That Midpoint on the Map: Cuenca

Who would have known that a random place you find on a map and are determined to explore could lead to a short fairytale?

I went to Spain with three major cities pinned on my map: Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid. The journey from Valencia to Madrid seemed best to break somewhere in between so I started looking for more places to visit, almost setting the unexceptional town of Minglanilla as a destination out of curiosity, having lived in a town named after it in Cebu for the first 17 years of my life.

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The vast fields of interior Spain

Eventually, I found the sizeable city of Cuenca on the map. It was almost equidistant from Valencia and Spain, and once I saw the images of the gorge, I was determined to go. There was no way I would not find a cheap way to get to Madrid from Valencia without involving a stop at Cuenca.

Leaving Valencia early in the morning, the train made its way through rugged landscapes and vast empty lands I would not have known existed in Spain if I had only spent my time in its densely populated cities. It was a beautiful ride that kept me wondering just why there were stops in the middle of nowhere, where for miles upon miles, even the sight of a single house was a rarity.

Walking out of the bus station, I headed for the tourist information center, and received a map marked with the next tourist information point as she didn’t speak English. After quite a short walk through the lower town – the dull new part of the city, I tried to learn as much as I could at the English info point before continuing along the riverbank.

Founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, Cuenca, then known as Kunka, was built to defend a strategic hilltop between two gorges dug by the Júcar and Huécar rivers. The Old City of Cuenca sprawls along the ridge, forming a formidable, uneven wall with small windows and occasional archways.

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Cuenca, Spain

A little further along the river, the scenery changes dramatically. The gentle slope turns into a dramatic gorge spanned by the 40-meter high wood and iron Puente de San Pablo.

St. Paul’s Bridge was built to connect the Convent of St. Paul with the Old Town. (The convent was abandoned in 1975 and turned into a state-run luxury hotel.)

The original 16th century bridge collapsed and a new bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and supported upon the remains of the old bridge was built at the turn of the 20th century. The Puente de San Pablo is undoubtedly the best way to approach to the Old Town.

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Entering the Old Town via the Puente de San Pablo

It’s a beautiful view, overlooking the gorge and the Hanging Houses (Casas Colgadas). In the past, the eastern border of the Old City was full of these houses. Today however, only a few remain, the most well-known  of which is a group of 3 houses with wooden balconies. These 3 houses are the icons of Cuenca and the lure for tourists. Their exact origins cannot be determined but there is proof of their existence as early as the 15th century. Surprisingly, they currently house a museum for abstract art.

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The iconic Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) of Cuenca

Though the hanging houses are not as awe-inspiring as the brochures would like you to think, Cuenca is a definitely worth a visit. It is the classic Spanish town that travellers search for – historical, colourful, and beautiful.

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The medieval architecture is amazing, and walking along the deserted and narrow streets of the Old Town, gazing up at old ‘high-rises’, and having a spontaneous siesta under the shade of a tree on a summer afternoon in Spain, looking down at the quiet of little-known Cuenca, I could only contemplate how much I had happened in such a short time.

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With the weather changing fast and dark clouds looming ominously behind me, I decided I had seen enough and headed down the other side of the city. The houses along this gorge seemed taller, and I found myself wondering what it must have been like to live on the top floors, and if they had installed lifts by now.

I got back to Plaza Mayor in the middle of the Old Town. It is wide at the top and tapers down to the Town Hall but has no arcades to protect people from sun or rain. Apart from that, it is your typical Spanish plaza complete with a cathedral, colourful houses, cafés, and a fountain. I walked over to the fountain and splashed my face with cold water. It had been a hot and humid day.

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Cuenca’s Plaza Mayor with the Cathedral (left)

Refreshed and with renewed energy, I slowly made my way down the maze of narrow streets back to the lower town, until the rain chased me and I had to stand under someone’s doorway to wait it out, but it didn’t stop, and I had to walk under the rain to make it in time for the bus to Madrid. It was hard to imagine it had just been such a fine day in Cuenca. Even harder to imagine, it was only my 3rd day in Spain.

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La Tomatina: The World’s Biggest Food Fight

Picture yourself standing on a narrow street lined with white-walled houses, in a small Spanish town in the middle of nowhere. Now add 45,000 people from all around the world, high-pressure hoses shooting out water at random intervals, and over 145,000kg of tomato. The product is an enormous mess called La Tomatina.

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On the last Wednesday of August every year, the small town of Buñol, 40km from Valencia, becomes overrun with tourists seeking to partake in its enormous tomato fight.

No one is really sure how this Buñol tradition started- a popular theory is that in 1944 or 1945, angry townspeople rioted and threw tomatoes at members of the city council during a town celebration. Whatever did happen, people enjoyed it so much that it was repeated yearly after that.

As word of La Tomatina came out (thanks especially to the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), the event got bigger and bigger that in 2013, the city council decided to charge entrance fees and to limit the number of participants.

Who wouldn’t put participating in a massive tomato fight in their bucket list? 

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Traditionally, the tomato fight officially starts when someone retrieves the chunk of ham at the top of a greased pole. While this is happening, they’ll start prepping you up and hosing the crowd with cold water.

The La Tomatina crowd is a wild bunch from all around the world and you’ll find people in the quirkiest outifits. There are men dressed in religious habits, a whole Just Married entourage, crossdressers complete with blonde wigs, #DicksOutForHarambe, and of course the crazy Japanese bunch.

We all know Japanese people don’t go for ‘moderate’. As far as these folks are concerned, it is either all out or none at all. There were men dressed in sumo clothes, a man with a lab gown get-up that was completely tomato-proof, ladies in tomato mascots, a group in karate outfits, and people in wetsuits.

As fun as it sounds, the absence of teamwork and strategy and the presence of drunk people mean that the chances of someone retrieving the ham are next to none. So, whether or not the ham is retrieved, the tomato fight officially starts at 11am on the dot with a canon fired to signal the coming of the first of six delivery trucks carrying the tomatoes.

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The mayhem begins when people submerged in waste-deep tomatoes start throwing them out to the crowd. The trucks then stop a minute or two at its designated unloading point to dump its entire load on the street. Caught too close to the water hoses as I was, the tomato fight ensued in a blur of plops and poofs and desperate attempts to hide behind the palm and avoid the water. My goggles came in handy after all.

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The fight lasts exactly an hour and another canon is fired to mark its end. It was only at the end, when the crowd had loosened a little that I realised the full extent of La Tomatina. There are some events look exactly like in the photo, and post tomato-fight La Tomatina is one of them.

With a little more space and no more risk of getting hit on the nose by a tomato projectile, the cameras start coming out to capture the tomato sauce lake the people are all on. I have never seen that much tomato in my life and I doubt anyone ever will. In some areas, it was ankle-deep flowing rivers of tomato sauce! The locals had installed tarpaulins up to the third storey of their homes for easier cleanup, and looking up, you’d find yourself wondering how the tomatoes managed to end up so high.

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Feeling like a pasta.

I got an awful tan line, got dirty, stinky, and spent. The march back up from the town plaza to the parking lot felt like a mass exodus of zombies covered in tomatoes, and with the sun shining- we became sundried tomatoes desperately trying to somewhat clean ourselves up. It’s a smell I will never forget. At one point, I wanted to cry because I just wanted to shower and be clean, and with thousands of people wanting a shower, there were not enough hoses around.

It was an exhilarating experience that would awaken the inner child in anyone.

I was so exhausted that when I got back in the bus, I quickly fell asleep and didn’t even realise when the bus left and only woke up when we were already in Valencia. It was certainly one heck of a day and an experience for me and so many others.

And to those worried about food waste: the tomatoes for La Tomatina are actually grown for the purpose of the festival- they are of inferior taste and come extremely cheap from Extremadura.