The Hanging Houses of Cuenca, Spain take the phrase “living on the edge” to extremes. Built in the 15th century atop rocky cliffs, the homes extended the town to its geographical limits. Las Casas Colgadas, as the structures are known in Spanish, seem suspended in both time and place. Some feature wooden balconies that jut perilously over a river set deep within a gorge. Enjoying a morning coffee here must have been a truly exhilarating experience for the residents, with nothing but air and a few planks of wood beneath their feet.
The best vantage point for viewing Cuenca’s hanging houses is the Bridge of Saint Paul. This iron pedestrian bridge was constructed in 1902 and spans the length of the gorge. It leads to a 16th century convent which has been reincarnated as a luxury hotel and clings to the opposite cliff.
The most famous complex of hanging houses now serves as the Cuenca Spanish Museum of Abstract Art. Some of the original interior features have been retained, but mostly the space has been done over to showcase the permanent collection of paintings and sculptures. The modern artworks make quite a contrast to the medieval architecture!
Cuenca’s other big attraction is its cathedral. Located in the old town’s main square, Cuenca Cathedral has been at the center of local life since the 12th century. Although little remains of the original Romanesque church, the interior is a striking combination of architectural styles from the last 600 years. Special features include ornate twin pipe organs, kaleidoscopic stained glass windows, a heated chapel, and impressively detailed ceilings. An audio guide is included with the entry ticket, but I found the amount of information overwhelming.
Special treasures are on display in the Cuenca Diocesan Museum. There are over 200 pieces in the collection and much of it came from the cathedral treasury. Artworks range from tapestries and carpets to wooden sculptures and polychrome wall panels. The basement vault holds priceless gold and silver monstrances along with several paintings by El Greco. One of the more interesting artifacts is a copy of the holy sheet which was made in Turin, Italy. If you want to visit both the cathedral and museum, it’s best to buy a combination ticket.
During the Middle Ages, the Moors controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula. They built a fortress called Kunka on a defensive position above a river and fortified the town that grew around it. Even though the Spanish took over the town – renamed Cuenca – in the 12th century, little of the layout was altered. Cuenca is so well-preserved that it’s been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Part of the Moorish fortress still stands and acts as an entrance gate to the old town. The views of Cuenca from up here are exceptional – so long as you aren’t looking directly into the sun like I was.
Cuenca’s old town is a delightful place to wander. Steep cobbled streets snake between brightly-painted buildings and old stone churches. Alleys are just as likely to end in a quiet square as a cliff-top viewpoint. Ask a friendly local to point you in the direction of the cathedral if you get lost.
It is easy to plan a Cuenca day trip from Madrid. High-speed trains travel from Madrid’s Atocha Station to Cuenca in just under one hour. Once in Cuenca, you can take a local bus to Plaza Mayor in the old town; pick up the return bus on the opposite side of the square. The ride to the station takes about 30 minutes.