captivated in cuenca

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City life demands rest every once in a while. Sometimes you just need to get away. Luckily, it is much easier to escape Madrid than it was New York. Smack dab in the middle of Spain, you can get pretty much anywhere in under half a day.

For the most tranquil of trips, there’s an array of charmers within a couple hours of the city center to choose from. A few weeks ago, we piled into the car and headed to Cuenca for just such a getaway. We chose the Castilla-La Mancha mountain town after seeing pictures of its winding roads and colorful houses; a taste of Andalucía in a region we’d never been to!

In a little under two hours we had the car parked on a precariously steep hill and found ourselves running to the sunny side of the street to escape the morning chill. This pale Irish lass usually avoids the sun at all costs, but during the colder months in Spain I seek it out without thinking; it is so strong that the color springs back into my cheeks almost immediately.  You’d think it were spring if it weren’t for the smell of the changing leaves.

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Cuenca, like most Spanish cities, has a lot of history. Built as an Arab fortress in 714, the city was impossible to conquer due to the fact that it was built into and on top of a steep, rocky hill. It was only handed over to the Christians when Toledo was conquered in 1080, though Cuenca remained technically untouched. As warriors became more accustomed to the mountainous terrain of Spain, the hilltop became an easier conquest, and changed hands between Arabs, Berbers and Christians until 1177, when the Christians took over for good.

The architecture that remains is nearly all Christian-influenced, including Cuenca’s cathedral, which was the first gothic-style cathedral in Spain. The only real Arab structure is El Castillo, or the old fortress, of which remains only a tower that provides a fantastic view of the city. Interestingly, the castle constructed by Muslims also served as home to the Inquisition in the 16th century, meaning the attacks against and persecutions of non-Christians were planned there.

The most famous of all structures in Cuenca are, of course, the hanging houses. Typical in the 15th century, the houses are built right into the rocks of the mountain and appear to be hanging. Only a few remain today and attract thousands of tourists daily, causing the city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Aside from the sites I’ve mentioned, there really aren’t that many destinations in Cuenca. It is the prefect place to wander, spending a few minutes at each spot and then moving on. That’s what we did, at least. We saw everything in under two hours, and then found ourselves chatting about Spanish history and culture at the overlook, while looking down on a city that represents so much of what makes this country so interesting.

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After a long conversation, I let my thoughts get lost in the scenery below. The trees make the rocky hill look like it’s going up in flames. They have turned bright yellow, red and orange, matching the colors of the houses perched on the peak. I find myself wondering if the city was designed this way, its houses painted to match the colors of the trees and clear sky, or if its residents are just quirky life-loving beings. It seems impossible to have a bad day when you tread among such happy colors.

That’s a problem of mine, though. A wide-eyed romantic, visions of lives full of happiness play out in my mind each time I visit a place with so much charm. Anyone who reads my writing must know that by now. I leave pieces of my heart nearly everywhere I go, but is my heart deceived by the pretty houses, quaint neighborhoods, fantastic food and seemingly-still-in-love elderly couples who fill the plazas? Do I see the place I want to see? If I do, is that wrong? I worry that if I lived in Granada or Madrid as a real person, that is someone with a real job and obligations, as opposed to a student and writer, I wouldn’t be as enchanted. I hope that I would always notice the details, return the smiles of kind strangers and make time for good food and friends and wine no matter how stressful life became.

The dilemma of the life of a traveler: am I really seeing the world if I just stop by for a little while? A head full of wonders, questions and romantic visions really ain’t much of a dilemma it seems, but how lucky I feel to struggle with it.

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