Cuenca, Plaza Mayor
Cuenca is an ancient city with a 12th-century core. In 1177, Alfonso VIII “liberated” it from the Moors, and the construction of a central cathedral began. While quaint and, occasionally, exquisite Cuenca is a town from most tourist itineraries, a hidden jewel. The city lies at the heart of Castile-La Mancha, the sparsely populated central section of the country. The romance here is literary: this is the Spain of Cervantes and “Don Quixote.”
The three-hour trip from Madrid in an overcrowded, over-air-conditioned train passes through a blurry landscape of olive trees and uninhabited stretches of land, punctuated by one-street towns and crumbling ruins. It is time to take a walk. Some towns almost defy description, and Cuenca is one of them. You pass from the red plains of Guadalajara to the edge of a Karst landscape of such intoxicating beauty your every sense is subsumed by delight. Cuenca is the doorway to it, the ciudad antigua sculpted into a limestone ridge between two deep river gorges, the only peers to its extraordinary casas colgadas, or hanging houses cut improbably into the cliffs and dangling dangerously over the ravine, as well as its Moorish history, a quirky cathedral built in fits and starts over the course of several centuries, and an unexpectedly excellent selection of (mostly Spanish) modern art
Cuenca is utterly spectacular. I continue up the gorge of the Rio Huecar to the Hotel Cueva del Fraile above the town. The clouds have cleared and from my balcony a bright half-moon holds court in the sky, brilliantly expressive of the great, empty landscape that is Spain.