Spain: Lofty and imperious isolation

By James Lane

Spain's hanging houses and galleries captivate James Lane long after he leaves them behind.

The 'Eagle's Nest' of Cuenca. Photo / Supplied
The 'Eagle's Nest' of Cuenca. Photo / Supplied

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 colgadas), making it possibly the most dramatically located 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 of 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 the windows".

She smiles a knowing smile, having heard this many times before.

The artworks also tell an interesting story, one of subversion during the reign of Francisco Franco.

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 colgadas 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.

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. Tourists sometimes overlook much of 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. Today, Cuenca is easy on the wallet. Living is inexpensive and relaxed compared to Spain's pricey larger cities.

You can walk the streets of Cuenca's Ciudad Antigua (the old town) or explore further afield through the area's forests, gorges and rivers.

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 medieval city perched on a craggy peak.

Dining in the old town under the glow of Cuenca's atmospheric uplighting, I enjoyed a languorous meal as older folk chatted and laughed at a nearby table.

Glamorous 20-somethings strolled past to become the evening's entertainment for the cafes and bars. This people-watching "parade" continued well into the night.

On my plate was 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 blew from the mountains and I happily washed down dinner with a crisp, cold beer.

Locked in the grip of this gastronomic rhapsody, I gazed across the cobblestones to the haunting Gothic cathedral and enjoyed the sheer conviviality of Cuenca.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily out of Auckland and connects direct to Madrid from Hong Kong. From Atocha Station in Madrid, a high-speed AVE train takes about 50 minutes to reach Cuenca.

Accommodation: Cuenca has a range of accommodation, from a luxurious parador (Parador de Cuenca) to hotels to budget-price hostels. The Posada San Jose is a charming hotel in the heart of the city. It's a converted convent dating from the 15th century and offers excellent views overlooking the Huecar Gorge and river.

Further information: Cuenca's Museum of Abstract Art (Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol) opens Tuesday to Sunday.


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