Days: 4 (8 March 2017)
Total distance travelled: 17,753.17 kilometres (11,026.81 miles)
It was before the sun had risen that we rose on day three in Madrid, our calves, unused to the previous days walking feeling somewhat tight, and our flip flop clad feet definitely feeling the early morning cold as we wandered back downhill towards Atocha station.
Soon, the sky was pink as the pre-dawn glow heralding the suns eventual arrival silhouetted the tall buildings that lined our way.
This was to be our first excursion using our Eurail passes, our destination sitting roughly two hundred kilometres distant, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Cuenca.
It also proved our first rail experience on a fast train, something relatively common in parts of Europe and something I truly wish was implemented within Australia.
An hour or so after departure and the couple hundred kilometres between us and the station outside Cuenca were no more.
Unfortunately for us, the AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola) fast train station, sat roughly six kilometres out of town!
There was a bus that ran every half an hour or so, but we figured we had the time, so despite the soreness in our legs we began to walk, very soon reaching the lovely named road, Camino la Estrella (‘Way of the Stars’, or the ‘Star Way’).
It sounded romantic, but unlike the main highway into the town, this was a gravel track surrounded by plowed fields.
Eventually the still sleepy town of Cuenca was reached, however our goal was further still, the old town which shares its name with the slightly newer university town through which we now strode.
It wasn’t much to behold, still very sleepy despite the hour by now being closer to 10am and looking rather withered and charmless, not something we’d expected from what is apparently a university town.
We finally left it behind, and after crossing one of the two rivers that dissect this city, ahead stood the high ground atop which sat the famous Cuenca of old.
Our views from here gave away little, so we followed an uphill road that sat back across the wrong side of the river, as it is apparently from this side of the water that some of the best views could be had.
We huffed and puffed our way up what was in truth a fairly short incline which left us on the opposite side of the gorge, our way across to town now via a large iron bridge.
From here we were afforded those wonderful views of the old town and its houses as they cling to the cliff face… and it was from here we found the views surprisingly disappointing!
Perhaps it was the high expectations… or the dull light… or perhaps it simply wasn’t that impressive after some of the places we’d seen in our previous twenty month travel extravaganza?
Whatever the reality, it was a somewhat flatter pair (in mood) of travellers we were as we trudged our way across the bridge and into town.
Here narrow, cobbled streets did their best to lift our moods, as we in turn did our best to peer through ancient iron window grates and well weathered wooden doors (okay, so we couldn’t see beyond them unless they were open).
The more famous houses that hugged the cliffs have been turned into abstract art galleries, perhaps in improvement some might say, but for us, not the biggest fans of that art style, a deterrent as weren’t prepared to pay the attached gallery entrance fees.
Obviously we are yet to embrace the fact that we have more disposable cash to spend on this shorter trip than our past travels where we were doing our best to stretch every dollar further than normally possible!
Beyond the galleries, we weren’t long on finding the main cathedral and the plaza on which it sat, and whilst it had an impressive facade and made a much better first impression, we were definitely still nursing something of a church hangover, again from that last trip, that it had to promise something better than average to get us to open the wallet and pay any entrance fee (we poked our head through the door, and this place did not manage that).
Still, the plaza did promise more, as by now I was well and truly ready for breakfast, and if we weren’t going to find something here, where else would it be (the thought of trudging all the way back down to one of the new towns bakeries was not all that pleasant).
In truth, I was eager for something a little more substantial (or warmer, as a hot serve of Churros with hot chocolate never gets old), but aside from one small store selling junk food and a small bar serving cups of strong smelling coffee to locals, the place was devoid of life!
We wandered a few of the adjacent narrow streets, stopped at an elevated perch overlooking the second river in the opposite gorge where we consulted our guidebook (everything it listed was back in the plaza pretty much) and slightly defeated wandered back whence we’d came and into the bar serving the coffees.
It seems we’d done the place a disservice, as once in and after mentioning we were after desayuno (breakfast), we were ushered out the back where the place expanded and was full, possibly with every local in town who also wanted to eat out for their morning meal!
Dos cafe con leche y uno tostada con tomate y queso (two coffees and some tomato and cheese on toast) later, and there was certainly a spring back in my step!
It might have sounded simple, which in truth it was, but the tomato, rather than simply sliced is a delight the way it’s prepared here. Mashed into a paste with a little olive oil, then smeared atop the now crisp bread was something else (okay, so I got pretty excited by that tomato…)
Topside of the town, which basically meant we were further uphill, we checked out the old wall and gate where we also took in the views from atop said walls, before wandering further out of town.
Here there were lovely, unobstructed views of the gorge too our right, as well as back down towards the town.
Suddenly, perhaps as the sun was now a little brighter and sky peppered with a few more patches of blue, we were feeling a little better about this UNESCO World Heritage listed town.
We had a ton of time to kill before our train back to Madrid, or even before we’d need to walk our way back out of town to the station (should we desire to use our legs again), so spying a track from our vantage point atop the walls of the gorge, we decided to use this alternate path to head back into town.
A series of steps took us down, before a path of compact earth, occasionally fenced took us along a level still a long way above the river and valley, but well below the cliffs above.
Somewhere along its course a ruined home, once replete with swimming pool and several stories high was now a shell, but new life had been given to the space as at some time it was utilised as an open air art space, a pair of bright orange figures, one vandalised slightly more than the other (now headless) on display in and around the rubble.
Blossoms were now in bloom, a lovely accompaniment as we snaked our way downwards and towards the town, finally hitting solid stone not far from, but significantly lower than where we’d first crossed the red iron bridge.
From here, the only way was up, so up we went.
A few more tour groups had begun to hit Cuenca by now, but fortunately for us we were content with our explorations, but still flushed with time so we figured it a good time for lunch.
With tables now set up to catch the sun as it crept ever closer, we were again perusing the menu of the same establishment at which we’d breakfasted, only now time was not our friend.
It turns out their menu del dia (menu of the day) was not available for another half hour.
Oh well, we’d best order a wine then… a bottle of wine I mean (see, that’s money far better spent than on an abstract art gallery… unless you’re into that sort of thing)!
Eventually the sun caught us, as did the correct lunch our, so we spent our last hours in Cuenca, wining and dining ourselves (our hosts so happy with our patronage, they even threw in a couple of extra glasses of vino on the house once our bottle had emptied).
In this manner, our time passes swiftly, so it was at a swifter pace than expected that we wandered (perhaps in not as straight a line as we’d first arrived) our way back to the station.
After once again ‘conquering’ the Camino la Estrella, we were swiftly whisked back to Madrid, our day in Cuenca done…
* Our Eurail 2 country passes allowing 6 days of travel within 2 months cost us $96.00AUD per person (a special travel agents rate).
* An additional €16.50 seat reservation fee (per person) was required for our total journey from Madrid to Cuenca return.
* A bus runs from Cuenca station to the new town (€1.20 per person each way), however we decided to keep our money and walk the 6 kilometres into and out of town.