Charmed by Cuenca
(The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2016 - 12:00am

It’s very easy to fall in love with Cuenca, a medieval city in the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain. Its location is both strategic and stunning as it sits on a promontory that is the converging point of two deep river gorges of Júcar and Huécar.

Quiescence seems to be the order of the day at this UNESCO World Heritage city. Walk along its narrow and meandering streets and you can freely hear your heartbeat. Or you hear the swooshing of the wind that caresses the trees. Even the crows that normally squawk are rendered mute as they race in the blue Iberian sky. The few vehicles that ply the Plaza Mayor — dotted by colorful establishments with the commanding Cuenca Cathedral, the first Gothic cathedral of Spain built at the end of the 12th century, as the centerpiece — do not honk; or if they do, they are hardly heard.

The city is best discovered on foot. You walk around and discover a merry mix of convents, chapels, cafes, restaurants, artists’ coves and souvenir shops that sell the very bitter Cuenca dark chocolate bars. There are centuries-old structures that seemingly conceal a magnificent vista of a canyon that is guarded by verdant hills.

Just like other significant Catholic cities in Spain, the history and culture of Cuenca has its own Moorish influence. According to our local tour guide, Pablo Moya Garcia, the place where Cuenca is situated now was uninhabited during the time when the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Roman Empire. When the Muslim Arabs captured the area in 714, they built a fortification called Kunka between two gorges. They dug between the Júcar and Huécar rivers. The fortress was enveloped by a one-kilometer long wall. Kunka became Cuenca and soon it became a prosperous agricultural and textile manufacturing city.

In Cuenca, you get a certain kind of high as you cross the steel-and-wood San Pablo Bridge. The original bridge was made of stone until a massive snow formation collapsed a part of it in 1595. The view from the bridge will take your breath away as you witness the old city soaring over deep gorges below it.

Still from the bridge, you will notice three tall houses that will steal your attention and your thoughts will lounge on the wooden balconies that simply jut out over the cliffs. These houses on the cliffs, locally called Casas Colgadas (or the Hanging Houses of Cuenca), are the most striking element of the medieval Cuenca. In fact, the Casas Colgadas are what make Cuenca popular among those who have been enamored of the city’s mystique.

These well-preserved houses date back to the 14th century; they are the only ones remaining of similar houses that were a toast in those days. Well, to this day, two of the three houses are still in use as they serve as home to the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Museum of Spanish Abstract Art).

The Filipino visitors to Cuenca, a city that is populated by about 60,000 residents, will love to find out that the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, an important repository of 20th-century art in the city, was established in 1966 by Filipino-Spanish artist Fernando Zobel. Interestingly, the Cuenca railway station (yes, Cuenca is reachable from Madrid by a three-hour train ride) is called “Fernando Zobel,” in honor of the Filipino-Spanish artist who is a mover of modernist art in the city.

Some of the subdued works of Fernando Zobel are exhibited in the museum side by side with the famous  paintings of contemporary Spanish artists like Jose Guerrero, Antoni Tapies, Eusebio Sempere and Antonio Saura.

When your visit at the museum is over, cross the San Pablo Bridge again and let your wanderlust lead you to the Convento de San Pablo, which is now converted into a parador.

From the convent, a mesmerizing vista of Cuenca is presented anew.  The view of the city rising from a promontory will beguile you endlessly. There at the parador, you realize what makes Cuenca a charming beauty: the city is a rhapsody between nature and architecture, a harmony of its long history and monumental legacy.

(Cathay Pacific flies four times a week direct from Hong Kong to Madrid. Call its 24/7 hotlines: Globe 1-800-8739-5117 and SMART/PLDT 1-800-1441-1011.)

(E-mail me at bumbaki@yahoo.com. I’m also on Twitter @bum_tenorio and Instagram @bumtenorio. Have a blessed Sunday!)

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