On the precipice

The mediaeval town of Cuenca lives life on the edge, turning its tumultuous history into breathtaking art, writes Lance Richardson.

Throughout history, the Spanish town of Cuenca has witnessed, in no particular order, Muslim domination, Napoleonic attacks, authoritarian oppression and the religious inquisition hurling offenders into a ravine.

Built on a perilous outcrop of land, with cliffs dropping on either side to the Jucar and Huecar rivers, the town is a dramatic sight, both mediaeval and stately. It also jumbles history together, more abstractly resembling a melting pot of Spanish passions - the Spanish are nothing if not passionate.

Arrive in Cuenca via high-speed train and the passion of the moment appears to be ultra-modern architecture. Fernando Zobel Station is an anomaly of design, with its glass and aggressive angular steel assembled in a deserted green field. The air smells like unpasteurised cheese, as if the station has dropped from space onto the site of an old-fashioned dairy. It seems odd to have such an imposing outpost in the mountainous countryside of La Serrania, but in truth we're only 165 kilometres from Madrid, and visitors flow in a generous stream.

As soon as I climb into a taxi, though, the sleek facade falls away to reveal something a little more recognisably Spanish. There is a prayer card of Saint Maria stuck to the dashboard. Between the driver's tubercular cough, his telephone argument, the stereo blaring power ballads and a fizzling radio lisping instructions, our car is a veritable fiesta. We speed through farmland and into the new part of Cuenca, where apartment buildings form artificial canyons in deep shadow. Then it's over the Huecar River, which acts as a boundary line between the new and old. Once bridged, streets graduate to a steep incline and architecture regresses several hundred years. The stone town opens its arms as we mount the hill to a cathedral square.

The Spanish are nothing if not passionate.

Though barely 3000 people live in the old section today, Cuenca has been so crowded in the past - the town was home to 16,000 people in the 16th century - that buildings literally hang over the cliffs, pushed out to make extra room. The most famous of these are the Casas Colgadas, three hair-raising structures with wooden balconies that seem to grow from the limestone like barnacles. Given this economy of space, streets in Cuenca are also extremely narrow - so narrow, in fact, that the running of the bulls each September is a comparatively muted affair. Unlike Pamplona, nobody has died here for decades; the bulls have little room to damage anything except the masonry.

Unsurprisingly, the local government is forced to employ a special public bus capable of navigating tight thoroughfares. For a traveller it is better to simply walk: when the path terminates in most directions with a terrific drop, chances of getting lost are slim indeed.

I spend the better part of two days wandering Cuenca, letting its convoluted history unfurl at a quiet pace. A crucifix in an underpass is hidden behind bars, the legacy of a time when religious conflict made desecration a daily reality in Spain. The enormous convent of San Pablo in the gorge below is now a "parador", housing and feeding visitors by government decree; the last monk left in 1978. Odd building appendages are revealed to be hanging toilets, although a local reassures me "there are pipes now". There are also rumours of an illegal swimming pool in the old town, a staggering feat of clandestine engineering that has me peering over every rendered wall with interest.

However, perhaps the most remarkable thing in Cuenca is the health of its art scene. For a city that fell on hard times after centuries of wealth, the art is an unexpected asset: from the early Gothic era to avant-garde modernist art, few styles are not represented in some form. Furthermore, several museums provide a gripping overview of Spanish abstract act in converted monasteries and even the Casas Colgadas.

At the Fundacion Antonio Perez, also called the Centre of Contemporary Art, sculptures made from wire perch next to cans wrapped in AstroTurf and a ceramic poodle. The gallery sprawls over multiple levels, taking in everything from found objects to photography. The white walls and terracotta tiles still have the hushed stillness of a religious establishment, but the focus of worship has shifted to creativity. A similar thing can be said for the nearby Casa Zavala, which focuses on the surrealist artist Antonio Saura.

From mediaeval cobbled streets you step into a strange wonderland of magazine collage and distorted self-portraits. Saura is represented at the most famous art museum Cuenca has as well, with a picture of Brigitte Bardot transformed from blonde bombshell into an aggressive collision of shapes and tones.

The Casas Colgadas were all but condemned by the 1920s and the local government bought two of the buildings for the equivalent of €21 ($26). After several rounds of restoration, the acclaimed Filipino artist Fernando Zobel stepped in during the 1960s and opened his Museum of Spanish Abstract Art.

Zobel saw Cuenca on its rocky promontory as "the prow of a ship sailing into space", and his vision for the museum was similarly space-aged. At that time, abstract art was little valued in Spain, despite the groundwork laid by a new generation of artists including Picasso and Miro. After the museum opened, it became so valued - and changed Cuenca so much - that King Juan Carlos awarded Zobel a medal for his efforts.

Today the museum remains an impressive space, filled with lush canvas and intricate sculptures; it represents one of the most comprehensive collections of the abstract generation anywhere in the country. The eye, however, is continually drawn outwards, through the vast windows suspended over the Huecar Gorge.

A crude sign outside the Fundacion Antonio Perez reads: "El arte no esta solo en los museos" - The art is not only in the museums. It is a gesture towards street art by Cuenca's thriving student population, whether the giant eyes carved into the limestone cliffs or the Dalek-like creature painted beside an antique image of the Virgin Mary. But it could refer to Cuenca more generally, too. This unassuming little town, often covered by a confetti of sparrows, holds centuries of history and human ingenuity, mixed together to form something more than the sum of its parts. UNESCO awarded a heritage stamp in 1996, and little wonder: the town may have been rejuvenated by artists, but it's a work of art itself, worth treasuring for years to come.

The writer travelled courtesy of Spain Tourism and Rail Europe.

Three other things to do

1 The Fundacion Antonio Perez, Casa Zavala and Museum of Spanish Abstract Art are in the old quarter of Cuenca and an easy walk from each other. Admission is €2 ($2.50) each.

2 For a taste of history, have lunch in the former convent of San Pablo overlooking the Hoz del Huecar gorge, with its sheer walls and lush vegetation. This "parador" offers accommodation for travellers as well. paradores-spain.com.

3 To shake things up after art and history, several outfits offer canyoning trips in the gorges and rivers around Cuenca. See, for example, aventuradecabrejas.com.

Trip notes

Getting there

Thai Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Madrid via Bangkok, thaiairways.com. From Madrid, the superbly comfortable Renfe high-speed train completes the 165-kilometre journey to Cuenca in less than an hour. renfe.com. A Eurail Select Pass covering Spain and the rest of Europe starts from $366, raileurope.com.au.

Staying there

The Convento del Giraldo, a well-equipped hotel built in a converted mediaeval convent, is located just metres from the Cathedral Square. Rooms start at €60 ($75) a night. hotelconventodelgiraldo.com.

More information