest rooms are simply furnished but comfortable and spacious. Our room didn't have a view of the gorge, but several do.

It was late by the time we settled in, so we decided to eat dinner at the hotel. Many parador restaurants have a slightly generic feel, and this one, with its vast dining room and standard-order escutcheons on the walls, was no exception. But the service was warm and attentive, and the menu featured specialties from the province of Castilla-La Mancha. Migas con uvas was a weirdly delicious combination of fried bread crumbs, chorizo bits and grapes.

Content in the knowledge that we only had to climb the stairs to bed, we made our way through a bottle of Ribera del Duero, then topped off dessert with a glass of resolí, a locally produced liqueur whose flavor is somewhere between espresso and Twizzlers. An acquired taste, we decided.

What functions today as the hotel's cafe had been the convent's chapel, so when it came time to eat the next morning, we found ourselves happily munching toast beneath frescoes of local saints.

Houses suspended in air

Fortified, we left the hotel and stepped out — not without some trepidation — onto the narrow footbridge that crosses the Huécar River and leads to the old city. On the other side, a steep cobblestone street brought us face to face with Cuenca's casas colgadas, or hanging houses, 14th century edifices that rise from the cliffs, their terraces jutting perilously over the gorge.

No one knows why exactly the medieval residents of Cuenca chose to build their homes in such an impossible location. Whether the motivation was hubris or, as some historians believe, an attempt to use every possible foot in a city severely limited by geography, the effect is spectacular. The hanging houses appear suspended in the air.

In 1966 artist Fernando Zóbel chose one of the houses on Calle Canónigos as the permanent home for his collection of contemporary art. A medieval stone pile isn't the most obvious place for what has been expanded into the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, but the juxtaposition works surprisingly well.

Inside, daring paintings by Antoni Tàpies, the artist credited with bringing abstract art to Spain, hang on walls limed white in the traditional style. Sculpture by Eduardo Chillida stands beneath ceilings crossed with ancient wooden beams. Picture windows look out to the gorge below, making it difficult to decide which is more dramatic: the art on the wall or the views outside.

Leaving the museum, we continued the climb through the old town, gaping all the way.

After reaching its peak as a seat of the Crown of Castile in the 17th century, the upper town gradually was abandoned while business grew in the mercifully flat streets that line the base of the gorge. In the early 20th century, efforts to revive the old city as a tourist destination began. Today it seems as if Cuenca's inhabitants colluded to take every advantage of the town's startling verticality.

At each turn we were confronted with a well-framed vista. Side streets ended abruptly at the gorge's edge, stone archways curved above sightlines, terraces poked out toward the landscapes beyond. Although a light mist began to fall, we were so entranced that we traversed the length of the city in one go, deciding we would circle back later to visit Cuenca's monuments.

Modern art, medieval building

At the top of the hill, where packed townhouses give way to open countryside, we unexpectedly came upon the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art's less known counterpart. Stopping to poke our heads into a grand building, identified on my map as a 17th century Carmelite convent, on Ronda de Julián Romero, we found ourselves looking at the Antonio Pérez Foundation's collection of contemporary art. The foundation, named after an art collector and publisher of books censored during the Franco regime, opened in 1998 as a museum free to the public.

Although we were less familiar with its artists, the museum was just as delightful as the one below. The vast collection of paintings, sculptures and found objects is scattered in a warren of rooms. An exhibition of artist-made books lined the old cloister, and a display case of amusing Dada-inspired collages stood in the middle of what must have been the nuns' wine cellar.

After so much art, we were ready for lunch.

I'd had my heart set on the Mesón Casas Colgadas, established in one of the hanging houses, ever since we'd passed it in the morning by the Huécar gorge. Inside the pretty restaurant we were seated by the window, which meant eating with the slightly discomfiting feeling of dangling in midair.

In one of her books on Spain, cooking expert Penelope Casas diplomatically suggests that "gastronomy is not a highlight" in Cuenca. It is true that the cuisine tends toward mushy dishes and organs. Ajoarriero, a puree of potatoes, salt cod and hard-boiled eggs, is a specialty, as is morteruelo, a pâté-like substance of pig liver, meats and stale bread. Zarajos, grilled lamb intestines, also figure prominently on local menus. Some dishes have picturesque, if less than appetizing, names such as atascaburros, which translates as "mule stopper."

But we ate well at Mesón Casas Colgadas. We started with an excellent version of those fried bread crumbs (I was developing an addiction to migas con uvas) and tried gazpacho pastor, which contained neither tomatoes nor cucumbers and was not the least bit soupy. Here in the dusty lands of La Mancha, it seems, gazpacho is more like a savory bread pudding with rabbit, chicken and plenty of garlic. I couldn't get enough of it.

After the meal I was ready for a nap. We started back over the bridge toward the hotel, but the short walk must have invigorated me. By the time we crossed over, I was leading Geoff past the hotel and up a dirt road. Marked with the Stations of the Cross, the first part of the trail climbed toward an immense statue of Jesus and another stunning view. The trail narrowed and split into several paths; we chose one that led us through fields of wild lavender and sage but somehow brought us back around to the hotel below.

Before dusk we returned to the broad Plaza Mayor in the center of town. On the square's eastern edge stands the cathedral, the only one in Spain built in the Norman Gothic style. It's not necessarily a pretty sight: The central bell tower crumbled in the early 1900s and hasn't been replaced, which makes for a stumpy-looking church.

Inside, the massive carved choir stalls are impressive, as is the wrought iron altar screen. It is so intricately fashioned that it looks like embroidery.

But the cathedral's real treasure is its Diocesan Museum. It contains a fine collection of Flemish tapestries as well as two paintings by El Greco and a magnificent altarpiece, taken from the Convent of San Pablo across the way.

We explored a little more of the town in the dark, having a drink in the Posada de San José, a charming 17th century inn, and poking around touristy stores that sell drab-colored local pottery.

Face to face with dinner

There was no way I was up for another multicourse meal, so we decided to make a dinner of tapas that night. We stopped in at La Tinaja, a lively cafe across from the cathedral, where cooks seared meats on the vast grill behind the bar.

We ordered one plate of lamb chops to start; they proved so tasty that we decided to get a second dish. Feeling adventurous, I asked the bartender what she recommended. I couldn't quite make out her response over the din, but I heard the word for sheep and, figuring we would get some kind of mutton, I nodded approval.

It was then, I'm convinced, that cooking expert Casas took her revenge. Glistening on the plate, what appeared before us was indeed part of a sheep. I could make out the eye sockets and snout. We had ordered a grilled sheep's face. The bartender looked at us expectantly. I took one bite and choked out a smile.

I have spent a lot of time in Spain and have eaten, with pleasure, blood sausage, fried baby eels and other cuisine that many Americans would skip. But sheep's face was beyond me. Still, I didn't want to seem rude, so as soon as the bartender turned away, I started cutting off chunks and furtively dropping them on the floor.

The next morning, our cab came early. We pulled away from the hotel, and Geoff and I turned for a last look at Cuenca. The cliffs briefly filled the rear window, and then we descended to the train station.

Lisa Abend is a history professor and freelance writer in Oberlin, Ohio.