The blue eyes looking down on the streets of Cuenca, pay homage to an ancient legend of forbidden love.
Los ojos de las mora – (The eyes of the mora)
When Cuenca was conquered by Alfonso VIII of Castile in the 12th century, some of the Moorish people elected to remain in the city and live under Christian rule.
The legend of ‘Los ojos de las mora’ began more than 900 years ago in one of Cuenca’s Moorish barrios. A beautiful mora (Spanish for a Moorish woman) and a Christian soldier fell in love. Contact or relationships between the two religions was strictly prohibited, so their love had to remain secret.
Meanwhile the girl’s father wanted to marry his daughter to a young Moor who had asked for her hand. The mora refused the proposal and the rejected and upset suitor began to carefully follow her movements.
The soldier and his young love searched for a priest who would convert the lady to Christianity and then marry them. On the night they planned to marry, as the bells on the Mangana tower began to toll, the young soldier was attacked and killed by the rejected Moor suitor and his friends. When the young lady learned why her soldier had not met her, she wanted to commit suicide thinking she would join her soldier in heaven. The priest advised her that suicide was prohibited for Christians.
The legend goes on to say that the young lady died of a broken heart and her eyes still look down on the Old Town where she was meant to meet her love.
Hospederia Seminario Conciliar de San Julián
Minutes from the Catedral de Cuenca, on a steep hill overlooking the Júcar River, we found our beautiful old hotel. The Seminary of San Julián was built in 1741 in the grand baroque style on the remains of an earlier palace.
This charming hotel continues to this day to operate as a seminary and a handful of priests complete their training annually. In addition to the hotel and Seminary, there is a chapel (currently being renovated) and an important private Seminary library with an extremely old collection of books and manuscripts. Although in the center of Old Town this lovely hotel was extremely quiet and peaceful.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian, simply known as The Cuenca Cathedral was built between 1182 and 1270 on the very spot a Mosque had previously sat for hundreds of years. The façade was rebuilt after it crumbled down in 1902.
The diocese of Cuenca was established in 1183 and its second bishop, St. Julian of Cuenca, not only gave his name to the Seminary/Hotel where we stayed and Cuenca’s Cathedral, but he also became the patron saint of the city.
Leading from the main hall inside are many smaller rooms, each with their own style and unique decoration. We especially liked the variety of stained glass windows. The modern styles were installed in the 1990s. In 2006 and 2009 the two beautiful baroque organs were recovered and restored.
Ingelsia de San Pedro
The Church of St. Peter is believed to have been originally built in the 13th century on an old Arab mosque site. It is octagonal on the outside and becomes circular on the inside. The Church has been modified many times over the centuries and there are currently architecturally three different identifiable styles: romanesque, gothic and baroque.
The most recent restoration occurred in the 20th century due to tremendous damage the Cathedral took during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In 1999 a unique feature was added – the installation of radiant heating under the flooring.
This cross below was donated by local sculptor, Miguel Ángel Rivas to the Church of San Pedro. It is entitled “To My Dear Daughter María” and is installed on an outside wall.
Parador de Cuenca – (formerly Convento de San Pablo)
A parador in Spain is a popular type of hotel, often a converted castle, palace, fortress, convent, monastery or other historic building but also sometimes a modern building with a panoramic view of a historic and monumental city. Each is unique and a wonderful way to preserve the treasured buildings and Spain’s history.
Building of the Convent of Saint Paul began in the 16th century by a Dominican priest and was eventually completed in the 18th century. The architectural style used was rococo, the ornamental and theatrical style of architecture that combines asymmetry, scrolling curves, gilding, white and pastel colors, sculpted molding and trompe l’oeil frescoes.
The convent was used by the Dominican friars until the 19th century then by the Pauline Fathers until 1975. In the 1990s the convent was restored and converted to the Parador it is today. The outdoor restaurant where we had a pleasant dinner one evening was once a chapel.
Puente de San Pablo
Walking down from old town to the Parador, you have to cross the red San Pablo bridge. The first bridge of Saint Paul had 5 arches and was built between 1533 and 1589 to connect the old town with St. Paul’s convent. However the original bridge collapsed in 1895 and the current one, made of wood and iron, was built in 1902. It is up to 130 feet/40 meters high and you can see it is supported by the remains of the original stone bridge.
Returning home after dinner we were able to capture an amazing lightning storm in the distance, just before recrossing the bridge back into Old Town and our hotel.
Las Casas Colgadas – The Hanging houses
After the disappearance of the original bridge in 1895, the Hanging Houses gained popularity in Cuenca. Now considered Cuenca’s most famous civil buildings, but in the 14th century these hanging Houses were quite common. The Casas Colgadas, with their wooden balconies, are built on the rocks high above the Huecar River gorge and used to line much of the cliffs. Today just a few remain. The Museum of Abstract Art is in one of the hanging houses so we were able to get a close up of these archaic structures.
Very close to our hotel was the Mangana Tower and every quarter of an hour the most musical bells rang to mark the time. We were working in our room late one afternoon with our windows open and the cheery sound was a pleasant distraction.
No record exists telling when exactly the 90 foot/28 meter tall tower was built, but it is believed to be in the early 16th century. The first record is from a painting made of the tower in 1565. It has been nearly destroyed more than a few times by war and weather and the last restoration was in 1968. There are ongoing excavations beneath the tower as it stands on the site of a former Arab citadel, later, in medieval times, a Jewish quarter and finally the Christian area of Santa María. Today Mangana Tower has become a symbol of the city of Cuenca.
The following are some of the typical local Cuenca dishes we tried, one accidentally.
Ajo arriero – a blend of cod, potato and garlic, made to spread on bread.
Morteruelo – a tasty kind of pâté made of rabbit, partridge, quail, chicken, pork liver, bread crumbs and spices.
Pisto manchego – our favorite, was a mixture of vegetables (tomato, pepper, courgette/zucchini) cut up and fried together, very similar to France’s “ratatouille”.
Zarajos – this local specialty had okay flavor but it definitely had an odd texture and it wasn’t until later when we looked it up, that we learned it was lamb tripe. Probably not a dish we would try a second time.
Resoli – a traditional coffee liqueur from Cuenca, served to us as a complimentary after dinner drink.
Pisto manchego, ajo arriero and morteruelo dishes in the top photo and the zarajos are in the bottom photo.
The Valley of Gwangi: The final scenes of this 1969 American western fantasy film were shot in Plaza Mayor and inside Cuenca Cathedral. Scenes of the Forbidden Valley were also filmed at the unusual rock formations of Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca.
Sound of the Sky is a Japanese anime television series set in a fictional town named Seize, which is modelled after Cuenca and includes many of its landmarks.
Cuenca was a delightful town to visit and perhaps more so because it has been our first destination since the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in Spain. The word vagary means “an unpredictable, unusual idea or action. Travelling without knowing the destination, a wandering jouney.” With Covid-19 cases popping up here and there, the vagaries of travel apply and our itinerary continues to evolve. Nonetheless, we are elated to be once again traveling.
Salut from these Conquense,
Ted & Julia