Overshadowed by Toledo, Cuenca like much of Castilla-La Mancha is not considered 'sexy' but is more synonymous with the rustic Spain of olive trees, Don Quixote and whitewashed windmills - and the pleasures of art and food.
Looking across a vast gorge to Cuenca's Museum of Abstract Art (Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol), it quickly becomes clear that the real art is not necessarily hanging on the walls.
Perched precariously above the Huecar gorge, the museum resides in one of the city's distinctive hanging houses (Casas Golgadas), making it possibly the most dramatically-sited art venue you're ever likely to set foot in.
The museum contains a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures by Spanish artists from the 1950s to 1990s but it's hard not to be drawn to the windows which offer gravity-defying views looking down the gorge and the river below.
At one point a staffer asks if I'm enjoying the museum and for a moment I hesitate before telling her: "I like what is hanging on the walls but I can't take my eyes away from looking out the windows.'' She smiles a knowing smile, having heard this many times before.
The artworks also tell an interesting story, one of subversion during Franco's reign. Many of the works from artists like Munoz, Tapies, Sempere and Serrano found a refuge in the museum from the dictator's troops and were left alone due to their oblique composition. The canvases and sculptures are largely sober and serious pieces, sometimes with dramatic flourishes of colour, conveying the bleak and violent nature of the era.
As I leave the museum, with its balconies poking out over the gorge, it's clear that "hanging'' is an art form in Cuenca. The city, often nicknamed the "Eagle's Nest'', earned a UNESCO listing in 1996 for the unique Casas Golgadas in addition to the preservation of the medieval old town, which dates back to the 12th century, and for possessing Spain's first Gothic cathedral.
Tourists sometimes overlook such the city because of its isolation but this is changing thanks to a high-speed rail connection from Madrid.
Isolation is also one of Cuenca's attractions. It's among the reasons why the Moors held the city from 714 until 1177 when they were finally conquered by King Alfonso's Christian soldiers. For travellers it helps to make Cuenca easy on the wallet, where living is relaxed and inexpensive compared to Spain's pricey larger cities.
Whether it's walking the streets of Cuenca's Ciudad Antigua (the old town) or exploring further afield through the forests, gorges and rivers, the area's countryside is a mix of contrasts. The forests are home to wild boar and foxes while the mountains showcase birds of prey such as imperial eagles, vultures and peregrine falcons.
No surprise then that the regional cuisine offers plenty of game alongside many old school classics. Garlic soup (Sopa de ajo), wild mushrooms (setas) in garlic and white wine sauce and manchego cheese turn up on most tapas menus but specialties like morteruelo, a stew of game meats melded with assorted spices, are not to be missed.
My final night distilled what I treasured most about the charm of this city perched on a craggy peak.
Dining in the old town under the glow of Cuenca's atmospheric uplighting, I enjoy a languorous meal as older folk chat and laugh at a nearby table.
Glamorous twenty-somethings stroll past to become the evening's entertainment for the cafes and bars. This people watching `parade' continues well into the night.
On my plate is Pisto, a Spanish version of ratatouille, with the reds of the peppers and yellows of the garlic and onions resembling the colours of the Spanish flag. After a searingly hot day, a fresh wind is blowing from the mountains and I am happily washing down dinner with a crisp, cold pilsner. Locked in the grip of this gastronomic rhapsody I gaze across the cobblestones to the haunting Gothic cathedral and enjoy the sheer conviviality of Cuenca. All of this has cast a romantic view of this city which I still can't shake off.
IF YOU GO:
From Madrid, a high-speed AVE train takes about 50 minutes from Atocha station to Cuenca. Details: renfe.es
Cuenca's Museum of Abstract Art (Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol) opens Tuesday to Sunday. Entry is €3 euros (NZ$4.75).
MORE INFORMATION:By James Lane