Spanish treat in seclusion

Spanish treat in seclusion

Things will change soon for Cuenca. If Cuenca has never been on the tourist track, blame it on Toledo, which is just an hour’s drive from Madrid.

UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, Cuenca. Toledo is a hill-top town which has been and will always be full of tourists. But not so Cuenca. Hidden in the rocky mountain ridge, winding between the dramatic gorges carved by two rivers, the Huecar and the Jucar, Cuenca, lying half way between Madrid and Valencia, has never been on the tourist map and hasn’t been since the 8th century, when it was founded by the Moors as a fortress on the Iberian peninsula. I fell in love with Cuenca the day I saw it.

When one is 20, as I was when I first toured some of the most popular destinations in Europe — Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Cardoba, Malaga and Toledo — one can’t help but fall prey to the charm of Spain. After working for a while in Alahambra in Sierra Granada in the Andalusian country, I had determined that these were the places for me, second only to India. But when I eventually returned, I found to my surprise that I had loathed it all. The golden coast of Spain had been sold to Mammon. Only the sea remained as a faint reminder of those dreamy days. Nothing else. Disillusioned, I sauntered up and down the train station in Valencia and spied a small train on a faraway platform heading towards the country, away from the coast.

This little train taking off from Valencia is slow by Spanish standards — which means it is a little better than the mail from Chickballapur to Bangalore. At the end of the four-hour-long journey to Cuenca, I realise that there are hardly any people in the train, a train that seemed pretty crowded as it pulled out from Valencia.

The early morning sun in Cuenca spread its rays up towards a hill. There are hills all around you. But all roads, you notice in a daze, lead you up the one hill in the middle of the valley — the hill on which Cuenca sits. There are edges to that hill that no man should ever dare to climb. But every craggy piece of jagged rock jutting out of that hill has been built upon and lived in, as can be seen by the casual washing lines hanging out on top of a vast abyss.

Keeping vigil for centuries longer than the existence of Cuenca itself are the silent
sentinels carved on the mountain face by nothing less than the finger of God. If only those darkly brooding heads could speak, they would surely have strange tales to tell, especially of the innumerable caves at the bottom of their feet. A voyage into these caves is a frightening experience, packed as they are with marks of modern pillage — parts of motor cars and refrigerators — inevitably attracting scavengers who almost melt on sight into the uncharted and craggiest of caves. The caves were perhaps once homes to savants who spent their lives at the feet of the Lord — literally, for two churches occupy prime place at the pinnacle of Cuenca. The older one dates back to the 11th century. I wonder what it was like then.
Certainly, the valley was uninhabited. The grey houses on the hill must have been the original settlement. The brooding heads would know for sure.

Cuenca is two towns, two ways of life, two different people. Up there on the hill live the mountain people — friendly, open and welcoming, content with their 1,000-year-old life. Down in the valley it is all modern architecture, sloping red-tiled roofs and bright, broad shopping streets.

Up in the hill, every building is a kind of grey that blends into the age old rocks , with tiled roofs of ashen black. It is not just the architecture that is different — for down in the valley you can never feel lonely even in the middle of the night.

People up in the hill are descendants, waiting patiently with old world hospitality.
People living below represent 20th century living, making a business of selling Cuenca. Up there, an ordered glass of wine is proffered with a plate of olives which you chew,  spitting out the seeds on the floor which is swept out at the end of the day. Down below, you get a bit of fish on a toothpick and you don’t spit.

The tourist track in Spain lies on her coast which once was glorious, and is now transplanted with overpopulated bits of other, more opulent countries. The heart of Spain is where hearts should be. Right in the middle; a riddle waiting to be discovered. UNESCO declared Cuenca as a World Heritage Centre in 1996. Last December, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia inaugurated the newest route on Spain’s high speed ‘Ave’ trains, linking Madrid to Valencia with a stop at Cuenca. Though Ave leaves one a considerable distance from Cuenca, there is no doubt that Cuenca now is firmly on the tourist map. Go there before the secret spreads!

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