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Cuenca: Hanging around an enchanting city

The hanging houses in Cuenca, one of Spain's most dazzling smaller cities, seem to grow from the cliff.

dennis bock The Globe and Mail

If you've ever had the good fortune to live in Spain, as I had in my younger days, you will have heard of Cuenca. You will have heard that it sits serenely, high above the confluence of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, on a steep tongue of limestone barely a hundred metres wide. And that it is so seamlessly rooted to the cliffs it sits on that there comes a point at which the town, as if in a swelling of pride, reaches out over the edge into thin air, leaving its houses hanging over the abyss.

You may also have heard of the disproportionate abundance of art galleries; and the characterful bars and cafés and eccentric cuisine (lamb intestine is a local specialty). You may even know of the shy trout streams and weird and fantastic rock formations of the Enchanted City that grace the nearby mountain range, the Serrania de Cuenca - and still never have found the time to head out this way and have a look. And it would have been a shame.

So recently, on a cloudless Wednesday morning, an old friend drove me from the capital to this fabled under-visited city, halfway between Madrid and Valencia. This friend, being from Madrid, had been here many years before. Had in fact spent the coldest night of his life here as a 20-year-old, he told me, too poor (or adventurous) to spring for a hotel. He assured me that it was a beautiful city and I'd have a great time as long as I got a place to stay.

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"Check," I said, my days of sleeping rough in train stations long behind me. I was, happily, booked into the elegant 63-room Parador, a converted 16th-century convent that sits opposite the city on the southeast ridge of the Huécar gorge.

Stone for stone, Cuenca is one of Spain's most dazzling smaller cities. It is rivalled only by Andalusia's whitewashed Ronda (a sister city, not surprisingly, for its cliff-sitting perspectives) and Toledo, an hour south of Madrid. Originally established as a defensive outpost by the Muslim Arabs in the 700s, it is split by a single-lane street out from which, reaching like ribs spreading north and south, cobbled laneways give suddenly onto spectacular views. It is - this long, narrow, walking city - a sort of open-air gallery of surprising and spectacular vistas.

Griffon vultures and hawks hung in the updraft over the gorge that first afternoon, and, scattered along the banks of the Huécar far below, I watched the hocinos - the people who live and tend their gardens in the microclimate of the valley - lifting their picks and shovels in the sun. A present-day activity every bit as old, and probably older, than the stone and brick balcony I was standing on.

It's difficult to pull yourself away from such cliff-gazing. But after the drive from Madrid and the hours treading those steep gorgeous streets, pausing and starting up again, I was ready for a meal.

I hoofed it down to the narrow Calle del Agua, in the new town, where I found the wonderful La Bodeguilla de Basilio.

I sidled up to the bar top and ordered a cold beer, expecting little more than the requisite dish of olives as accompaniment. Spain, it must be said, isn't what it used to be when it comes to tapas. But I was happy to learn not everything changes; that here you can eat, and eat well, for the price of a pint of lager at a typical Canadian pub. What came that evening, as a tapa, was a generous plate of jamon serrano , roasted potatoes and garden salad; a fried quail egg, half a baguette, and a bowl of summer gazpacho sharp enough to scare the life back into the weariest traveller. When the lamb cutlets appeared later on a bed of white coals sprinkled with smouldering rosemary, the bar was suddenly perfumed with the rich tones of Easter mass.

The following day, after a tour through the well-represented Museum of Spanish Abstract Art (said to be the best regional gallery in the country, and situated in one of the city's famous hanging houses), I decided to visit the Enchanted City, the nature reserve studded with fantastic rock formations 35 kilometres to the north. Higher up in the Serrania, I found the source of the Cuervo River, one of the many that trickle forth from these mountains. I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking, sipping from the crisp, clear stream, and working up a serious appetite.

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Canadian restaurateur Jennifer Cortinas, originally of Montreal, has lived in Cuenca since 1975 and run, with her husband since 1983, the beautiful and intimate Posada de San Jose, the 22-room restaurant/hotel in the heart of the casco antiguo . The Posada is a handsomely restored cultural landmark in which, it is said, painter Diego Velazquez stayed during frequent visits with his adult daughter; and, according to lore, where he may have painted Las Meninas , now hanging at the Prado in Madrid. (There is, in fact,

a room and a door here that look very much like those in the painting.)

That evening, after my hike, I was seated near a window (again, that view!) and introduced to Cortinas. She was gracious but rushed. A party of 30 was just being seated. So I dispensed with the questions I'd hoped to ask about why she had chosen this town to live in, and the obvious love and care she had put into this memorable establishment. I decided to let the evening unfold as it would.

I started with the pimientos de Padron , the sweet and nutty thumb-sized peppers whose spicy bite occurs at random in only about one in 10. I scanned the menu. Something else, I thought, after all that fresh country air.

And there they were, zarajos , roasted lamb intestine wrapped around two vine shoots - apparently, impossibly, savoured in these parts. But it's all a matter of perspective, I told myself.

Jennifer took my order without a blink and quickly I settled into the pleasing vibe. Only a room away, one of Spain's greatest visual artists had painted his enduring masterpiece. (I was happy to take this as historical truth now.) My peppers came, lightly fried in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. I studied them, wondering which of the many would deliver the mouth-watering, fiery surprise.

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Among tables of Spaniards, I waited, delighted that I had finally visited this beautiful city and province, and that, unlike my friend who had spent that cold night here so many years before, I had a deep comfortable bed to welcome me at the end of my day.

I rinsed my mouth with a sip of beer, anticipating my zarajos , and bravely went in for my first pepper.


If you go

Getting there Air Transat flies to Barcelona, Malaga and Madrid from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Air Canada flies from Toronto to Madrid. Four trains leave daily from Atocha station in Madrid to Cuenca. The approximately two-hour ride costs $17, tourist class.

Where to stay Parador Nacional Subida San Pablo S/N; (34) 969-232-320;; from $247. Posada de San Jose Julián Romero 4; (34) 969-211-300;; from $114.

Where to eat La Bodeguilla de Basilio Calle del Agua 8; (34) 969-235-274. Posada de San Jose As above.

Where to go Museo de Arte Abstracto Español Casas Colgadas, 16001 Cuenca; (34) 969-212-983; Enchanted City In the Serrania de Cuenca Nature Reserve.

Dennis Bock is the author of The Communist's Daughter .

Special to The Globe and Mail

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