Cuenca. Just say the word and images of our train fiasco flash through my head. A year or two from now, I think I’ll probably only remember the time we spent wandering through the colorful streets and watching the sunset above the gorge at the end of the day, but right now I’m still replaying the scene in my head.
Here’s what happened: I’m about a year and half younger than Danny, so my transportation pass is cheaper and allows me access to all of the Metro lines in Madrid as well as all of the Cercanias trains that go in and out of Madrid, and even buses that go as far as Toledo. When I was buying our train tickets for Cuenca, I saw that the cheapest ticket possible involved taking the Cercanias for a while, then taking a train the rest of the way to Cuenca. Great, I thought. I just won’t buy that portion of the ticket for myself since I have an all-access pass. So we got on the train, Danny with a ticket from Madrid to Cuenca and me with a partial ticket and my transportation pass.
Well, you can probably see where this is going. When the conductor came through the train making sure everyone had a ticket, he saw that mine didn’t start in Madrid, which was clearly where I got on the train. I showed him my pass, thinking that would make up for it. That just made him angry. He explained (in Spanish, of course), that this was very bad, and what did we think? That this train was free? He asked us to pay the difference for the ticket, but of course, we had no cash on us, only our credit card, which was not going to work. We understood what he was saying, but he decided to make sure (perhaps since we weren't really replying, only nodding - our comprehension is better than our speaking), and asked if anyone else in the train car spoke English.
Eventually a woman said she kind of did and explained what we already knew – we needed to buy a new ticket for me as soon as possible. We weren’t sure – and neither was she – if I needed to get off at the next station or if I could wait till Cuenca, so the rest of the ride I was kind of on edge, worrying that the conductor would be back and ready to throw me off the train for not having a new ticket.
As soon as we got off the train in Cuenca, someone was waiting to escort me to the ticket office, where someone else was waiting, ready to charge me double what the conductor asked us for on the train.
The whole situation was very embarrassing and frustrating and maybe not dealt with in the kindest manner. It got our day in Cuenca off to a bit of a rocky start and made me anxious about the train ride back (and maybe all train rides ever). Honestly, though, I feel like this kind of stuff is just kind of par for the course when you travel and live in another country, especially when you’re trying to save money and don’t speak much of the language. There are going to be misunderstandings and, every so often, not-so-nice people and sometimes the two will coincide and that is hard! But I have to keep getting on trains and taking risks and making mistakes and trying again because it’s worth it. I mean, we had so much fun in Cuenca! It wasn’t a perfect day, and it’s probably not our favorite day trip from Madrid, but it was still pretty cool.
One benefit of taking the slow, 2.5 hour train to Cuenca (as opposed to the fast AVE train that takes under an hour) is that it comes right into town (the AVE drops off 7 kilometers/4.3 miles outside of town). As we walked from the station we saw signs for the casas colgadas, which any good tourist visiting Cuenca knows is the main attraction.
The gorge in Cuenca used to be lined with casas colgadas, or hanging houses, but over the years they have fallen, which makes me a little scared for the owners of the remaining homes, but perhaps they have been (invisibly) reinforced with some 21st century technologies to give the owners some peace of mind.
Just a couple of turns from the hanging houses is the Plaza Mayor of Cuenca, whose main attraction is the beautiful cathedral. We also found the colorful homes lining the square to be quite charming as well.
Right off of the Plaza Mayor is the Tourist Information Office of Cuenca, where we picked up a map and got some advice about what to do as we had only been in town for about an hour and felt like maybe we had already seen everything, which is never a good feeling when you still have seven hours till your train leaves.
We walked towards what the lady at the tourist office called “like a castle.” I had pretty low expectations since my research into Cuenca before our visit had not turned up any castles. This was good since it was really more of a gate you could climb onto for a nice view. I would say calling it a castle would be similar to calling my Toyota Camry a limousine. I don’t know. Just the first analogy I came up with, but I think it works. We didn’t even take pictures of the “castle,” but here’s one from the top, and one from a path we followed onto some rocks afterwards...
We turned around and walked along another street to get back to where we started, and after a little while came upon some really colorful and fun streets. So much yellow and pink, it was just a feast for the eyes! If you’re ever in Cuenca, check out Calle Andres de Cabrera, it was our favorite.
At this point we were ready for a little snack (we had PB & Js for lunch in the Plaza Mayor when we arrived), so we walked into the more modern part of the town, near where we came in on the train, and split a pretzel from a bakery chain we’ve become familiar with from visiting small Spanish towns.
To get back into the historic part of town, we walked past the hanging houses again, and then back up past the “castle” where earlier we'd seen some spots that seemed good for watching the sunset.
We climbed around a little, and then settled in for the show. It was a striking backdrop – the bridge, and the hanging houses and the historic part of Cuenca overlooking the gorge.
After the sun had set, we made our way back through town to the same bakery for some croissant sandwiches before running to catch our train – we made it just in time – and I ran into no trouble with my ticket this time around.
Cuenca was definitely one of our more low-key day trips. It’s also the farthest trip we’ve taken out of Madrid in just a day – because we took the slow train it was about 2.5 hours each way (the fast AVE train also costs about 2.5 times more than our tickets did). The view outside the train was beautiful, but taking the train did take up a good bit of our day and meant that we were up early and home late in order to make sure we still had plenty of time in Cuenca.
In hindsight, I’d probably tour the cathedral, especially since there's a free English audio guide, but we didn’t have cash (or we would’ve paid the train conductor with it!) and they didn’t accept cards. Since we didn't tour the cathedral, we didn’t spend any money on attractions once we arrived in town, but we were perfectly content wandering around the streets, looking into the gorge, climbing on rocks, and walking around. And really, some of these small town cathedrals are all fairly similar to one another and based on the guidebooks and blogs I read before visiting, there wasn't really anything to make Cuenca's stand out from all of the others. So beyond the costs of our train tickets and our afternoon snack and dinner, we didn't spend any money, and we had a great time.
I’ve heard it recommended to stop in Cuenca on the way to Valencia, and I think this is an excellent idea. If you have a car or are taking the train, I think Cuenca is a very worthy stop on the way. If you only want to see the houses and wander around a little, I’d say that two to four hours is enough depending on how much time you want. One more thing - we could tell that there were plenty of tourists in town - you know, people posing for pictures, looking at the casas colgadas, using selfie sticks, etc., however, we never heard anyone else speaking English the entire day! We haven't come across this anywhere else in Spain yet, and while it's certainly not a bad thing, it was just surprising. Usually when we're out and about doing touristy type things, we come across other tourists, but in Cuenca this was not the case - we only saw Spanish tourists (I believe). So, there you have it - our fun and relaxing day in Cuenca!