On nature's seat

On nature's seat

On nature's seat

In Spain, life unfolds like an unscripted play, and in Cuenca, 45 minutes by train from Madrid, it frequently explodes with colour and joy! The little town in Central Spain, oft overlooked in a country that suffers from an embarrassment of riches, does not crawl with tourists in search of photo-ops, but with the Spaniards themselves on a relaxing holiday in beautiful surrounds.

Tourists, lured by the startling blandishments of Toledo, Segovia and Avila, also UNESCO World Heritage cities, tend to overlook this shy beauty, virtually on the doorstep of Madrid with its subtle come-hither looks.

Straddling a rocky limestone ridge of a hill, overlooking the poplar and cypress-lined gorges of two rivers, Jucar and Huecar, which flow way, way below, the walled Old Town is a picturesque jumble of colourful houses sculpted into precipitous cliffs. There are 15th-century hanging houses (of which only three remain) that are plastered into the cliff face, and seem to cascade down the slope.

Welcoming signs

In Cuenca, the welcome is as warm as the Spanish sun; a pint of beer costs just one euro, and delicious tapas meals are affordable. Yes, this lovely city is a secret that the Spaniards hug closely to their hearts, so much so that it exudes the untrammelled air of a period stage set, bypassed by time. While the ‘new’ town spreads on the plains below, the Old Town is almost like a still-life painting that frequently comes alive when the Spanish want to indulge in unbridled fun.

Ancient rituals are the name of the game. Want to run with the bulls? You can join in from September 18-21, charge down cobblestone streets with the behemoths and then, come evening, revel in festivities like rock concerts in the square,  or a play held in a church-turned-library — the revelry is lubricated with free-flowing beer, wine and food enough to feed a small army.

On Holy Friday, two days before Easter, processions with 40 gorgeously decorated floats wind their way across the town, including a gigantic wood one of the Last Supper, borne by 66 men, each man groaning under the weight of 35 kg. (So realistic is the tableau that Judas has his face turned away in a show of guilt.)

A life-size statue of Jesus that seems to float God-like above the crowds leads the procession down the web of spaghetti-thin alleys, while drums roll and trumpets blare and members of the 32 Easter brotherhoods (or clubs) parade the streets carrying religious icons. Over 30,000 people participate in the pageant, making Easter week very dramatic in Cuenca.

Cuenca’s origins
As we sipped a local wine in a cafe outside the yellow limestone cathedral, rimmed by colourful Mediterranean-style houses, we pondered on Cuenca’s Moorish origins dating back to the eighth century. After 400 years of Moorish rule, the town was liberated by the Christian King Alfonso VIII in 1177 when he was just 21 years old. He laid a siege for nine months and only 500 people survived.

In fact, Alfonso VIII attributed his victory to the pine wood statue of Virgin Mary that he had carried into battle, and the exquisite 850-year-old figurine, draped in white, still stands in the cathedral. It has been dubbed Virgin of the Battles as it was the monarch’s lucky mascot. On a certain feast day in October, the statue is taken around the cathedral, not outside it, as it is too precious to be taken beyond the sacred precincts.

Cuenca again witnesses pageantry and devotion once in 100 years when the bones of St Julian —the patron saint of the city — that rest in a silver casket in the cathedral, are paraded in the Old Town.

The rich, marbled cathedral with gold leaf chapels and walnut wood-carved ceilings were filled with the soaring voices of a choir as we gazed at an unusual painting of the Virgin Mary feeding baby Jesus. This canvas which oozes pathos and maternal love was considered erotic by the Spanish Inquisition and many similar ones were destroyed. Fortunately, two still remain in the Cuenca cathedral.

Later, we strolled around burnished cobblestone squares in the Old Town, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where a couple of churches and even a prison have been converted into libraries or concert halls; old homes have been transformed into charming cafes and restaurants where tourists mingle with locals and are served by voluptuous raven-haired waitresses and handsome matador-like Spaniards.

Our guide told us how, by the 16th century, Cuenca had become the third biggest town in the country but later slipped into oblivion with some of its monuments falling into disrepair.

In recent times, Cuenca has witnessed some stunning transformations — the parador where we stayed was a seminary till 1975. Part of the state-run chain of high-end historical hotels called paradores, Cuenca’s parador is part-museum and part-luxury hotel.

Its main asset is its spectacular location on a ridge with a view of the seemingly bottomless poplar-and-cypress-lined gorge and rugged cliffs.

At night, the contours of the wind-blasted cliffs seem draped in an almost diaphanous shawl as they were subtly floodlit and the cuticle of a stainless-steel moon hangs like a stranded kite above the stunning cameo, brushed with romance and even an air of menace. In medieval times, misdemeanours were punished summarily — if a criminal got the death penalty, he would be pushed off the cliffs!

Another dramatic turnaround is of the three medieval hanging houses themselves. One section of the former nobleman’s mansion was converted into a restaurant (which is now closed) and a part is the location of the landmark, Spanish Museum of Abstract Art, showcased beautifully amidst the weathered stone.

In the 1960s, isolated Cuenca was the home of many artists — Gerardo Rueda, Antonio Saura, Gustavo Torner, but it was Fernando Zobel, a talented artist and collector, who was the prime mover and shaker to set up the museum.

We browsed the museum — an atmospheric space of white-washed walls, beamed ceilings and stunning views, which seem to enhance the delicate and violent brush strokes of some of Spain’s most celebrated abstract artists.

A painting of Brigitte Bardot by Antonio Saura, a mass of dramatic but amorphous black and white slashes, deeply offended the sex goddess of the 50s and 60s. She protested vociferously, but the two later became good friends.

Abstract art

This was a fertile period in Spain’s abstract art scene, and Cuenca with its rugged topography seemed to inspire them to set up a colony, where they could scale great heights. In fact, a number of small museums and foundations are tucked into the neighbouring buildings.

We explored a modern art collection set up in a former convent, spread over four floors. Antonio Perez, an 82-year-old Anthony Quinn look-alike, who was a friend of the Spanish artists, has amassed this collection, and like most Cuenca’s friendly locals, posed affably with us for photographs.

On our last evening, we dined at La Bodeguilla de Basilio, an intimate, atmospheric restaurant studded with the photographs of the owner posing with various celebrities. Farming implements and photographs of old Cuenca adorned the other walls, while the crowded bar hummed with the conversation and laughter of locals enjoying a drink.

We savoured a spectrum of local fare ranging from Castilian soup, a game meat pâté, grilled sardines, baby squid with salad and lamb chops, and washed them down with a coffee liqueur.

Owner Basilio Lozuo insisted on posing with us for a photograph, which he said would go up on his wall. We promised him that we would return to check it out!