A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

After spending the week in Madrid working, which came after the writers’ retreat in southern Spain in the first two weeks of June this year, I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years. We’d decided to meet up in Madrid and then travel by bus to make a visit to the hanging houses of Cuenca.

Spain Series IV: Cuenca

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Colourful houses in the historic part of Cuenca

Where is Cuenca?

Cuenca is an easy two-to-three-hour bus ride east of Madrid located in the comunidad autónoma (autonomous community) of Castilla–La Mancha in the mountains of east-central Spain.

We left from the Estación Sur de Autobuses in Madrid (also called Méndez Alvaro) in the early afternoon, as my friend was arriving there on a bus from further north. An aside: This wasn’t the first time I travelled in Spanish buses this trip, and I found them very comfortable, with comfy seats and plenty of leg room. They often have a downstairs toilet, especially for trips that are over three hours.

About Cuenca

Cuenca is a small city with a population of around 56,000.

A Little Bit of History

You can skip this section if you don’t like history! I promise, it’s not too long! The city has a long and colourful history. It was founded by the Moors in 714, who built a fortress between the two gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers and surrounded it with a one-kilometre-long wall.

When speaking with people, I’ve found that many don’t know that a large part of Spain, especially southern Spain, was under Moorish rule for seven centuries, with a correspondingly huge influence on Spanish language and culture. Hence the significant Moorish architectural influence in many parts of Spain, including the palace of the Alhambra in Granada, the Giralda in Seville, the Mezquita and Alcázar of Córdoba, and many other cities besides.

Cuenca was besieged and conquered numerous times by various Moorish and Christian kingdoms until it was finally conquered by the 22-year-old Christian King Alfonso VIII of Castile. This ended Arab domination in Cuenca.

A prosperous city for several centuries, Cuenca was a centre for textile manufacturing and agriculture. Good old King Carlos IV forbade textile activity in the 18th century to prevent competition with the Royal Tapestry Factory, naturally leading to a decline in Cuenca’s textile industry. Five thousand inhabitants left the town as a result of the failing economy. The independence war against Napoleon caused destruction and worsened the city’s economic crisis, leading to a further loss of population so that only around 6,000 inhabitants remained. With the arrival of the railroads in the 19th century, and the timber industry, Cuenca received a boost to the economy and the population increased to 10,000. In the late 19th century, during the Third Carlist War, Cuenca was taken over by Carlist troops, supporters of King Carlos V instead of the ruling Isabel II, and the city suffered yet again.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), Cuenca was part of the republican zone, the zona roja or ‘red zone’. Again, the city suffered major economic decline during the post-war period, and migration to more prosperous regions in northern Spain and other countries followed. Between 1960 and 1970, the city slowly recovered.

In recent decades, the city’s economy has been boosted by tourism and in 1996, Cuenca was declared a World Heritage site.

Okay, enough history I hear you say! I love history, but I understand not everyone does, so back to the trip…

Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Hanging Houses of Cuenca

On our first morning in Cuenca, at the civilised hour of 10 am, we strolled from our Airbnb up to the bridge that crosses the gorge, and so to a close-up view of the hanging houses. I do not like heights, and my friend said he’d hold my hand while we crossed the bridge! He sure did, and I gripped his arm so tightly with my other hand that I’m sure he had bruises and fingernail marks!

There are in fact only a few of the hanging houses remaining. The most well-known is a group of three with wooden balconies.

We enjoyed Cuenca immensely. Mostly, after the huge metropolis that is Madrid and having experienced the Saharan heatwave – and in summer, Madrid is already notoriously hot – Cuenca was an accessible, easy place to be. We could walk everywhere. To the old town where the hanging houses are, to the supermarket for supplies, to the numerous bars and cafés that we mainly visited in the evenings for a drink and tapas. While temperatures reached around 36°C on a couple of the afternoons, it was more bearable than in Madrid where because of the high-rises, there’s nowhere for the heat to escape. In Cuenca, we could breathe!

Cuenca was also remarkably free of tourists. What a bonus! The day we walked over to the old town and to see the hanging houses, there were only two or three other small family groups meandering around. The old part of the city especially has a small-town atmosphere, and apart from the occasional bus and delivery van, the cobbled streets were quiet and we could walk along the street a lot of the time rather than on the footpaths.

While Cuenca retains its historic walled town, steep cobbled streets and medieval ruins, it’s mostly known for what we went to visit, its casas colgadas, hanging houses, perched over the Huécar gorge and seeming to cling to the cliff edge.

It’s unknown when the hanging houses were originally built, although the sign on them says 14th century. They have been refurbished several times throughout their history, and in fact they were undergoing further restoration during our visit. It’s common for works on Spanish historic buildings to be undertaken in wintertime, when they won’t disrupt tourism too much!

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Close-up of the Casas Colgadas

In the past, the hanging houses have served as individual homes, council houses and a restaurant. One of them now houses the Spanish Abstract Art Museum.

Our wanderings through the old part of Cuenca lasted for the better part of six hours, although it didn’t feel that long at all. We just took it slowly, taking in all the sights, the historic buildings, the spectacular views from high up over the gorges, the atmosphere, the peace and tranquillity. We took a multitude of photos. The streets gradually led to the highest part of the town. Way up there we saw a sign that said La Ciudad Encantada, the enchanted city, and we took a left fork and wandered up to the top where an old man was sitting under the trees beside a spring. We greeted him and he told us that the enchanted city wasn’t in fact a city, but a geological site where weather and the river waters have formed rocks into distinctive shapes. In 1929, it was declared a Natural Site of National Interest. It was too hot by this time to think of visiting the site, and the man told us that really, you needed a car to see it properly, so we contented ourselves with viewing what we could see from that vantage point. Then we strolled back to the modern part of town – taking an alternative route instead of the bridge! – and mingled with the locals at a restaurant in the shade of some large trees for cool drinks and lunch.

The following day, having confirmed we’d seen most of interest of old Cuenca, we did some gift shopping and had afternoon tea and cake in a pastelería, cake shop, in central Cuenca.

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Another view of the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Postscript: Travelling by Train in Spain

Another aside: I also travelled by the fast AVE train on two trips this journey to Spain, and it was amazing, reaching a top speed of just over 200 km/hr, and very comfortable. My first trip was from Córdoba to Madrid, and we travelled clase preferente, first class, only because there were no tickets left in tourist class. The second trip was from León in northern Spain to Madrid, in tourist class. The only difference between tourist and first was that there is an extra seat, so slightly less room, but not enough to be noticeable. Another thing I discovered and which I’m sure RENFE, the government-run railway, wouldn’t want highly publicised – ha! sorry RENFE – is that if the train you’re catching is delayed in reaching its destination by 30 minutes or more, they will refund you 50 per cent of the ticket value. If it’s delayed by up to 60 minutes or more, you get a full refund. The train from Córdoba to Madrid was in the first category. Because I’d paid by credit card, it was super-easy to claim the refund online; it went through instantly. Clearly, their refund policy is intended to make the railway more efficient. Good on you, RENFE.

Acknowledgements: A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfonso_VIII_of_Castile. Accessed 1 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuenca,_Spain. Accessed 1 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciudad_Encantada. Accessed 1 August 2019.

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