Poised between earth and sky, this small mountaintop city is as improbable as it is beguiling. Moorish soldiers constructed it in 714 on a high limestone spur surrounded by 15-story gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, which converge here. The Moors assumed that their fortification could command every strategic pass between the mountains and the plains of La Mancha. They were right—until Alfonso VIII of Castilla came marching up the hill in 1177. Only a crumbling wall and the Arco de Bezudo remain from the Muslim fortress, but the Christian conquerors shoehorned wonderful Gothic and Renaissance palaces into the medieval street plan. Under Christian rule, Cuenca filled with convents and monasteries. It has always been a place where passion and contemplation walk hand in hand, where the life of the mind meets the unlikely realities of geography.

Although the city hemorrhaged population during and after the Spanish Civil War, it never lost its dramatic appearance as a hilltop fantasy of angular vertical buildings built right to the edges of the gorges. (It is known for its dramatic casas colgadas,or “hanging houses,” that are cantilevered over the gorges.) The Spanish abstract artists of El Grupo Paso (formed in 1957) discovered Cuenca’s abstract jumble of angles and peculiar tricks of light, and many relocated here for at least part of the year. Like their art, Cuenca is a city that is more about gesture than image, vector than target, and about finding a place where creativity can take root. The legacy of the art scene has meant more art museums per capita than any other place in central Spain. Simultaneously romantic and artistic, Cuenca became a favorite getaway for middle-class Madrileños even before high-speed rail cut the travel time to less than an hour.

Where to Eat

Cuenca’s cuisine owes as much to the mountains east of the city as to the plains of La Mancha on the west. Wild game and foraged mushrooms figure prominently, and virtually every eatery offers two Cuenca specialties: morteruelo (a pâté of rabbit, partridge, ham, pork liver, pine nuts, clove, and caraway), and ajoarriero (a creamy pâté of potato, flaked codfish, oil, and garlic). Both are usually spread on bread or toast as a starter, and one serving makes a fine appetizer for two people. Since this is sheep country, lamb appears on most menus. If you’re adventurous, try the zarajos, or grilled lamb intestines, sometimes translated on the English menu as “lamb tripe.” Chewy and richly flavored, they’re usually served coiled like a ball of yarn around a grapevine shoot.

Exploring Cuenca

The new city that puddles at the base of Cuenca is of limited interest to travelers apart from its bus and train stations. Plan to spend your entire time in the old town, a vertical fantasy where medieval foundations have accreted Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance upper stories. The sharp angles and exposure to the high-altitude sun give the physical city the look of a cubist puzzle. In fact, spending time in Cuenca feels very much like inhabiting an abstract modern painting.