After a leisurely breakfast and checkout, I head off to the east towards Belmonte where I plan to stay the night as the parador deal doesn’t work on Saturdays and Belmonte has a good looking hotel. As I bowl along I’m caught by a sign to Campo de Criptana – another amazing hill of windmills where Dee and I had also gone at the New Year some while back. When the Don calls … So I am soon, after a coffee and churro in town – yes I know it’s supposed to be chocolate y churros – parking at the top of the hill and walking down to the fabulous array of molinos. Being right on the edge of town makes it quite a different experience from Consuegra. They are fine structures and well maintained – glad I followed the call.
Back now on to the N420 that crosses the east centre of Spain from Cordoba to Tarragona, Because of the extensive network of motorways (autovia non-toll as opposed to the autopista where you do have to pay) the road is empty and a delightful drive. Behind me the centre of Castilla La Mancha had been as flat as a pancake. Now as I enter the province of Cuenca it starts to ruffle up around the edges like an omelette undulating in the pan. After several miles it’s more like a soufflé or a meringue with some serious peaks arriving. I reach Belmonte and, my goodness, it’s got a castle rather splendid with a six point star shape and some windmills behind the town. These haven’t been painted glistening white and probably are nearer to historical accuracy. There are also impressive medieval walls around the town.
The hotel is welcoming and has rooms named after famous folk so I am placed in Pedro 1 who I discovered was the last king of Castille-La-Mancha and was called both the Cruel and the Just – well there is the old saying about being kind. The hotel occupies a great building, is a popular meeting place for the town and serves a good local craft beer. It also had a clothes horse of the kind I haven’t seen for years. Had to hang clothes on that.
What I hadn’t checked was that Belmonte was celebrating its fiesta patronal which involved a lots of singing, dancing and drinking on Saturday and on Sunday a procession for the Virgin of Grace. So I watched England beaten by Spain to the delight of the locals – I had to admit Spain were the better team although ‘we was robbed’ at the end. I then joined the revellers at the local brass band’s recital and then at a series of sets by a band I can only describe as Latino heavy rock. They were fun, people dressed up and danced but they did go on until 04:30.
I had retired by then but not to much sleep! On the way east the weather had changed and once the music stopped I was woken by thunder. It rumbled around but produced no rain which is good as two days ago in a town near Toledo I saw on the news cars being swept down the street in flash floods. It was called Cebolla = Onion Town.
I decided to make straight for Cuenca knowing I’d be too early to check in but did manage to park and store my cases before setting off to explore the town. On the way I was surprised to drive through field after field of sunflowers. Google later helpfully informed me that round about a third of all Spain’s sunflowers grow in the province. But oh what would Vincent say? In 1997 Dee and I drove her mum through south west France where she loved the field after field of shoulder high sunflowers. In Cuenca they are still very striking bout only about two feet (less than a metre) high. Just not the same but much more efficient I’m sure.
I’ve bored some people already with the story of why I wanted to come to Cuenca. About 25 years ago I made an English language teaching video about two students on exchange between Brighton and Cuenca which seem to both be favourite places in the ELT universe. Thing is we shot several scenes purporting to be in Cuenca without me ever going there. It was all done by the wonders of blue screen (not green in those days) and Ultimatte a clever keying device that allowed library footage from the Tourist Office in Cuenca to play behind action in the studio. So having seen only the bits they wanted me to see I was intrigued to visit the place myself. It’s defined by a massive gorge – not a high frequency occurrence word of much value to learners, but it did have lots of steps which helped with counting – well beyond the required 100!
It didn’t disappoint – the gorge reminded me of Ronda which also has a parador perched on its edge (the converted convent on the left is Cuenca’s) but there was a rather flimsy-looking iron and wood bridge to cross into the old city. Most of the tourist footage was of this bit rather than the undistinguished modern city far below. There are some famous medieval hanging houses which I’d seen on film but are stunning to the eye and by a miracle are now the Museum of Modern Spanish Abstract Art.
It has some very impressive examples: Chillida, Tapies, Miro among them and some fine works by artists I didn’t know. Being inside the building was great too as some of the original features remain and the view from the balconies is vertiginous.
Moving on, the Plaza Mayor and Catedral were familiar from the footage although the signage and slogans are a bit more modern, Right at the top the castle had featured with a scene in front of it which had proved a vehicle for the past tense. For me it proved the turning point for me to stop exploring – all up so far – and seek some lunch.
I might not have fetched up where I did in a previous visit (!) but found a bar in the main square near the cathedral with some local craft beer I thought I’d try – the bottle came and it was 7%, serious beer, but as so often with high alcohol content too sweet for my tooth so I stuck at the one there and had a more refreshing Alhambra on the way back to check in.