Midway between Madrid and València is Cuenca, perched precariously on the edge of a steep 3,100 foot gorge.
With a population of 55,000 this smaller city offered plenty of variety and entertainment for our 5-day visit. Cuenca is sometimes known as the “Eagle’s Nest” because of where and how it was built atop the gorge, and coincidentally, we spotted a single eagle or it could have been a vulture floating on the currents high above the city.
This UNESCO listed city lies at the heart of the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain and Castilla-La Mancha is renowned as the setting of Miguel de Cervantes’ irrepressible novel “Don Quixote” (published in 1605 and 1615). We have been in this autonomous community only once before, when we visited Tolédo last April.
In 714 CE, the Muslims were the first to recognize the value of this incredible landscape and they built a walled fortress they named Kunka. There was a deep gorge on either side of Kunka with the river Júcar at the bottom of one gorge and the river Huécar in the other, creating an easily defensible position.
Alfonso VIII of Castile captured the city 500 years later, in 1177, ending Arab domination in Cuenca. For the next few centuries the city prospered mainly because of textile manufacturing and livestock production.
In the 18th century the textile industry was shut down by Carlos IV and the population drastically declined. Then in the early 19th century, Napoleon’s troops nearly destroyed the city.
Today tourism has helped revive the economy and population. With the new high speed rail link between Madrid and València, Cuenca has become a popular weekend destination.
Museo Paleontológico de Castilla-La Mancha
Other cities we have visited have advertised similar museums, but Cuenca’s paleontology museum was highly rated on Google, so we decided to try it.
The museum showcases a large collection of fantastic fossils and dinosaurs of the area dating back 125 million years ago. Children may find this an ideal outing but the collection covering the dinosaurs of the region is good for all ages. The dinosaur models out in the landscape were especially realistic.
Concavenator corcovatus, whose name means hunchback from Cuenca. 20ft/6m long. One nearly complete skeleton was found to study.
Museo de la Ciencias de Castilla-La Mancha
Across the small plaza and steps from our hotel was Cuenca’s science museum. The building itself is quite beautiful even before you step inside. There was an entire long wall with an interesting display capturing the concept of time forever marching on, but it may be the planetarium that will be the most memorable.
Museo de Cuenca
We enjoy visiting city museums because we tend to learn more about the specific location we are in. The Museum of Cuenca began in 1963 with new materials and pieces from other collections and archaeological excavations added to the exhibition over the years.
The museum is located in the historic center of Cuenca in a 14th century building that was once used as the Court of the Inquisition in the 16th century.
Fundación Antonio Pérez
For a smaller city, there seems to be plenty of galleries and museums throughout Cuenca. The modern art collection at the Foundation of Antonio Pérez museum is housed in another outstanding 16th century building. Inside we found a few interesting pieces of contemporary art and a rather nice collection of children’s toys we hadn’t seen anywhere else.
Museo de Arte Abstracto Español
The Museum of Spanish Abstract Art opened in 1966 in Cuenca’s famed Hanging Houses. The collection is primarily Spanish artists of the 1950s and 1960s. We particularly liked the art pieces created by Fernando Zóbel (1924-1984) and Eusebio Sempere (1923-1985). In addition to painting, in 1955, Fernando Zóbel began acquiring works of his contemporaries. In 1980 he would donate his entire collection, including more than 3,000 books, to the foundation. The Renfe train station, Cuenca-Fernando Zóbel is named in his honor.
In 1981 this museum received the coveted European Museum of the Year Award. The museum today has in excess of 1,500 works.
Casa Zavala Museo
A small art museum, Casa Zavala today displays the work of the Aragon native artist Antonio Saura (1930-1988). We found his art to be quite dark. There are also temporary exhibitions scheduled throughout the year. One room had a video playing and we sat and listened to Jakub Józef Orliński, a Polish operatic countertenor singing. What an amazing voice! He has an album called “Anima Sacra” if you want to hear him.
We spotted a number of versions of this charming “Iberian Bull,” pitcher, a typical ceramic piece found in Cuenca. It was created in 1988 by ceramicist Pedro Mercedes, inspired by the head of a small Iberian bull that was discovered in a nearby village. So cute!
Cuenca is a sister city to Ronda, a popular city in southern Spain not far from Málaga. Ronda is also built atop a stunning rock face and we recommend visiting there as well.
We are definitely adding Cuenca to our list of cities to share and experience with family and friends.
Salut from these Conquense,
Ted & Julia