- Posted by Julia Burns
- On March 19, 2022
- Cuenca, East Anglia, Spain
By Anna Swinfield
The writer, a BSS member, hispanist, anglophile and travel enthusiast , reflects on the contrasting charms of two of her favourite hidden jewels of Spain and England.
The Spanish call Cuenca the Ciudad Encantada, the Enchanted City. I can certainly see why. I first visited the UNESCO World Heritage City of Cuenca when my husband, Luis, was based there working on the AVE high speed rail project connecting Madrid-Valencia.
We headed to the old town and parked next to a Parador hotel. We had driven from our home in Toledo, however the AVE train from Madrid Atocha goes direct to Cuenca in under one hour. As we walked across the rickety bridge with the river Júcar a startling bluey green, we spotted the famous hanging houses, casas colgadas, set into the cliff.
A building that had caught my eye, situated in the historic quarter behind the cathedral, was a 17th century monastery that had been restored into a small hotel. I opened the door and as nobody was on reception, I decided to have a peek around. With its simple decor, it dripped Spanish style and charm. We sat on a little terrace perched right on the cliff face.
A lady walked in and started giving orders to the waiter. She spoke Spanish with a foreign accent. She smiled and came to our table to ask if everything was okay. I asked if she owned the hotel. Luis is quite the opposite to me. He would never ask outright something to somebody he did not know. I think the English are enquiring (perhaps a little too much at times). So that´s how we got talking.
The lady owned the hotel. A Canadian woman named Jennifer, married to a Spaniard, she proudly showed us around. The large terrace perched precariously at the top of the cliff was packed with tourists and locals relaxing and enjoying tapas.
I couldn´t help but ask her: “Why Cuenca? I can see it´s an extremely beautiful place, but was your husband the reason you chose to settle permanently here?” She rolled her eyes, and pointing towards a distant mountain, said: “That saint up there on the mountain. I became besotted with her. She made me stay.” There, perched on top of the mountain, was the silhouette of an object or a person. I wanted to find out more.
The silhouette was dazzling, as though floating in the sky. Even from our flat I could see her haunting figure. What did she represent? I wanted to meet her. The next day Luis drove me up the steep, mountainous track and I finally met: Nuestra Señora de la Luz, Our Lady of Light, the patron saint of Cuenca. She was even more alluring close up.
If, like me, you enjoy steeping yourself in the history and art of a new place, then head to the Museum of Abstract Art located inside one of the famous ‘hanging houses.’ It’s like stepping inside a fairy tale set. There’s an exhibit of paintings and sculptures by leading Spanish figures and it’s worth visiting just to see Pablo Helguera’s exhibition: La Comedia del Arte which is showcased until May 2022.
If you are spending a few days in the region, check out the geological site of La Ciudad Encantada. The Enchanted City was declared a Natural Site of National Interest in June 1929. It dates back 90 million years. It’s a fascinating place (be sure to wear hiking boots) and due to the erosive forces of weather and the river Jucar, it’s famed for its unusual rock formation resembling eye-catching shapes such as Amantes (‘Lovers’) and Los Osos (Bears).
I grew up in Norfolk in East Anglia. I still get a frisson of excitement when I drive home to see my parents. I left many years ago, but Norfolk is in my roots. It’s where I was born. It’s a culmination of the sea air, fresh fish and chips and sailing on the Norfolk Broads with my father that I love most. I lived in a small Norfolk village, just half an hour from the Suffolk coastal town of Southwold. Unlike many coastal resorts, Southwold has retained its quintessentially English charm. The Adnams family have produced ale for generations, and are big players in the global market, but also do their best to support local businesses.
The high street is brimming with shops and cafes. The Amber Shop opposite the renowned ‘Swan Hotel’ has gifts for family and friends selling amber earrings and bracelets and they even have a tiny, free museum within the shop telling customers about the wonders of amber.
A visit to Southwold would never be the same without a trip to the utterly eccentric world of Tim Hunkin’s machines on the pier. Tim Hunkin, an English engineer, cartoonist, writer, and artist, is best known for creating the Channel 4 series ‘The Secret Life of Machines,’ in which he explains the workings and history of various household devices. Step into the small room on Southwold’s pier, and you are bombarded with weird and wonderful inventions. My Mother and I have had endless fun taking out our frustrations with the financial industry on the ‘Whack a Banker’ machine (apologies, no offense bankers), and the ‘Train for your future on a Zimmer frame simulator’ had us in shrieks of laughter.
My Spanish husband Luis says this proves the English are eccentric, mad, you name it. With fabulous walks on the beach and a mug of hot tea and a slice of Victoria sandwich at the Gun Hill Beach Kiosk set alongside a row of colourful beach huts, this is England at its best.
The pretty neighbouring village of Walberswick, sits on the other side of the River Blyth. A fun way to get to Walberswick is to take the passenger rowboat ferry from Southwold harbour. There’s no need to book and it only costs a couple of pounds. Or a great way to see the wildlife is on foot via the Bailey footbridge.
In an area as steeped in history as the Suffolk Coast, it takes something special to stand out. Dunwich manages to do just this. Known as the lost city of England, this tiny village has a story to tell. Formerly the early medieval capital of East Anglia, however the effects of storm surges and the resulting coastal erosion washed away most of the settlement, harbour buildings and land. Locals say that during storms you can hear the bells of lost churches ringing from below the waves. The area is steeped in legend and myth. One story is of a local maiden with a broken heart who haunts the area around the beach searching for her lost love.
You can explore the village’s expanse of forest, heath and beach, at the National Trust Dunwich Heath, learn about it’s fascinating past at Dunwich museum and eat and stay at The Ship Inn. The best thing to eat here is fish and chips, freshly caught that morning, and washed down with a pint of Adnams bitter. You may even be lucky enough to find a table in the bar by the open fire. The locals are friendly.
A short drive from Dunwich you will find The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve at Minsmere. You can spend a day spotting some of the UK’s rarest birds and wildlife with which Norfolk and Suffolk are both handsomely endowed.
Anna Swinfield read Spanish and Journalism at Leeds University. She resides in England with her family but lived and worked for 10 years in Spain.