During a business trip to Madrid I was looking for another small town to visit in the plains close to the capital. Another one of those treasured small towns that I long to see, with a unique history and recognized as a world jewel. Internet searching for UNESCO World Heritage recognized towns or villages is always a good idea. The Internet is the defacto tool to find places like this, while searching, I ran across Cuenca, Spain.

Situated in Castilla La Mancha, 166 Kms south-east of Madrid on N-400, this can make for a nice day trip. Cuenca is not a small town these days, but the old city center or “upper city”, found at top of the deep canyons formed by the Jucar and Huecar rivers, nestled in the hills of the Cuenca Mountains, gives this town the feel of an old town, transporting the visitor to its medieval days of glory. The viewpoints from atop are spectacular. From the Jucar valley where modern Cuenca is located, the rouged and deep gorge of the Jucar river to the west and the course of the Huecar canyon to the east, where atop another hill sits the magnificent Convent of San Pablo, now serving as a hostal (Parador de Turismo). A bridge links the old center to the convent grounds. A trade mark of this town are the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses), homes that hang precariously over the cliffs of the gorge and cobbled stone narrow streets.

Traveling from Madrid by car you arrive via the Jucar valley to the city of Cuenca. You start to navigate up the hill through winy and narrow cobble stone streets of towering old houses leading up to the old city center.

Upon reaching the “upper city”, you come across Los Arcos (the Arches), the Town Hall building crosses the narrow street with its three arches at the bottom acting as the gateway into Plaza Mayor (old town square).

Cuenca's Plaza Mayor and Municipal Palace

In the narrow Plaza Mayor is the Gothic Cathedral of Cuenca. Construction for this building started in 1196 and was finish in the 15th century. The cathedral is known as Nuestra Señora Gracia. There are a number of other religious buildings all around the upper city. Some have been turned into beautiful and charming hotels. Some of these hotels have balconies that over look the Huecar river canyon. I visited, but did not stay, atPosada de San Jose. This would definitely be a place worth considering if an overnight is required.

Cuenca's Gothic Cathedral

All the buildings in the upper city are very close to one another, forming charming streets and passages, each with unique character. I made my way through these around the Cathedral to Puente de San Pablo (St Paul’s Bridge). From the bridge you can admire one of the highlights and trade marks of this town, the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses). The wooden balconies of the Casas Colgadas hang over the cliffs formed by the course of the Huécar. These homes date back to the 1400’s. They today host a museum (Museo de Arte Abstracto). Once you crossover the river you will enjoy the best panoramic views of this landmark.

Cuenca's Casas Colgadas

Cuenca's Casas Colgadas and passage

Once across you can visit the Convent of San Pablo, now a Parador (hotel) under the same name Parador San Pablo. I read that eating here can be a treat, we chose to head back up and eat a small place in Plaza Mayor, enjoying the view of the Jucar deep gorge and cliffs.

Cuenca's Convento San Pablo

Returning across the bridge into the Cuenca urban layout,  between the main plaza and the Casas Colgadas you can visit the Provincial Museum, the Casa del Curato, the Diocesan Museum and the Bishop’s Palace.  Making your way north walking along the east most narrow street,  you will enjoy the many fountains in small plazas, navigating through urban tunnels like the one pictured here.

Cuenca drinking fountain

Cuenca's upper city street passage

Cuenca's more elaborate drinking fountain

Along this street is Posada de San Jose which I made reference to in the introduction.

Posada San Jose in Cuenca

Once back into main street going north, the only street in and out of town (Calle de San Pedro), you will encounter what I call the “north gate”. This path is an upward incline that leads to some great views of the old and new city of Cuenca. Past the north gate is the Barrio del Castillo. Here some of the history I read on the “north gate”. This fragment of wall, the arch and an only tower are the remains of an ancient Arab fortress. The arch (arco de Bezudo) is named after Gutierre R Bezudo, who fought the Arabs with King Alfonso VIII to conquer Cuenca. The fortress was destroyed in the 19th century during the Peninsular war by French troops.

Cuenca's upper city North Gate

On your way north, you may choose a quick stop and navigate towards the west side, crossing what I call a “west gate” is a street (Calle de Ronda del Jucar) from where you can view the west edge of town, the cliffs and deep gorge of the Jucar river.

Cuenca's upper city west gate

View of the city of Cuenca from the upper city

Jucar river cliffs

The view to the east once past the north gate is astonishing as well. You can view the entire “upper city” from afar, the cliffs delimiting the hills where this city was settled and the Huecar river. At a distance, a great view of the Jucar river valley where the new Cuenca continues to grow. The San Pablo bridge, crossing the Huecar, leading into the Convento San Pablo.

Cuenca's upper city in the mist

The old Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas is one of the last old structures found while walking up towards the north gate away from the upper city’s Plaza Mayor.

Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas

Before reaching this historic convent, while walking up the incline, one can pause and turn to admire the architecture and perspective of the tile roof tops. An intricate of churches, convents and old homes, all coming together to give life the colors of this city and its religious history, cemented in the number of stone carved crosses. I personally love the following picture that tells this story of time passed.

Cuenca's upper city tile roof collage

Driving along these roads has always been a pleasure, not only to admire the natural beauty of this land, but also some of the small towns along this route. Here an image in an attempt to capture the character of this land.

Road to Cuenca landscape