By SANDY IRLE
(digitalBURG) – After a week of relaxation in beautiful La Manga del Mar Menor, Spain, it was an easy day trip by train to Cuenca (pronounced KWEN-ka). Our destination was the Cuenca Parador, the former 16th century San Pablo convent converted by the Spanish government into a hotel.
Riding in a taxi through the new part of the city didn’t entice us to stop, and the view as we climbed above the Hoz del Huécar River Gorge toward our destination was breathtaking. Walking into the lobby from the narrow cobblestone driveway, it seemed as if everything was happening in slow motion. It feels as if you are stepping back in time as you pass ancient doors, furnishings and artifacts, walking on marble floors and looking out over the huge open air courtyard.
Stepping into room 204, largely unchanged and tastefully updated is enchanting. Terra cotta tile floors, high ceilings and dark carved wood furnishings feel warm and inviting. The open air balcony has an incredible view overlooking the gorge and the “Casas Colgadas” (Hanging Houses).
If you’re lucky enough to arrive in the afternoon, you are treated to an unforgettable sight as the sun fades and the lights come on in the homes and businesses and on the canyon walls and bridge over the Júcar River Gorge that connects the parador to the old city. We, in the modern tradition, put a lock with our names on it on the bridge. With the doors open on the balcony you can relax in soft, comfortable chairs and soak in the view.
Morning is a great time to walk the rugged ancient paths on the edge of the hillside. In December the weather is mild with daytime temperatures are in the 50s and 60s. You walk either up or down, as this place is a city perched on top of cliffs created by the deep canyons surrounding it.
Walking up the path toward a fantastic overlook takes some time as it is uneven ground and paired with the fact that you are starting at 3000 feet. Stopping to look at the view can be a chance to catch your breath.
You pass the ancient aqueduct and circle back to enter the medieval city through the ancient remains of the El Castillo (The Castle) and the arch over the City Walls. In Spain, lunchtime starts at 2 p.m., but if you find yourself in town early, stopping for a glass of wine is a nice diversion.
We found a tiny local spot and enjoyed a pleasant type of sign language with the owner. Ordering wine afforded us free tapas, little plates of spiced potatoes and small sausages eaten with toothpicks. Continuing downhill to the Plaza Mayor you will hear the chime of the clock in the fortress style Mangana Tower and come upon the beautiful and imposing Cuenca Cathedral.
Charming little shops with pottery and foodstuffs are tucked in between hotels, bars and cafés, so people stroll around the area shopping and chatting. It’s unlikely that you’ll run into another American, but that may change with the new 120 mph high-speed train from Madrid stopping here.
Siesta is a great excuse to go back to the room and enjoy the atmosphere and the view. Room service is available anytime, and the parador has a fine chef. So if you need more than your tapas to keep you going until dinner, sitting on the balcony with some Mountain Stew or other traditional dish is very luxurious.
We had gazed upon one of the cliff houses all lit up on the first evening, so upon investigation we found it to be the Meson Casas Colgadas, a fine restaurant in one of the most famous 14th century homes, built upon a rock and hanging over the gorge.
One of the many notable features is that every board in the ceiling is beautifully hand carved. They open at 8 p.m. for dinner and we arrived hoping we could get a table without a reservation. We were graciously received and shown to a table on the top floor next to a large window, the best table!
Dinner was perfectly prepared and presented and the staff was very professional and attentive. We had three servers. I splurged and ordered dessert and they also brought us a small porron (spouted bottle) of the traditional post-meal drink called Resoli, and some little cakes and treats.
As we looked out at the lighted bridge, the parador and the lights below, we smiled, clinked our glasses and toasted the delightful surprises found in Cuenca.