Hitting the Heights in Cuenca, Spain

Activities, History & Heritage

Centuries-old wonders await curious travelers exploring the hilly streets and passageways of this city in central Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region   

With ancient buildings stacked on a steep promontory at the meeting of two deep river gorges, Cuenca projects a dramatic profile, one different from any other city in Spain. Because it’s not on the traditional tour circuit, this somewhat isolated medieval gem, about two hours southeast of Madrid, is off the radar of most North American travelers, a fact that just adds to its beguiling appeal.

In Cuenca it’s all about the heights. Think vertical. Looking up or gazing down, you’ll find yourself constantly taking in the views. Traipsing around narrow meandering streets and passageways, you’ll encounter one vantage point after another that provides a fresh new slant on cliff-clinging houses high above the gorges. There’s a new vista at every turn.

Crossing the San Pablo footbridge, which spans the Huécar River gorge, is a prime tourist activity in Cuenca.

Crossing the San Pablo footbridge, which spans the Huécar River gorge, is a prime tourist activity in Cuenca.

Iconic Bridge and Hanging Houses

Those afraid of heights get nervous crossing San Pablo footbridge, a wooden plank walkway that spans the Huécar River 200 feet below. But it’s a major attraction in itself, an Instagrammable spot for sure. If you’re staying at Parador de Cuenca, as our group was, the bridge is the most direct way of getting to the core of the enchanting Ciudad Alta, or Old City. We crossed it several times a day, often wondering how many people it could hold at one time. 

From the bridge you have the best view of Cuenca’s most emblematic attraction—the Hanging Houses, or Casas Colgadas. The wooden balconies of this trio of 14th century dwellings jut out over a sheer cliff. Appearing to defy gravity, the buildings seem about to topple off their perch and into the abyss. You can actually stand on one of the cantilevered balconies if you visit the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art or gourmet restaurant Casas Colgadas Jesus Segura, both tenants of the Hanging Houses. Some art lovers prefer the Antonio Perez Foundation, a museum of modern art housed within a former Carmelite convent, another cliff-hugger.

In medieval times, why did many builders push to the precipice? The answer: real estate was scarce atop the escarpment and every square foot counted. Because land was at a premium, some houses were built eight to 12 stories high. Constructed of wood and adobe, these “skyscrapers,” many of them painted in bright colors today, were among the tallest buildings in Europe until the introduction of reinforced concrete in the 20th century. At its economic peak in the 15th century, the crowded old quarter had a population of 17,000. Now the number is 2,000.

Sightseeing trams take tourists up and down the hilly lanes of Cuenca’s Old City.

Sightseeing trams take tourists up and down the hilly lanes of Cuenca’s Old City.

Choose Casual Sightseeing or Aerial Adventures

Cuenca does not have a long checklist of must-see sights, which suits me just fine. I’m happy just wandering and getting lost in the medieval lanes, soaking up all the history that crosses my path—and taking picture after picture. The refreshing lack of tourists in Cuenca makes it even more delightful.

The heart of this UNESCO World Heritage city is the Plaza Mayor, which spreads in a linear fashion from the Cathedral of Cuenca, passing through the arch of the town hall. Outdoor cafes lend a lively air, and the red tram departs from the square for a tour of the Old City, an ideal option for those who want to avoid tackling the steep inclines on foot.

The Cathedral in Cuenca is a treasure house of art and architecture.

The Cathedral in Cuenca is a treasure house of art and architecture.

While Spain has better known churches, the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de Gracia is truly impressive and worth a look inside. Largely built between 1156 and 1256, it was the first Gothic church on the Iberian peninsula. Statuary, paintings, expanses of marble and lavishly adorned chapels reflected the city’s wealth in medieval days. The two pipe organs date from the 18th century. Our group heard their melodious sounds while seated in the ornately carved wooden choir stalls during an evening concert.

If you haven’t had enough in the way of heights after taking in the panoramas from all angles and crossing the footbridge a number of times, consider a zipline ride or go rock climbing. On a short walk from Parador de Cuenca, I came upon harnessed men and women scaling vertical walls and people of all ages whooshing across the valley on a sturdy cable. And on two mornings I saw hot air balloons high in the sky.

I wasn’t adventurous enough to pursue those options but wished I’d had time to hike the path that zigzags up to the giant mountaintop statue of Christ, Cerro del Socorro. The two-mile trail is marked by 14 Stations of the Cross. The statue is illuminated at night, as is the entire rock face of medieval Cuenca, a romantic vision that lingers long after your visit to this fascinating city off the beaten path.

Story and Photos by Randy Mink, Senior Editor  

Lead Photo  – The iconic Hanging Houses, with their wooden balconies jutting out over the river gorge, have come to symbolize Cuenca’s Old City.

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