A Real Spanish Adventure
I have to admit that one of my favorite things in the world is playing tour guide. I love taking people on walking tours of Madrid, pointing out the sights, sharing little histories and legends, and stopping at my favorite stores and restaurants along the way. It gets me out of my work routine to enjoy the city to its fullest, and it’s also an excuse to explore and try new places I’ve had my eye on. Last week, my friend Andrea from Williams visited for a whole week, and we managed to hit all of the major sites. While I worked during the day, I sent her to museums–which she was a really good sport about–and after work we walked all over the city to top off the sightseeing.
More than once, she commented on a little detail of Madrilenian life that, somewhere along the line, I had absorbed into my idea of normal. That’s my second favorite thing about having visitors: lest they have a crappy time, you have to remember what an awesome city you live in, and you have to prove it. Madrid makes it easy. Everything is well-connected and relatively easy to find, the public transportation is great, it’s shockingly clean for such a big city, and it has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment and leisure. If you’re willing to pay a few euros, you’ll never run out of things to do; if not, pretty much all museums have free hours at least once a week, if not more. The Prado is free every day from 6-8 PM. I’m sorry, let me repeat: one of the greatest art museums in the world is FREE, every single day. And 5-8 on Sundays. In other words, it’s a really accessible city for inhabitants and tourists alike.
However, given that she was going to be here for awhile, we decided to mix Madrid tourism with an overnight trip during the weekend, and I finally settled on Cuenca, which is about 165 km to the southeast from here. The region (which is also named Cuenca) is quite uninhabited, dominated by agriculture. Even the city of Cuenca itself is relatively small, with a population of about 55,000 and plenty of nature to go around. We spent Saturday hiking up to the top of the city via this windy path and other, more questionable ones:
Up top, we picked fresh rosemary from the mountainside and generally enjoyed the views, which look something like this:
After hiking all morning and working up an appetite, we headed to the casas colgadas, “hanging houses,” which are Cuenca’s claim to fame. They are so called because they are built into the rock face and hang over the gorge, which means they are picturesque from the outside and have fantastic views from the inside. Built early in Cuenca’s history and representing a once-typical form of architecture for the region, only three casas colgadas remain. Two of them house an abstract art museum, and the third is home to a restaurant.
You get no points for guessing what’s coming next.
While at the restaurant, we chose to order different dishes so that we could all try as many local specialties as possible. Following a first course that was devoured too quickly to be photographed came Andrea’s second course, including morteruelo (pictured above) and pisto (pictured below). I won’t tell you what’s in the morteruelo, but pisto is primarily made of tomatoes and peppers and is a very traditional Castillian dish.
My second course was a pan-fried fresh cod, which is a very popular fish this time of year. Not only did it photograph well, but it was delicious. The outside was crunchy and buttery, but the inside was just cooked through, as fish should be.
My third course was a lamb stew with fries and peppers, and it was really the star of the main courses. I could have been served just an entire bowl of this stuff, and I would have been happy. Cuenca is well-known for having a heavily hunting- and therefore meat-based diet. In this case, the lamb was tender, the peppers were shockingly flavorful (I suspect the lamb shared a bit of its juice with its veggie buddies), and the sauce was just salty enough to keep you comin’ back for more.
And dessert. Oh, dessert. Above you can see my cheese-and-quince pie, accompanied by chocolate, whipped cream, and raspberry coulis. We were both a little perplexed by this pie, because it tasted remarkably like cheesecake! If you’ve ever gone dessert-searching in Europe, you’ll understand why this is surprising, since “cheesecake” here means something else entirely, namely a fluffy and (in my mind) infinitely less interesting cake. I can objectively appreciate European cheesecake, but I will always be a bigger fan of the dense, mega-monster American version. And the cake pictured above, dainty as it may seem, encompassed all of the punch that I love and even a little hint of goat cheese that, surprisingly, worked.
Pictured below, you can see Andrea’s decent miguelitos (puff pastry layered with cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce), but they have rightly taken their place behind the drink in the foreground. What you see is resolí, which is a regional brandy-based liquor that is elaborated with cinnamon, coffee, orange rind, and sugar. I am not ashamed to admit that even after our share of house wine, we drank the Whole Thing.
When you add to this meal a cup of coffee and an embarrassingly long sobremesa (which is what Spaniards call the period of time you stay at the table to chat following your meal), I’d say we did pretty well for ourselves in Cuenca.
And we were full and happy all the way home.