There are situations in our life when we just cannot control anymore what is going on around us. No matter how hard we try, the circumstances can make one to make difficult decisions. Sometimes we exactly plan or know the deadlines of our stays abroad, sometimes we just jump into the jungle of life and see what happens without any limits - both of them have their own magic and challenge within.
My time in Spain rather began like the second one, because I did not have a clear vision about my future in Valencia after finishing my studies. Maybe for the first time in my life, I put an extremely high effort and tried everything possible (and impossible) to stay in the country - regardless inflation, war, pandemic, unemployment and of course, being a foreigner.
During my long months in Valencia, I had been a travelling journalist, a sound assistant, a tour guide, a rockstar, a marketing expert, a customer support assistant, a translator, a real estate agent and was involved in many other things until I realized that this chapte of my life - at least for the moment - is over.
Knowing that the end is coming in the way is indeed a relief sometimes. You can just manage and appreciate better the time you have left, and I did the same for my last two weeks in order to sum up my Valencian life with its very best: with bachata, salsa, tango, playing the guitar, biking, revisiting my favourite places and certainly with a lot of memories on the beach.
It was also unimaginable to me not to have a nice farewell before leaving Spain, so I had to think about the destination of my last trip. After asking some locals, it was not a question that my choice will be the beautiful and extraordinary city of Cuenca in the region of Castilla-La Mancha.
I mentioned it a lot in my previos articles that although I enjoyed most of the places I visited in Spain a lot, I had been searching for the classical, archetypical Spain that usually exists in our imagination.
Since the region of Valencia is very special and outstanding in the country with its rivers, forests, seaside, vegetation, swamps and the lake of Albufera, I had to move somewhere else to find this classical picture we know mostly from the books and movies.
For the last couple of years I am not really into stereotypes, but I always like comparing the cultural impact of a country and the reality beyond. So far, I could see a little bit of these vibes on my trip to Madrid, but thanks to Cuenca, I could finally meet the Spain I was looking for during my very last days.
Castilla-La Mancha, one of the largest provinces of Spain may sound familiar to everyone for one single reason: this is the province where the famous lunatic knight, Don Quijote de la Mancha comes from in the novel of Miguel de Cervantes, and I could already see some paper figurines on the top of the hills around Cuenca: they represented Don Quijote, his horse, Rocinante, and his loyal companion, Sancho Panza.
The deserted area looked exactly like in the adaptations of the story, and the only thing missing was the traditional, white windmills that Don Quijote was fighting with. I could find them in the souvenir shops, but not in the fields, until I learned that they are rather located in other parts of the region like Campo de Criptana, where the visitors can still see ten of them dedicated to different topics (museum of wine, museum of poetry, etc.)
Nevertheless, the deserted area really resembled the landscape of some romantic Spanish adventure, and I understood why the name of La Mancha coming from Arabic roots mean something like ‘land with no water’.
The slopes, open fields, pastures and incredible rocks reminded me not only to the world of old novels, but also to some Western movies, and it turned out that I was right about that: many movies of the so-called Spaghetti Western genre were shot in such regions of Spain, because these places had a climate and a nature very similar to the original North-American continental landscape.
You might have heard about Italian composer Ennio Morricone and director Sergio Leone: the two collaborated in dozens of Western movies, and they made many of them in Spain. Carlo Pedersoli, the Italian actor who became extremely popular under the name Bud Spencer with his permanent partner, Terence Hill (Mario Girotti) also shot some of their most famous Western pieces in the country.
The interesting thing is the fact that regardless the Spanish countryside and the frequent American themes (appearing also in their comedies) the two actors reached their greatest success not in the cinema, but among the TV viewers of Germany, Italy and Hungary.
However, Cuenca also became famous for more interesting reasons than the rest of La Mancha, and it has such a remarkable historical centre and city view that they were introduced in the list of the UNESCO World Heritage program.
Before going to see the greatest sights of the city, I recommend you to walk down in the valley, in the modern streets of the city, where you can really experience the typical life of a Spanish settlement which is far away from the coastline, in the heart of the land.
The buildings such as theaters, town halls, palaces, squares, museums and other monuments already create a unique atmosphere, and I felt that I was walking in Cosenza, Catanzaro or some South-Italian cities I know. I thought that more or less that was all, and besides the most famous location I had yet to see, I was not going to find anything else.
Fortunately I was wrong, and I discovered very soon that Cuenca was built on such a way, that a long time ago it was founded as a fortification on the top of the mountains: then, during the centuries, it was slowly expanding downwards, into the valley, and that is why the contemporary part of the city is relatively plain.
It also meant that if I wanted to see the old town, I had to climb the hills until the top in order to find the ancient castle walls and the view that made Cuenca worldwide famous for lovers of history and architecture.
While walking in the valley, I could also meet an old friend from my previous trips: river Júcar, that flows nearby as well as river Huécar that both contributed a lot in carving the countryside in the shape how one can see it today.
Besides the craftwork of the nature, the greatest miracle of Cuenca is the art of the architects and craftsmen who created the amazing churches, stone walls and meandering streets of the old town.
Like a castle hill from the fairy tales, Cuenca has a picturesque panorama both from the inside and the distance, while the traditional old houses, with their windows like hundreds of eyes, are planted right on the rocks.
The different levels of the city are built upon each other like terraces or stairs, and one has to admit that maybe it seems less comfortable to live in such a place, but this structure makes the city a hidden treasure of the Mediterranean culture. A city that remained in the past and does want to remain there forever in a good sense.
One of the most impressive views is the one that you can get if you just arrive to the top and watch the town houses ‘hanging’ in the air on the other side of the gap, while there are endless cedar and pine forests, giant rocks, cliffs, seprentines and enormous canyons accompanied by some nice view spots.
You should probably check out El Mirador de la Hoz (‘Viewer of the Sickle’), which is a nice hill top to observe the whole area with golden fields, green woods, brown deserts and blue hills in the far away.
Cuenca is a perfect combination of intact nature, the silence of the countryside and the mesmerizing history of the centuries, and it is the place where you would go even without a clear plan in your head: you can just improvise, explore and inhale a little bit of the remarkable spirit of the streets.
To be honest, I needed some time to find the number one sights of the city, and none of my orientation skills, navigation tools or Spanish knowledge helped me. The problem was not that I could not find my way, but somehow I imagined Las Casas Colgadas ('Hanging Houses'), the most famous buildings to see a little bit differently.
After all the posters and touristic photos I had seen before, I thought that somehow it would be easier to get an access to these houses, but it turned out that actually the most beautiful view of them can be seen from the other side of the valley, where you can also see a bridge (Puente de San Pablo) and a monostory (Antiguo Convento de San Pablo).
If you try to reach Casas Colgadas from the old town, you cannot really see the beauty of these tall, vertical houses, that look a little bit like the palaces of Venice - however, instead of sea lagoons and islands, here the buildings are standing on rocks, on the top of a wasteland.
One of them is called Casa de la Sirena ('Siren’s House'), while there are two others called Casas del Rey ('King’s Houses'). The houses, serving as the hosts of the Museum of Abstract Art nowadays, got their names based on a urban legend: namely, that there were Spanish kings who used the houses as summer palaces, which turned out to be false - yet it remained in the local tradition.
This area is full of nice streets to explore with many authentic buildings, and because of some special reason, there are many ceramic shops and exhibitions everywhere.
I asked the shopkeepers and the dwellers about it, and apparently there is no closer connection between Cuenca and this kind of craft art, because it is a general phenomenon to use amazing ceramic tiles (azulejos), homemade chapels, statues of saints and other decorations on the walls everywhere all around Spain.
Apart from the hill, there are many other view spots in the city: one of them is the Mirador de la Ronda just next to the Hanging Houses, but the one I highly recommend to you is close to a very ancient square, Plaza Mangana.
This is the square which is heart of the very first settlement, that used to be known as Conca throughout the Arabic times; besides the walls of the fortress, there are remains of other important buildings, just like the synagogue of the city.
If you go towards Torre de Mangana, an elegant and genuine tower of the city, you will get one of the most spectacular panoramas on the area, which is almost as magnificent as the one from the hills.
Actually, it may not be fair to compare the different views we can experience, because they all give us something additional by showing another face of Cuenca.
The best is to check them one by one, and I can guarantee you that it will be a hard choice to vote for your favourite one, because all of them are special and all of them reach that differently. Maybe that is the reason why Cuenca had been inhabited since the very ancient, even the prehistoric times, and there are many archeological findings in this enchanting territory.
What is more, apparently dinosaurs were also huge fans of Castilla-La Mancha, and there were so many fossils found in the area, that a Museum of Paleontology (Museo Paleontológico) was also established in the city.
I remember that I could somehow see some huge models of dinos in the distance, and I do not want to say that the child was not awakening inside me - the last time when I was relatively close to visit such places was once in Bled, Slovenia and when I was next to Krasiejów, Poland.
Unfortunately I never entered any of these parks in other countries, neither in Spain, and the only dinosaur I could observe was the skeleton of a raptor in a museum in Valencia and the figurine of another one at the Cuenca railway station.
Although this city has many amazing arcs, bastilons and castle walls, Cuenca is not only a place famous for its fortification and the Casas Colgadas, but also due to being a centre of the church. If you get to the main square (Plaza Mayor) of the old town, you will think for a moment surely that you see the famous Notre-Dame of Paris.
It means that you have just found the cathedral of Cuenca (La Catedral de Santa María y San Julián), one of the most important and eldest cathedrals in Spain built in the same Gothic style as its famous French sister. On the left from this decorative, gorgeous facade you will also see the Bishop’s Palace (Palacio Episcopial), which is obviosuly even more fascinating if you can enter its gates and explore its rooms.
However, I have to admit that my personal favourite was La iglesia de San Pedro, because its appearance indeed caught something original from the vibes of catholic architecture in Southern Europe.
If you think that Cuenca is only about castles, fortresses, towers, rocks, stones and churches, you still have to dive deeper in the local culture: that is how I discovered one of the most traditional meals coming from the area of La Mancha.
It is called mojete manchego (which could be translated more or less as ‘soup from La Mancha’), a delicious starter with onion, tuna, tomato, eggs, olives, olive oil and some spices served cold.
Then I also realized that stew (in Hungarian: pörkölt) is not an unknown course here in the continental part of Spain. It is called estofado and can be cooked from beef or pork for instance, and if one thinks about the fact that Cuenca lies far from the sea, it is not a big surprise that seafood and fish are not so much included in the local cuisine as in Valencia for instance.
I also owe you with describing some Spanish meals that are popular all around the country but I forgot to mention them earlier: one of them is empanada (literally: ‘breaded’), a bakery product that you can find almost in every bakeries in Spain, and it is perfect for breakfast, dinner or even as a snack (tapas) in the afternoon.
It can be filled with various ingredients such meat, spinach, cheese or even some sweet jams. They may be small or huge, and their key idea is a little bit similar to French croissant, Italian calzone and ravioli, Polish pierogi, Mongolian khuushuur or Hungarian derelye - the method of the production is a bit different though.
Another unforgettable meal is something that I had already tried back then in Barcelona many years ago, churros, which is a famous Spanish dessert (postre) that people usually eat with hot chocolate. Sometimes (and it is my favourite) this long, snake-like peaces of sweet dough are even covered with chocolate, and you just have to eat them as they are. Natillas de Leche is also something I did not know before: it looks like a custard with cinnamon and a biscuit on the top.
The wonders of Spanish gastronomy could be certainly listed forever - for instance, I myself have never tried turrón, a very popular and well-known sweet which looks like a cookie and includes honey and eggs; however, its big secret is mainly the almond or some sort of nuts which are put inside this food.
It barely happens to me that I plan a journey and the result is even better than how I had expected it. I am already here in my own room back in Hungary, and I am still grateful that I finally chose Cuenca to be my very last individual trip, and I bring only wonderful memories from there.
I could get the very best of the type of Spanish culture I am interested in, and the best is the fact that this whole thing, also reminded me after a very long time why I had started traveling around Europe and living in many different countries.
Maybe Cuenca is a quite small town for a long adventure, but somehow I hope that the time will come when I can visit it with someone else again - or if not, there are thousand of genious locations in the Earth, and, unlike others, I prefer not to write such stressful and commercial things as a bucket list.
This list of marvelous destinations would never finish anyway, and you never know if you will plan your next journey, or it will find you before you would even have the chance to hear about it.
I also have to keep in mind that besides the places I would like to see again and the ones I am dreaming about, my life always crosses paths of some new people with whom we usually invite each other, and these are the surprises that are also out of our control.
By the way, I have seen it recently that (as it is typical for Latin-American cities) there is another Cuenca in Ecuador, just as there is another Valencia and another Barcelona too, both in Venezuela. Who knows - maybe I will end up somewhere over there, near the Andes, Amazonas, Orinoco, La Plata or the Pampas someday…