After the Moroccan tour ended I headed back to Spain in order to meet up with friends in Barcelona, but I had some time before they got there which I spent decompressing in Cuenca, Spain, which turned out to be covered in beautiful autumn colors and to have a great abstract art museum in the famous hanging houses.
My cheap Easyjet flight out of Marrakech went straight to Madrid which was great, then I took a train to Cuenca – this was a bit of a test of my poor language skills and half-asleep brain, negotiating the ticket wasn't too bad but it turns out the train was going from a kinda magic platform which wasn't actually at the station itself – due to some medium-term rearrangement work going on the real train left from a suburb of Madrid which had a kind of transfer station – and to get to that you went through a special gate to get to a transfer train, none of which I have the language skills to understand :).
Anyway, people were generally trying to be friendly and helpful and I figured it out eventually and was soon on my way, though the wait at the transfer point turned out to be so long I was cruelly forced to purchase and consume several pastries. The train to Cuenca was pretty slow which suited me fine – nice to just sit and catch up on diary.
(Those trains will get a lot faster some time about now, as the high-speed rail system finishes rollout in Cuenca's direction – presume those works are behind the odd transfer I went through.)
I stayed at a nice hotel called Buenavista which I considered walking distance from the train station, and was in a pretty good location – a comfortable walk from the interesting parts of the town.
You could almost hear the rusty gears groaning and thrashing in my head as I tried to check in in my room and ask for advice about a couple of things in Spanish. Nodded and smiled, understood about 40% of what she said :).
Anyway, after starting some serious catch-up on sleep missed in Morocco, I was almost unjustifiably happy to have breakfast – cereals! Missed them so much… and it was included in the room rate, which I heart.
Spent an hour or two going down to the info centre to ask for advice and try a couple of laundry places, which were actually pretty thin on the ground, first one mostly unintelligible to me but pricey, second nicer (and the gentleman running it kindly opened early when I went to pick it up on leaving day when he saw me waiting). I need a lot more practice before I can understand more than half of a commercial conversation!
Chores done, I had a full day to wander around and relax.
Although the newer parts of town spread onto the flat, old Cuenca covers a hilltop flanked by two rivers that then connect together, the Rio Júcar (pronounced a bit like “who-car” in English) and the smaller Rio Huecar (pronounced a bit like “ooh-ey-car”) that feeds into it. The walk up the riverside from the southern end of the city is beautiful, there's a park sort of thing along one side and bridges crossing back and forth, even a guy fly-fishing off one of the platforms when I was there. At the end of October the foliage was all starting to yellow and it looked really beautiful next to the broad but calm river.
The old town is nice, with several churches of various sizes, typical European cobbled streets, and lots of windy paths up and down the hill and views over the river gorges.
I've pretty much had my fill of cathedrals at this point but there is one famous distinctive thing you'll see in Cuenca which is the Casas Colgadas or Hanging Houses, built right up to the edge of the cliff and in some cases a bit over!
More modern multi-storey apartments pack together around much of the river gorge, but the most famous casas colgadas are the old ones in the photos above, which now house a restaurant in one and an excellent museum in the other two (now connected together internally).
I really enjoyed visiting the Museum of Abstract art there. Put together by a Manillan expat artist named Fernando Zóbel who been all over the world – grew up in Manilla, Madrid, and then Manilla again as Franco rose in Spain and civil war broke out, educated at Harvard after WWII, and later returning to live in Spain which he loved.
By this time he was an artist of significant talent and he decided to try and put together a museum on modern art, eventually settling on the town of Cuenca, loving the feeling of the place and perhaps hoping to be a little less under the unapproving eye of Franco's traditionalist regime.
The museum is populated with a number of his own works and a number of abstract works by other modernists both of his own time and later. I really, really liked his work – in fact I'd say he's now my favorite artist.
They may look like smudgy messes when you take a cheap digital photo and look at it at home, but in the flesh his paintings are subtle and full of evocative shading and color. One of my favorites is this one is called “Jardín Seco” (Garden Fire), where you can feel the burning autumn brush and see the smoke rising.
I was also buzzed to recognize the red arch of Madrid's Atocha station glowing just enough to be visible through the smokey haze of “Atocha”. Wish I'd had my camera with me on the first day when I caught it glinting in the sun, as it left a strong impression on me that made me love this painting too. It looks like crap in a digital photo onscreen, so you'll have to see it for real to get the effect :).
His watercolor sketchbook was also interesting – can't say I'm a big fan of watercolor in general but he was really pretty damn good at giving you the feeling of what he was looking at, and his little sketch studies of bits of architecture and machinery gave me the sense he learned a bit of detail about his subjects too.
There's heaps of other artists and styles of work in the museum, a number of cool/interesting/forboding abstracts, some popping out from the canvas in 3d constructions of mesh and wire, most just painted, plus a sprinkling of sculptures.
In the second part of the museum they host temporary exhibitions which I also found interesting. When I was there they had a roving exhibition from Carlos Cruz-Diez called “Color Happens”, exploring a number of areas of human visual perception of color, interference, and space.
The moire-effect-like dynamic interference patterns of some of the works that move would make a hippy's brain melt, and the intense walk-in pure-color spaces of “Chromosaturation” had strange and interesting effects as your eyes attempted to compensate for their perceived white-point, an effect I remember from when I used to undergo phototherapy wearing the primary-colored goggles needed to block the harmful levels of UV from hitting my eyes. But here instead of the whole visual field being colored, the divided parts of the rooms and walls could be illuminated in different colors so your perception of the spaces other than your own would be altered.
The museum's only 3 EUR entry (and you can come and go throughout the day, so you can come back after lunch), and it seems they produce the prints and postcards at cost despite owning the exclusive copyright on most of the works, as they were very cheap.
So that was a really cool day, lovely outdoors scenes, a nice old town, and a cool art museum for an art noob like me. The next morning I was off to Barcelona to meet up with the guys who were coming down from London!