19th-21st June 2015
The journey from Cordoba to Cuenca was an ordeal and what made it so was the airport style security at both Cordoba and Madrid and the unbelievable number of people at the train stations. Our bikes had to be folded and put through the baggage x-ray machine. My Leatherman was again a problem so I opened it to look like a pair of pliers and placed it under a spanner in the bike repair kit. To my relief the disguise worked and it passed through security unnoticed.
High speed trains mostly do not utilise regional train platforms. A large portion of the high-speed network is a completely purpose-built system and at these specially built stations everything is sterile and lacking in character.
The reason why the rail authorities in Spain are paranoid about security is probably because in March 2004 bombs detonated by Spanish Islamic militants, believed to have links with Al Qaeda, killed 191 travellers and injured 1800. Serious security on Spanish trains only applies to high-speed services and not the regional trains.
The reason we visited Cuenca was to see the famous Hanging Houses as in the 1980s I made a ceramic building based on one of them. The house I was particularly interested in was one sitting on the edge of the Huecar River Gorge. The gorge is part of an extensive karst formation dating back 90 million years. The town is referred to as a fortress town because the buildings were positioned on a cliff above two river gorges, the Huecar and the Jucar so that they were easily defended.
Karst topography is a landscape formed by the dissolution of rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum. The largest karst formation in the world is the Nullarbor Plain in Australia. Bev and I crossed the Nullarbor at the end of Part 1 of our Encountering the Past Odyssey. Search Across Australia in this blog for details.
The previous photographs were taken from the bridge of Saint Paul. The present wooden and iron bridge was built in 1902 and replaced one built in 1533 /1589. The bridge spans the Huecar River Gorge and it connects the old town with St Paul’s Convent.
The city of Cuenca is 950 metres above sea level and in 2011 had a population of 57 000. Although the region’s origins go back to the Stone Age the earliest recorded history dates to the Moor conquest in 711.
Moors were originally of Berber and Arab descent though the term was later applied to Africans, Christian converts to Islam and people of mixed race.
In the year 1177 the city was taken from the Moors by Christian armies and as a result there are now many Christian influences in the town. During the 15th and 16th centuries textile manufacturing brought wealth to the region. The industry collapsed in the 1700s and the population declined considerably. Today the town relies heavily on tourism as its source of income, which is helped along by its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Depiction of Moors in Iberia comes from the Hadith Bayad wa Riyad manuscript which is believed to be the only surviving illustrated manuscript of Muslim medieval life in Spain. The surviving manuscript is retained in the Vatican Library.
The first notable Christian ecclesiastical building to be constructed (1182-1270) in the town was the Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian Cathedral. It was raised over a Moorish mosque. The façade was rebuilt in 1902 following the collapse of the bell tower. The cathedral is a mixture of both Romanesque and Gothic forms of architecture.
The differences between Romanesque and Gothic forms of architecture are sometimes subtle. For example, Romanesque design is simpler, buildings are low, arches are rounded, and walls alone support roof weight. Gothic design and floor plan layout is more complex, buildings are higher due to the use of flying buttresses and windows have pointed arches. Some of these distinguishing features can be seen in the photograph below.
Curiosity gets me when I see church names like ‘Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian Cathedral’. I ask myself what is the origin of the chosen names. Cathedral: A cathedral is the principal church of a diocese, with which a bishop is officially associated. Our Lady of Grace: One explanation tells us that Our Lady of Grace is a nickname for Saint Mary the mother of Jesus. Other nicknames include Mother of God, Virgin Mary and Mother Mary. Saint Julian: There were a number of Saint Julians but in the case of Cuenca Cathedral it was Julian of Burgos (1127-1208). San Juliab de Cuenca as they say in Spanish was a professor, hermit, priest and preacher and he did much community work caring for the poor. He worked as a basket maker in order to earn money for the poor and to support himself. Julian’s relics are in a casket under the altar of the Cuenca Cathedral. A relic, in religious terms is, physical remains.
Within the cathedral there is a curious sign indicating that if one prays whilst looking at the sign one can obtain forgiveness for one’s sins for five years and an additional two years if the praying took place on the patron saint’s day. I’m not sure if the forgiveness relates to sins in advance or for sins committed over previous years. If it is for sins in the future it is the first time I have come across being forgiven for sins not yet committed.
Years ago when I was working as a surveyor I said to my field assistant who was a catholic: ‘There is one good thing about your religion. You can commit a sin on Saturday and then go to confession on Sunday and all is forgiven’. A draftsman in the same office (a staunch Catholic) overheard me, and he came at me over his drawing board with fists clenched. He obviously thought my comment was blasphemous. Had he managed to thump me, could he have been forgiven at confession the following Sunday? Maybe my interpretation of confession is wrong. I’m sure somebody will enlighten me if I’m wrong.
There are many less serious things to contemplate around Cuenca, for example the artistry of the town. I now take you for an artistic tour. First stop, Colores Gallery in Alfonso Street.
The Colores Gallery displays the work of computer artist Oscar. Oscar takes a photograph of a scene then with the downloaded image on his computer he sets to work simplifying and colouring the image. This may sound simple enough but for any of us who have attempted to play with digitalised images we know it is not as simple as it seems.
Bev and I talked at length with Oscar and one thing we have in common, other than the love of colour, is travel. I invited him to come to Australia and get started on digitalising some of the colours of Australia’s vast outback. When I showed Oscar my concertina book he was very impressed and I think that one day in the future there may be a Colores concertina book of Cuenca.
Oscar’s work relates mostly to street scenes and walking around Cuenca I can understand why. However his work is not restricted to street scenes as he also produces some intimate scenes of lovers as well. The smooching couple in the above photograph is an example. The inspiration for this came from the painting The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Gustav Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter and his work, which was marked by frank eroticism, was popular in the late 19th century.
Granny square art: Often grannies have spare time so they while away the day crocheting squares like the ones above from scraps of wool. The squares are then sewn together to make a blanket.
Around every corner there is not only visual art but there are also performing arts. One busker who, for the want of a better name, I’m going to call the M & M busker, the Ms standing for Mime and Mimic or Master Magician. M & M performed many magic tricks but most entertaining was his mime and mimic performances with children. The following photograph shows M & M entertaining the crowd using a little girl from the audience.
The back streets of Cuenca are so narrow that it is necessary for the police to employ scooters to get around. While Bev was taking the above photograph I commented that the policewoman driving the scooter was the shortest police officer I had ever seen. To our surprise they were not fair dinkum police but buskers.
Cuenca is located in the La Mancha country and it was in La Mancha country that the legendary gentleman Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza roamed.
The tale of Don Quixote is long and complex and I am not going to attempt to explain the story but basically Don Quixote was a middle-aged gentleman who became obsessed with chivalrous ideals touted in books he had read on the subject. He decided to take up his sword and lance and travel Spain and defend the helpless and destroy the wicked. Along the way he met with and persuaded Sancho Panza, a somewhat befuddled farmer, to accompany him.
The story is the work of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547- 1616), a Spanish novelist, poet and playwright. Cervantes’ major work was Don Quixote and it is considered to be the first modern European novel of classic Western literature and is regarded amongst the best works of fiction ever written.
The above black and white painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is one of the most prominent and popular depictions of the duo. Picasso painted it to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote Part 1.
So far in this post I have not mentioned where we stayed and I only now mention it because the hostel sign was also was a piece of artwork. Some people might not agree but it was certainly different.
I am now approaching the end of this post but before I go I must tell you about the best eating place in Cuenca (in our opinion at least). Bev and I came across it by chance when out on a bike ride.
There is a road and bike path running up the Jucar Gorge and on a number of occasions we took to riding and in the process we discovered the Terraza del Jucar Café.
The café has a large outdoor eating area and to get the attention of the waitress we had at hand a unique device to summons help.
The Terraza del Jucar Café was not open for breakfast so Bev and I rode out into the bush and cooked our own then returned to the café for either a late morning tea or lunch. Our breakfasts in the forest were most enjoyable, in fact we looked forward to them each morning.
That’s the end of the Cuenca post. Our next stop is Valencia on the east coast then it’s on to Barcelona. Bev and I hope you have enjoyed the Hanging Houses town and that you continue to tag along for the remainder of Encountering the Past Part 3.