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Come with me as I travel through the real places of my life and into the steep, switch-back roads of the imagination. Join me. You'll be good company and your thoughts are welcome.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Timeless Spain............Cuenca

A hundred miles east of Madrid, the rocky town of Cuenca was our final destination in Spain. We'd made reservations ahead at the Posada de San Jose, an inn recommended for its prize location and stunning views. I didn't know that it would be a setting so rich and intriguing that it would inspire the writing of a novel.

Cuenca from above, photo by Christian Álvarez

From the bustling modern part of town, we followed the main road up an almost vertical hill and entered the old medieval village through Moorish arches. The wide Plaza Mayor, lively with shops and outdoor cafes, featured a twelfth century top-heavy cathedral.

           Old Cuenca on its promontory

  The inn we were looking for had been a house, built in the 1600s by a son-in-law of the painter Velazquez, on the mountainside at the top of the Huecar River gorge. Scanning the masonry fronts of the two and three-story flats on our right, we continued past the cathedral up the Calle de San Pedro searching for an arched drive. Initially, we passed it by.
"That has to be it," said Traylor. "That's where it's supposed to be."
"But, can a car get through there?" I wondered. 
Unsure, we continued upward at a snail's pace, peering down each alley and soon passed into a clearing beyond the remains of a castle at the top. Humble houses lined the streets, with flower gardens and lazy pets dozing in the late afternoon sun.
Caroline (11) and Clara (10) spotted horses and wanted a closer look, so Traylor stopped the car, and we got out to stretch our legs. The horse stared back and continued to grind a mouthful of grass.
Meanwhile three black goats wandered down the road with one white lamb tagging behind. They wore bells around their necks, tinkling or clanging, each at a different pitch, echoing in the distance. Trying to feed them grass, the girls followed out onto a grassy promontory at the top of the Huecar gorge. Here we discovered that these goats were the privileged residents of an extraordinary hill.   
It was as if we were standing at the top of the world looking down over all its layers of color and texture. Long afternoon shadows slipped down the western bank of the Huecar Gorge while the eastern side reflected the setting sun. We gazed back at the old town with its famous Hanging Houses cantilevered over the gorge and the so-called sky scrapers built above the vertical rock. Spanning the gorge was a suspension footbridge and beneath it the persistent river. Far in the distance, lay the new town nestled in the valley.

American girls enjoying some perspective. (our photo)

Since Roman times, the whole province called Cuenca, south and east of Madrid, has been a haven for creative minds. The town perches on a rocky pedestal that is itself a sculpture carved in stone by two rivers in the hands of Time. No wonder so many have wanted to build a house on this rock and claim it for themselves. Celt-Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Christians have each left behind an essence of themselves like seasoning in a grand cocido, or Spanish stew.
Artists find inspiration here. Fernando Zobel, the painter who was effective in making the town a cultural center, thought it looked "like the prow of a ship sailing into space."
As we strolled back to the car, we caught the aromas of fresh-baked bread and roasted garlic and felt a more urgent need to continue the search for our room. We asked a local woman about the Posada. In Spanish, she mentioned a tunel and advised that we should drive down through it to find an open area where a few cars could park.

Most of the tunnels in Cuenca were water pipes of the Middle Ages.

So, we returned to the questionable arch and drove under and between the stacked houses on the cliffs that we had viewed from above and emerged on a mountainside balcony. It was surrounded by a neat stone wall with a view of the goats and horses now in the distance above the gorge.
A short walk down a narrow brick street, between layers of old structures clinging to the gorge we found the modest Posada hiding behind carved monastic doors. In fact, the building once served as a monastery. Some of the best surprises in Spain are the charming places discovered behind plain masonry walls with nothing to suggest their contents except an old elaborate door.

After a friendly reception at the desk, we were asked to follow our host to unit 12, reserved because it was large enough for a family of four, a type of suite hard to find in Spain. At first the room was dark, but our host crossed to fling wide the double doors, and with a proud smile, escorted us onto our petite balcony.
Like a box seat in a theater, it placed us on the rock's edge over the gorge for an exhilarating view. Once our eyes adjusted to the light, we could appreciate our perspective. In Old Cuenca, one experiences the sky.
Our room brightened, showing its white-washed face, exposed wooden beams, and plain tile floor which sloped toward a stucco fireplace adorned with hand-painted tiles. Beds were covered with layers of inviting linens and the bath had an antique footed tub with a shower.
Pleased with our good luck, we inquired about the local cuisine. Our host said, "Follow me. We have a small bar open in the evening for tapas." Back past the desk and down a sloping walkway with walls covered in maps and historical tidbits, he led us into a wide foyer decorated with antique chests, metallic-ware bowls, ceramic pitchers, and paintings. Stepping down into a cozy room of white-washed walls and heavy wooden beams, we smelled crusty bread and seared meat and we chose a table set by open windows, where sheer curtains floated on a breeze.

Posada de San Jose dining room by owner

Were we hungry! And we were lucky. Jennifer Cortinas, the owner, was serving dinner that night. Originally from Canada, she spoke to us in English, explaining that she is now married to a Spanish man, Antonio, her partner in the business. We asked first for a local wine.
"Estola is made in La Mancha," she said, "and it’s the ideal complement to Manchegan cuisine, and our bottled water is the best in Spain."
Ready to experiment, we ordered a rather large meal of tapas, starting with bowls of olives and almonds. The view from our table was perfect for the hour. As we waited, the gorge and the clouds lit up with the reflected colors of the sunset, worth running for the camera.
The girls ate as if they'd been deprived of food for weeks. The Pisto Manchego, a regional vegetable dish of La Mancha with many variations, became their favorite Spanish dish. Here, it was simple and traditional, a mixture of zucchini, eggplant, green pepper, onion, garlic and tomatoes, cooked until thick and served hot with chunks of fresh bread and Queso Manchego, the regional cheese. (Manchego means from La Mancha.)

Cheese made in La Mancha of Sheep's Milk, our favorite
With it we had an order of Chorizo, the typical sausage, which had been sautéed, so well prepared in fact, that we found it necessary to order seconds. We shared an Ensalada Mixta, topped with chunks of tuna, served family-style in the center of the table along with Tortilla Espanola, the traditional Spanish omelet of potatoes seasoned with garlic and onion with a side of alioli.

Tortilla Espanola
 "We've never had to advertise," Jennifer told us, "and we've never asked to be included in guidebooks, but we are and informed tourists come. We are closed for lunch," she warned us, "but tomorrow, you might want to try the Casa Brasa, half-way down the hill. Be sure to take a walk across the footbridge, and look back at the Casas Colgadas and then off to the right to see if you can spot your room."

Our photo of the Casas Colgadas from the bridge

The famous sites in Cuenca are not its castle and cathedral, but its Casas Colgadas, or Hanging Houses. We meandered down stone walkways to the footbridge and crossed for the recommended view. These unique houses have balconies of dark wood cantilevered from the rock, extending out over the vertical gorge. Built in the 1400s, they probably first served the royalty as summer residences at the peak of Cuenca's economy, when the wool trade was booming. Now they house the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art and a fine restaurant, the Mesón Casas Colgadas (http://www.mesoncasascolgadas.com/fotos.php.) Zobel had the insight to restore and save these houses and convert them into a national treasure.
Besides the collection of abstract works by leading Spanish artists, the interior is also a display of restored medieval architecture and windows open onto views of gorge and sky. The modern art on the white-washed walls stands in perfect juxtaposition with the old architecture, and the natural views.
Casas Colgadas
 Since Zobel's inspiration, the area has attracted other types of artists. In the Oficina de Turismo, we found a time-saving display of representative works of local artisans, and picked up a list of studios and shops for viewing or purchasing their work. Then we went exploring, to find the perfect piece of collectible art.

Cuenca at night from http://turismo.cuenca.es/  
Potters, including students of the famous Pedro Mercedes, are numerous. And we found sculptors who work in either wood or stone, as well as artisans working in glass, metal, wicker, textiles and jewelry. But if Cuenca could claim fame for only one prized art form, it would be the iron grille-work found inside the 12th century cathedral and adorning the town’s windows and balconies. 
Iron grille work
Behind the Casas Colgadas, we found Cuenca's Archeological Museum with collections of prehistoric and Roman relics which tell the story of humanity on the Spanish peninsula. Tiny scent bottles of blown-glass and glazed ceramics made by Romans who once lived in the province are fascinating. A reproduction of the clay oven the Romans used and a large collection of objects excavated in nearby towns make the life of the Romans come alive.

Blown Roman glass jar in the Archeological Museum in Cuenca
Later, we walked to the top of the hill, and found that the old castle remains have been turned into a university, and then we took the Ronda de Jucar, an unpaved footpath around to the opposite edge of the town. Along its winding way are spectacular panoramas over the Jucar River, the wider of the two rivers that surround Cuenca. Its pale green water reflects the overhanging poplar trees, which display their loveliest colors in autumn, and are treasured by the people of Cuenca.
We found tunnels and ancient houses tucked into the rock between sprays of fragrant wild flowers. Windows and balconies decorated with iron grille-work were open, and it was impossible not to envy the views from inside.

Not until the next afternoon did we venture down the hill to the new town, stopping on the way at Casa Brasa for a memorable meal. Here, the main meal of the day is served between two and four in the afternoon and is followed by a siesta. We tried more regional specialties, the succulent cordero lechal, or roasted milk-fed lamb, and tender acelgas, the local greens with Pisto Manchego, fresh bread, Estola and the Solan de Cabras bottled water.
Ready for siesta, but short on time, we explored lower Cuenca after lunch. By contrast, the New Cuenca is vibrant, modern, and convenient. These are progressive people, and overhe streets were banners which said, "Support the freeway or Cuenca dies." Perhaps that gives you an important clue. Cuenca is not on the route to any of the best known attractions in Spain, which leaves her still waiting to be discovered.
Planning my next trip to Spain, I feel deep nostalgia for this town. It was the inspiration for my novel, and the setting became fundamental to the story. I look forward to returning, but also look forward to taking my characters to other parts of the country looking for


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