The historic fortified city of Cuenca is located on a look-out point between the gorges of the Huécar and Júcar rivers. Its steep streets, unaltered proof of its medieval past, as well as its consideration as a city-come-landscape, gained it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Its location between two rivers made Cuenca an extraordinary strategic enclave. The exact date of its founding and who was responsible for doing so are unknown; what is known is that several people groups passed through it before its Romanization, including the Concani, the Lobetani and the Celtiberians. The mark left by the Roman Empire is clearly visible in the form of a small bridge and fountain, and close by lie the Roman remains of Segóbriga, Ercávica and Valeria.
It was not until the arrival of the Moors that Cuenca was consolidated as a town. It was initially formed as an impregnable defensive fort, protected by the gorges of the two rivers. The citadel, which was named Conca, was constructed in 784.
In 1177, the city was conquered by Alfonso VIII who, after a nine-month siege, took the square on 21 September. Cuenca thus passed into Christian hands and its physiognomy changed accordingly. It was made an episcopal and council seat and began to be governed under a special jurisdiction. The population of Cuenca continued to grow thanks to its prosperous textile and agricultural activity and, as a result, had to extend outside its walls. Its monumental legacy has continued to grow until the present day.
The large majority of Cuenca's monuments are concentrated in the city's Old Town, which is encased between the gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers. Little remains of the defensive Middle Age fort, other than parts of the wall and the arco de Bezares (Bezares arch). What has remained unchanged is the network of steep paved streets that form Cuenca's tourist centre.
Plaza Mayor: The Main Square is the nerve centre of the city's monument collection and the starting point for any visit. It is trapezoidal in shape and the Cathedral, Town Hall and Las Petras Convent occupy three of its corners.
Catedral de Santa María de Gracia: The cathedral was built on the site of the former Arab mosque. Construction began at the end of the 12th century and was completed in the middle of the 13th century. It was the first gothic cathedral of Castile and is built in Anglo-Norman style. In the following centuries it was altered and restored, which explains the presence of architectural features in different styles.
Casas Colgadas: The "Hanging Houses" are the city's most emblematic feature, and the one that characterises it on postcards. The houses are built straight onto the wall formed by the gorge of the Huécar river. Their location, suspended over a ravine, make them one of Cuenca's greatest attractions. One of them (three remain) now houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, where one can enjoy works by Antoni Tàpies, Eduardo Chillida, Antonio Saura and Fernando Zóbel, among others.
Puente de San Pablo: This is the footbridge that crosses the Huécar river. The original bridge was built of stone in the 16th century. It ended up collapsing and at the beginning of the 20th century another was built of iron and wood, taking advantage of the old foundations. It is one of the best vantage points from which to take a photo of the Hanging Houses.
Convento de San Pablo: This convent stands opposite the Hanging Houses, on the other side of the Huécar and joined to the houses via Puente de San Pablo. It is set in a beautiful location, on the hill that rises up from the river. Built in the 16th century, it was originally a Dominican convent. It is now the National Tourism Parador.
Torre Mangana: This tower is located on the site of the former Arab fortress. It was built in the 16th century and renovated in the 20th century, in a Neo-Mudéjar style. It has served as the municipal clock and is one of the emblematic features of the city.
Cuenca's most famous festival is Semana Santa (Holy Week), and not in vain has it been declared of International Tourist Interest. One procession stands out from all the others, the "Camino del Calvario". Popularly known as Las Turbas, it takes place in the early hours of Good Friday morning. This procession simulates the mocking suffered by Jesus on the road to crucifixion. The penitents accompany the float, playing out-of-tune bugles and drums. It is famous because of the large number of the faithful who line the streets, and it reaches its climax in the Plaza Mayor. During Holy Week, visitors can also enjoy Cuenca's Religious Music Week, a festival of great international renown. However, the city's most popular festivals are the Fiestas de San Mateo, which commemorate Alfonso VIII taking the city on the day that Spaniards celebrate Saint Matthew's Day. Particularly characteristic is the running of young bulls with their horns tied and the parade of the "mateas" associations or peñas.
Cuenca's gastronomy is marked by the province's natural surroundings, and mixes the raw materials of this Manchegan town (particularly game) with those of Cuenca's mountain range. But of all the traditional delicacies, a few typical dishes are particularly worth mentioning:
Morteruelo: A stew served in the form of a paté made from hare or rabbit meat, pork, chicken, partridge or quail liver, breadcrumbs and spices (thyme, rosemary, paprika, etc.)
Ajoarriero: This is a sauce made of potato, garlic, egg, breadcrumbs and olive oil, and usually accompanies cod. It is also known as atascaburras.
Zarajos: Lamb tripe wrapped in vine shoots and roasted.
Resolí: This liqueur of Arab origin is traditionally enjoyed during Holy Week.
Alajú: This is Cuenca's sweet par excellence. It is a pastry made of almonds, honey, breadcrumbs and is covered in wafer.
By car: a 2-hour journey from Madrid along the A-3 motorway and then the A-40 from Tarancón.
By bus: a 2-and-a-half-hour journey from Madrid's Estación Sur de Autobuses bus station (C/ Méndez Alvaro, 83. Web: Auto-Res)
By train: a 50-minute journey by AVE (high-speed train) from Estación de Atocha train station (Glorieta del Emperador Carlos V. Tel no.: (+34) 902 24 02 02. Web: Renfe)