Much ado – mucho andando

So my last day in Cuenca was meant to be about nothing – a quiet one and then I got a small two hour job to do – my fault I did say I’d pick up emails if urgent. So the morning passed and it wasn’t quite hot enough to go to the pool so given the verbiage was flowing I knocked out a short story for a collection I’ve planned alongside “the novel”. I’d written off the new town of Cuenca down the hill after driving through a few times but thought while I’m here I’d better walk down through the old town and see how it all pans out. It took about half an hour – all down – from the parador to the main shopping/drinking street. I had dinner planned so didn’t want much lunch so a beer and the freeby olives, nuts and crisps sufficed at a couple of bars and it was after four by now. The lower town does not have much to recommend it I’m afraid except for an enthusiastic balcony display commemorating Cuenca’s sunflowers and a little later the lovely strains from the practice rooms of the music academy with its lively (again) Corten steel sculpture.

The northern river Jucar had a bit more water than the Huecar on the parador side and there was a pleasant park and another incredibly modern church the cross of which probably doubles as a cellphone mast, impressive university buildings and a likely looking theatre.

Do I walk back up or get a cab? Seems daft to not walk but it does prove quite steep and there’s more to come later. However the legs make it up beside the Huecar with its little weirs gurgling encouragement to the ancient limbs and I do get a different angle on the hanging houses and the bridge which on my way down I’d heard someone refusing to cross – I guess if you have a height phobia it would be very scary.

Back at the parador I shower and prepare for dinner at Cuenca’s one Michelin starred restaurant Raff San Pedro. Of course it’s up in the old town so the bones creak a bit but the menu makes pain soon forgotten. I explain that with old age I really only need a small amount so the patron suggests the Menu Gastro which has three small starters, a main fish or meat and ice cream. I go for that – and forgive me some have accused earlier blogs of being too full of food but this has to be told. First comes a small golf ball of ajo arriero cod and garlic mixed with potato and with a truffled exterior. Delicate notes of truffle and garlic very well balanced. Next is a wine glass of foamed yogurt with migas the local croutons and jellied extract of artichoke. The third is a wonderfully smooth salmorejo gazpacho’s thicker sister with cucumber and quail’s egg. The main was an old favourite carilleras pig’s cheeks where the meat is so tender because of lying against that great expanse of bone. Accompanied by a local Tempranillo my last day in Cuenca was a huge success and Spain beat Croatia 6-0 so there was happiness in the plaza as I wended my way back down to the parador.

Breakfast, pack and on to Madrid with an easy drive until the last section where the SatNav could not put me outside my hotel despite telling me I’d reached my destination. I had to go into a giant parking garage under Plaza de Independencia and find the hotel on foot with Google maps and then go and retrieve the car and park it in the hotel’s garage. It’s a modern boutique number quite unlike the rest of my trip but very pleasant and in Salamanca an area of the city I didn’t know much before. I do now. It’s very posh (of course) with lots of international and local specialist clothes, shoe and jewellery shops. What I did find was a Galician taberna for lunch which had steamed clams fresh in from A Coruna this morning – and they and the crisp Rias Baixas wine reminded me of our trip two years ago along the north and west coast starting in San Sebastian and ending up in Baiona. Fortified I wandered, keeping to the shady side of the street as it reached 36 degrees today – pleasing the locals as it had been over 40. I walked through areas unfamiliar and familiar, finding another local market on the way and ending up on the far west of the city by the Royal Palace. I sat in front of the Opera thinking one day it would be good to come here during the season and catch a performance. Likewise the Liceu in Barcelona.

I had of course to go through Sol the very heart of Madrid and our favourite plaza Santa Ana before heading through the Retiro Gardens and back to the hotel on Alcala. My feet said enough and there’s a Mexican-Spanish fusion group playing live on the roof terrace tonight so it would be rude not to attend. Besides as I entered my room after an urgent beer in the bar I found this. Salud!

I’ve never been into to the FitBit step thing but today I did think it would be nice to know just how many steps – all as they say andando a pie.

Lunes cerrado – fiesta abierta

As experienced in Toledo – Mondays things are closed – so I decided to travel out into the mountains of Cuenca (La Serrania de Cuenca National Park) and visit a place mentioned in the tourist footage but which we couldn’t use – the enchanted city – much too metaphorical for beginners in English. Fortunately it isn’t closed on Mondays. It’s a bit twee as a name but they also apply this epithet to the old town in Cuenca – La Ciudad Encantada. I suppose this one could have dumbed down and become Rock City because it is an area of the national park in which there are amazing rock formations in the limestone and sandstone topology that have evolved through water and wind erosion. There’s a three kilometre trail, very clearly marked, that takes you past these weird forms which have been categorised on a series of informative plaques in Spanish and English as The Dog, The Bears, the Face, The Roman Bridge, The Lovers of Teruel etc. My favourite was the Elephant and the Crocodile who really do seem to be having a fight.

The first stack you come to

Lover of Teruel x 2

Elephant (right) with trunk in crocodile’s mouth

As I entered a large guided tour was setting off so despite the marked route heading right, I decided to do it in reverse – feasible as it was circular. This proved a much more peaceful alternative as I discovered when I met the group half way. As I exited several more groups were starting out so I think I chose my moment well. The plaques apart from conveying the popular names for the rocks also provided useful notes on the flora and fauna including the fact that holly is an endangered species in Spain – I’ll bring some cuttings next time. After a while I crested a small ridge to confront The Sea of Stone – a limestone pavement that would have had my erstwhile head of geography and geology expert (Dee for those unfamiliar with her past) jumping with joy. I’ve seldom known anyone so excited by memories of a school field trip to the pavement above Malham Cove in Yorkshire! It is quite a sight and this one was impressive too. My visit included my first exposure to a little light rain on this trip – there were plenty of overhangs in the rocks when it got heavier for a minute or two but it didn’t really come to anything until a bit later on in the day.

The sea of stone
Cathedral arch

After a pleasant stroll through an interesting area I decide to explore the mountains a little more and make a semi-circular return to Cuenca. This is real mountain scenery with hairpin bends, low gear sections and spectacular views. It’s the kind of terrain where you often see this sign and think – Oh yeah.

Well on this stretch there had been a rock fall within the last couple of days given the freshness of the markings on the road. There were still yellow road works signs for the guys clearing the rocks off the road.

I drove through the gorge of the river Jucar passing literally gorgeous scenery (sorry) and an extensive reservoir.

Finally after a section marked as ‘Mountain road – no markings’ – great fun and only one vehicle to negotiate in 20 km – the road emerged in the village of Cañete which had some staggering Moorish walls, a market and a bar/restaurant that looked good for lunch. I sat with a beer and some local very strong manchego cheese and homemade chorizo when the heavens opened and the town came rushing in.

It was clear that I was occupying a difficult spot for la padrona to accommodate everyone so I moved to great thanks from the incoming group. As you do, I became involved in conversation thereafter and enquired as to what their tee shirts signified. The women were wearing tops with the slogan ‘La peña de pantocha’. I knew that peña meant an association, society or interest group but I had to enquire what the word pantocha meant – should have learnt more slang in my youth. The ladies burst into laughter and indicated that it was a part of the feminine anatomy where as they put it ‘Entran las pollas, salen los niños’. My conclusion that in English they’d be called the C*** Club had them in complete hysterics with gleeful delight in the matched alliteration. The menfolk were all bearing tee shirts with the legend WILLYS with which I was familiar from a souvenir/craft shop in Palamos a while ago where as a winter gift they had a series of beautifully knitted ‘willy warmers’ ranging from thimble size to truncheon – you decide which to take home. I tried to explain that grammatically their slogans were wrong in that they should either be WILLY’S if they were celebrating one particular member or WILLIES if they were all involved. I spared them the Wilis in Giselle. We were deep into dangerous territory here as I couldn’t accept the free-flowing booze with my car parked opposite under the walls. It transpired that while the fiesta always had a religious element, a few years ago some of them had decided to sex it up a bit with some gender related fun and games so they had a number of contests between the sexes. I hate to think how the evening would have finished – it was quite rowdy when I left at 4.30. But my new friends did pose for a photo as I left. Spike in June babies in Cañete?

The drive back to Cuenca was less spectacular and after frequent checks on progress at the Oval – most satisfactory – I stayed at the parador for dinner and was introduced to a speciality of the area morteruelo which is a paté served warm made from hare, rabbit, partridge and a variety of spices which had a rillette-type texture and was very tasty. I followed it with another local speciality oxtail in red wine sauce and tried a wine denomination I’d never encountered before Uclès. A most acceptable tempranillo.