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  • Janet Radley

Off the Beaten Path - Cuenca, Spain

“One of the most beautiful medieval cities in Spain”

I have been to Spain a few times and now I have another reason to go again as I wish to explore the walled city with its hanging houses.

When the Roman Empire occupied the Iberian Peninsula, there was a Roman settlement there called Conca. There is not much information about this period. The Muslims arrived in this area in 714 ACE. They realized the importance of the area and built a fortress over 900 metres above the rivers Jucar and Huecar and surrounded the fortress with a 1 km long wall. They named the fortress Kunka and it soon became an agricultural and textile manufacturing city. Starting around 1076 the Christians living in northern Spain, during the Muslim rule, began taking back the Iberian Peninsula. In early January of 1177 Alfonso VIII of Castile and a coalition including Ferdinand II of Leon and Alfonso II of Aragon besieged the city, know called Cuenca, for months. On the 21st of September 1177 Alfonso VIII of Castile conquered the city but the Muslims took refuge in the Citadel. The Muslims finally fell in October which put an end to Arab domination in Cuenca. For many years Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in Cuenca in different sections of the city separated by walls they had built. But many Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or leave Spain after King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella of Castile came to power. For several centuries Cuenca prospered due to agricultural expansion, the development of the wool guilds, and livestock. There was also construction of a monastery for the Jesuits and several convents and schools built during this time. Because of this growth many artists and architects settled in Cuenca. This prosperity ended when the plague came to the city in 1588. For the next century Cuenca and the region was hit by a prolonged drought and plagues of locusts. The population decreased and the collapse of the wool textile industry and the loss of livestock sent the city into a decline. In the 18th century Bishop Palafox tried to re-launch the textile industry but a decree by King Carlos the 4th abolished the workshops as to stop competition with the Royal Tapestry Works. In 1833 Cuenca became the capital of its province when reforms were made by Javier de Burgos. The city of Cuenca did not start recovering until the 2nd half of the 20th century. This is due in part to the city expanding beyond the gorge into the surrounding flat lands and to tourism. The city of Cuenca was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) built at the edge of a steep cliff overlooking the Huecar River. The houses cling precariously to the cliff side and their balconies project over the abyss. Now there are only 3 houses remaining where once the cliff was lined with houses. These medieval houses have been restored in the early 20th century. One of the houses is known as the Casa de la Sirena (House of the Mermaid).

Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol is located in one of the hanging houses. The museum has an exceptional collection which focuses on Spanish Abstract paintings and sculptures. This is one of the largest collections of modern art in Spain after the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

Catedral de Santa Maria la Mayor dates back to the 12th and 13th century. The cathedral features both Norman and Gothic architecture. The facade was damaged in 1902 and the reconstruction of the facade was partly completed by 1910. Two artistic treasures are the 13th century Mater Dolorosa by Pedro de Mena in the sacristy and the Crucifixion by Yanez de la Almedina in the Capilla de los Caballeros. Attached to the cathedral is the Palacio Episcopal (the Bishop’s Palace). The lower floors of the Palace house the Diocesan Museum which displays the cathedral’s art collection.

Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas this is a 17th century Baroque convent for the Carmelite order of nuns. The convent was built on the highest point in Cuenca over looking the Huecar River. The convent now houses the Fundacion Antonio Perez, a gallery of modern art. The convent’s historical church is still open to the public where you will find the marble and bronze tomb of Saint John of the Cross.

San Pablo Bridge is a footbridge that connected the San Pablo convent to the old town over the Huecar River. The footbridge was originally built in the 16th century. The current footbridge was built in 1902 of wood and iron. If you don’t mind heights and the swaying of the bridge this is where you will get the best views of the hanging houses.

Torre de Mangana was built in the 16th century and renovated many times since it was first built. It was built as an Arab citadel, then it became a watchtower of the old synagogue and then the Christian Church of Santa Maria. Now known as the “tower of the hours” due to its prominent clock it stands as a symbol for the city.

Museo Paleontologico de Cuenca is the home to an impressive collection of fossils from the Castilla-La Mancha region. The dinosaur exhibits are among the most popular exhibits but you will also find exhibits on the Paleozoic and Cenozoic eras. There are also dedicated sections on Miocene and Pleistocene periods. Go outside and explore the Paleontological Park home to some of the largest replicas of dinosaurs and walk among them.

Museo de Cuenca (Museum of Archaeology) is found near the hanging houses. Here you will find archaeology of the Roman era. The collection displays antiquities discovered in the area surrounding Cuenca. The majority of the archaeological specimens were discovered at the Ancient Ruins of Segobriga.

In the small village of Noheda which is 17 kms from Cuenca is a vast Roman country villa covering 25 acres. Some people are calling it the Spanish Pompeii. This villa is believed to be from the late Roman period in the 4st century ACE.

Tunel Alfonso VIII is a hidden attraction in Cuenca. They began as a series of natural tunnels and over the centuries they were expanded beneath the town. The parts of the tunnels you will visit are now well-lit and have walkways that makes them accessible to most visitors. Most of the tunnels you will visit on the tour were used as shelters for the townspeople during the Spanish Civil War.

A few places to stay:

· This former monastery is now a hotel located atop the Huecar Gorge.

Posada de San Jose -

· A hotel located in a 17th century building located in the heart of historic centre of Cuenca.

· A hotel in a quiet residential area and about a 20-minute walk to the old city centre.

Homemade Churros Recipe


· 1 cup + 1 tablespoon water

· 1 cup flour pastry flour

· 1 teaspoon baking powder

· ½ teaspoon salt

· ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (not typical in Spanish churros)

· Olive oil for frying (you can substitute vegetable oil)


1. Sift the flour and stir in the baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.

2. Bring the water to a boil, then take off of the heat and whisk in the dry ingredients.

3. Stir for two-three minutes until the dough is consistent and lump free (you could also beat the mixture with an electric mixer for one minute on a medium speed)

4. Let the dough rest and cool for about 5 minutes

5. Fill a churrera (churro maker), or a pastry sleeve with a star tip,

with the churro dough

7. Heat the oil to a medium heat and when it's hot enough pipe the dough in a circular motion.

8. Separate the spirals so that they don't stick and flip the spiral if necessary

9. When they are golden on the outside take out and let rest on paper tower,

10. Repeat the process until all the churros have been made

Cut the spirals into sticks of churros and serve with hot chocolate or sprinkle with sugar

JANET RADLEY // Helen Thompson Travel // 19 Isabella Street // Toronto ON // telephone 416 967 4404 ext. 134

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