Travel 2013. Day 4. Cuenca to Granada

April 20, 2013. Day 4.  Cuenca to Granada.

See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, and a who’s who of those travelling.

John was up very early, before the rest of us had cleared the cobwebs from our eyes. Before breakfast, he had climbed the high craggy spur behind the parador and taken some terrific photos looking down on Old Cuenca and the gorge. The view below is the best I know that captures Cuenca’s dramatic location between two gorges.

Cuenca: Old Town, footbridge and parador to right of footbridge.
John: I woke up very early and decided to go for a walk up the hill behind the Parador. It took about 40 mins to get to the top (maybe too much dinner the night before!), but the views made it worthwhile. The early sun hits the hanging houses on the other side of the gorge illuminating the entire old town and if you listen carefully, you can hear roosters crowing. While I needed the walk, and it was well worth it, there is a way to drive there from the main road as there is a religious monument there.

Andrew: We had gone to see the hanging houses and to get there we had to walk over this long bridge and … it was a long way do down. The hanging houses were built over a gorge and I just kept thinking how cool they were and how hard it must have been to build them.

Alex: If you stay at the Parador de Cuenca, you can see the hanging houses at the other side of the gorge.  There is also a walking bridge you can take to get to them.  I really liked the hanging houses because it was very cool to see how they hung over a huge drop.

After a pleasant buffet breakfast, it was time to look at the Old Town. I was rather apprehensive because I knew from my visit with Margaret in 2008 that we had to cross the gorge, trusting in what seemed to me a totally inadequate, narrow iron footbridge, built way back in 1902. I have no head for heights, and the prospect of crossing this 105 metre long span 45 metres above the gorge floor was daunting. With help and encouragement from Andrew and Alex, I managed it, although I swear the thing moved as we crossed, and I had no desire to admire the carefully tended garden plots on the valley floor below. (I know they were there, because I took photos from the other side! See below) Once over, I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly brushed aside the thought that I had to cross it again on the way back!

Cuenca: Footbridge and Casas colgadas from the parador.
Back on terra firme, we made our way up to the Plaza Mayor.To the right stands the Cathedral, a 13th-century Gothic structure whose façade was clumsily rebuilt after damage caused in 1902. Seen from the square, the whole front looks as if a Hollywood set designer had plunked a Gothic imitation against the front of the church proper, but forgetting to fill in the upper windows and omitting spires, one of the glories of Gothic church architecture.
Cuenca: Cathedral facade.
A little further on, we came to the Mirador de Florencio Canas, a viewpoint directly across from the parador. It’s an excellent place to take photos, including dramatic ones of the casas colgadas and the parador.
Gorge, parador, garden plots from Mirador Florencio Canas
Casas colgadas from Mirador Florencio Canas

I made it back over the footbridge, almost running the last few metres!

From Cuenca, we headed south on the N 420, destination Granada. For a while we followed the Júcar River, gradually leaving behind the mountainous terrain around Cuenca and heading into the great plateau that covers so much of central Spain: the Meseta. We passed La Almarcha, a small town situated at the junction of the N 420 and the main Madrid-Valenca highway.  Founded by the Moors, its etymology –“fertile plain”—is a good indicator of the type of terrain we were now travelling through.  In the past, this was cattle pasture, but now grows wheat, barley, and sunflowers.

It was a beautiful day as we continued on our way. The sky was a brilliant blue with a few puffs of cloud, the ground covered in spring green, the roadside generously sprinkled with wild flowers and poppies dotting the fields. In a word idyllic!

Poppies near La Almarcha. “Noname” Castle in distance
It was about 20 kilometres past La Almarcha that we had –for me—one of the magical moments of our trip. We suddenly saw to our right a castle silhouetted dramatically on a hilltop a couple of kilometres or so off the road.
Our “Noname” castle near La Almarcha

There it stood in solitary splendour… not another building in sight. We couldn’t resist drawing off the highway and following an unpaved road towards the castle. There were no signs identifying it and we met no one to ask about it.

Alex: There was a ruined castle off the road to Granada that we stopped to look at. There was no name, so we called it “Noname” Castle.** It was on a part of the Don Quixote route. I liked this place because there were tons of flowers and the sight was incredible.

 **We have since found out that our “Noname” Castle does indeed have a name: Castillo de Haro, built at the end of the 12th century by Christians to defend their newly conquered territory from the Moors.

With the sun warm on our backs, wild flowers bordering the road, poppies scattered in the fields, and silence in the air, we got out of our van and enjoyed a leisurely walk towards the castle.

Along the way, we noticed a sign on the side identifying the road as part of one of the Routes of Don Quixote, the most famous “son of La Mancha” (the area through which we were travelling).  With the castle in sight and the absence of any modern buildings, it wasn’t difficult to imagine our intrepid knight-errant on his steed intent on rescuing some damsel imprisoned in one of those castle towers!

The mound on which the castle stood was much steeper as we approached and we found no easy access to attempt an ascent.

John: This castle was just a great surprise as it seems to have no name. It is located about 20 kilometres south west of La Almarcha. And it dominates the landscape. There is no town around it and the only way up is to take a dirt road and then park and walk up the back to the top. Time didn’t allow for us to go into it so I cannot comment on the inside, but it is definitely worth stopping the car.

Signpost for route of Don Quixote.

Andrew: We saw this ruined castle on the side of the road so we stopped to see it. We couldn’t go up the path to see the castle up close, but as we continued on the path we saw that it was part of the route of Don Quixote, which was really cool

Back in the van, we ventured a little further along the unpaved road where, eventually, we ran into a very modern looking cortijo (farm), at which point we decided to return to the main road and continue our journey.  We still had quite a long way to Granada.

Farm or cortijo near Castle of Haro.

Our road (the N420) took us to south west, past Mota del Cuervo and towards Alcázar de San Juan. Just before Alcázar de SJ, we saw a number of windmills at Campo de Criptana which are popularly identified as the ones Don Quixote attacked in the most famous of his adventures (Chapter 8),

Four of the ten windmills at Campo de Criptana.

At Alcázar de SJ, we turned south on the CM 3107. We were now in wine country which continued past Manzanares (where we joined the major Madrid-Andalucía highway, NIV E5) to Valdepeñas, the name by which the wine of the region is commonly known.

Vineyards near Valdepeñas, in La Mancha

Continuing south, we entered the mountainous Sierra Morena, the main geographical division between Castilla-La Mancha and Andalucía. The road cutting through the mountains at the Desfiladero de Despeñaperros (“gorge over which dogs are thrown”) has improved enormously since I first travelled its twisty, dangerous and steep curves. The curious name for the gorge has historical connotation: it alludes to the “infidel dogs” i.e. Muslims, allegedly thrown over the cliffs following their defeat by Christian forces at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, a few kilometres south, in 1212. The whole pass now forms part of a large natural park of the same name.

As we moved south, we bypassed Bailén (whose claim to fame is that nearby a Spanish army unexpectedly defeated 22,000 French soldiers in 1808, during the Peninsular War).

Soon we crossed the River Guadalquivir where, in the rolling landscape, we could see thousands and thousands of olives trees arranged in endless rows with almost mathematical precision.
By now we were well in the province of Jaén, one of the major olive oil producing areas in the world, accounting for half of Andalucía’s production, and one third of Spain’s.
Olives in Jaén province

Soon after passing the town of Jaén, perched on a hill to our right, we entered mountainous country again and threaded our way along the narrow River Guadalbullòn valley. We then climbed to the Puerto del Carretero (1030 metres) and entered the province of Granada.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Granada itself. So far, our GPS (aka “Olivia”) had served us well, but in Granada she met her “match,” or more specifically in the old Moorish quarter of the Albaicín.

Street in the Albaicín.

Despite instructions from our hotel, which required us to skirt the edge of the Albaicín, “Olivia” led us into the narrow, twisting lanes of the old quarter, where after some futile attempts to extricate us, she seemed to give up the ghost. Fortunately, with John’s super driving we managed to avoid scraping the van’s sides against the whitewashed walls (this required our side mirrors to be constantly retracted). After what seemed an eternity of going around and around, up and down, narrowly avoiding pedestrians, other vehicles and walls, Margaret and I recognised one of the streets we had frequently walked along when we lived in the Albaicín in 1987-88. At last, we navigated our way out of the labyrinth, crossed the Plaza Nueva and arrived at the cul-de-sac where our hotel, the Monjas del Carmen was located. Problems over? Not yet!

Alex: By accident we went through the Albaicín to get to our hotel. You could hardly get one car through on two way streets.  I liked the Albaicín because it looked so old but comfortable at the same time.

There were no issues with registering in the hotel, no issues with the rooms, but parking…ah parking. The hotel has underground parking, which involves descending a steep, curved ramp. It’s fine if you have a small or medium sized car, but we had a wide, six-seater van.

Hotel Monjas del Carmen. Access to garage on the left of main entrance.
 Assured by the hotel attendant that there would be no problem, John started the descent. Once into the curve, it became apparent that there was a problem (or “problema gordo.. muy gordo” “fat… very fat problem” was the expression)!  We reached a point of no return, with about a ¼ of an inch to spare on both sides.  By now, there was a smell of rubber as John jiggled the van back and forth, accompanied by a fair number of expletives from both of us. I was standing in front of the van (I know… it was a dumb thing to do, but I reckoned that the van would run into the wall before it ran over me, or that is what I tried to explain to Margaret, Leslie, Andrew and Alex transfixed in the van!!). The hotel attendant was somewhere behind the van, and both of us were shouting instructions to John at the same time. How John managed it, I still don’t know, but he did succeed –after what seemed an eternity—in inching the van down without a scratch. Success, congratulations all round, but there still remained the “problema gordo” of getting the van out again. But that was not for two days. Tomorrow, Granada awaited us … the Alhambra, the Royal chapel and the Albaicín (this time on foot!).

For now, it was time to relax and have something to eat.

For two interesting article on olives in Jaen, see
If you can get hold of the the November 31, 2013, issue of the wine magazine, Wine Spectator, you’ll find an excellent article on Spanish olive oil, entitled “Spain Turns Olives into Gold” pages 42-58.