A Life in a Year – 17th October, The Hanging Houses of Cuenca

From Chinchón to Cuenca was a distance of about one hundred and twenty kilometres and for most of it we followed the route of a new motorway still under construction.  There was barely any traffic on the original road so it left us wondering just why it was being built. 

La Mancha is an arid, fertile, elevated plateau of central Spain, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, stretching almost two hundred kilometres between the Montes de Toledo and the western spurs of the Cerros de Cuenca.  On average it is six hundred metres above sea level and the climate is continental, but with extreme weather fluctuations.  This is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Spain and agriculture is the primary economic activity, principally wheat, barley, oats and vines, but it is severely restricted by the harsh environmental conditions that exist on account of its lack of rainfall, the harsh exposure to wind and sun and by the almost complete absence of trees.    In fact years of neglect and lack of investment have created a serious land erosion problem on these hot dry plains.

I am making it sound dull and unappealing and I must correct that immediately because this was absolutely not the case.  On the first part of our journey we negotiated a narrow road with hairpin bends and expansive views and then we dropped down to the parched flat plain.  On either side of the long straight road there were gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours.  Many of the fields were recovering from producing this year’s crops and others were lying fallow and this produced a stunning vista of subtle autumnal colours and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, cream, olive, grey lavender, gold and russet red all lying crushed under the burden of a vivid blue autumn sky. 

After roughly half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills it became more dramatic with steep sided hills and pine forests and busy rivers dashing madly through narrow gorges.  Eventually it stopped climbing and the landscape flattened and we made our final approach into Cuenca.  At first this wasn’t especially promising, Cuenca is a big city and capital of the fifth largest province in Spain and to reach the old town it was necessary to drive through the modern part, which wasn’t especially notable or exciting.

We drove directly to the very top of the old city and parked the car at a scenic point where there was a stunning vista stretching out below us.  The city was built here because the rocky outcrop of land lies between two deep river gorges, the Júcar and the Huécar and it made an excellent location for a defendable fortress.  We walked down from the car park towards the main Plaza where there were gaily coloured houses, shops and pavement cafés and bars and the city’s Cathedral that was completed in the thirteenth century but partly fell down in 1902 and over a hundred years later the rebuilding of the façade still remains to be fully completed. 

After this the Plaza settled back into a lazy Saturday afternoon and we moved on to see the rest of the city.  Following the route towards the edge of the gorge it was plain to see how the city had developed.  There was only limited space at the top of the rock so as it grew and it was unable to expand outwards the city went up instead and that explained the tall houses.  Even more dramatically it also went as far as it possibly could in making use of all available space and in the fifteenth century houses were built with rooms and balconies precariously overhanging the gorge above the Huécar River.  These are called the Las Casas Colgadas, the hanging houses, and are the most famous attraction in the city.

We returned to the top of the city stopping on the way to climb the castle walls and to admire the scenery of the gorges stretching out on either side of the city.  Climbing even further we reached the top and there were vantage points of the city from elevated craggy rocks where people were walking out and taking as much risk as they dare just to get the perfect photograph.

Cuenca is famous for birds of prey and overhead there were large birds that were riding the thermals and looking for lunch.  Some of them were buzzards, which are quite common in Northern Spain but later we saw something different that we later identified as the magnificent Spanish Imperial Eagle and we considered it a privilege to have seen them.

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