It’s more than 25 years since I lost my heart to Spain. On my first visit, its romantic, rich history, its people and the rhythm of the days won me over. These days I spend several months a year there, getting my fill of sun, siestas and serrano ham. (Part-time living in Europe is easy: You can spend 90-day stints on a simple tourist visa.) This year a five-kilo ham, cured to perfection, is already waiting for me. Hey—I’ll have months to eat it.
I’m basing myself in Cuenca, in Castilla-La Mancha, central Spain, a two-hour drive southeast of Madrid. Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, gets some visitors, but it isn’t really a tourist zone so you won’t find fancy shopping here, but you can get everything you need for day-to-day living on your doorstep. I often stop for a morning café con leche on my way to the bakery or market; for less than $4 I can have my fill of coffee and churros—tasty, traditional fried sticks of dough.
Cuenca lies in a dry, wild region of deep gorges and pine forests. The original medieval city sits atop a spur of rock, surrounded by forbidding limestone cliffs that drop to rivers on each side. Get used to walking uphill in the old city…but it’s not such a chore as you take in the winding cobblestone streets past centuries-old stone buildings with gaily painted facades. Walk down a dozen steps or so from the main thoroughfare and you catch unobstructed views of the dramatic gorges.
Cuenca is the perfect place to base yourself to explore this fascinating region. Long-term rentals here start at under $400 for a one-bedroom, furnished apartment and just south of the city lies Don Quixote country: the dry, rolling meseta (plateau) that makes up central Spain. Here the skies seem to stretch on forever and intriguing side roads take you into sleepy towns and villages where life has slowed to a crawl. Sit out the hot mid-afternoons over long lunches in restaurants housed in cool, dark, stone buildings. Feast on lamb roasted in a wood-fired oven—the meat so tender it’s cut with the edge of a fluted plate—and wash it down with a bottle or two of local red wine. After a meal like that, you understand what siestas are all about.
I’ll also be heading to Bilbao, on Spain’s northwest coast. An hour’s flight from Madrid, Bilbao is one of my favourite cities anywhere and the people are much of the reason why: they’re hard-headed, hard-working and sports mad.
On visits here I stay in a small bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the old city, mere steps from ancient squares and narrow, largely pedestrian streets. From there, a half-hour walk through the verdant parks lining Bilbao’s estuaries, brings me to the Bilbao Guggenheim. The museum’s titanium hull always gleams warmly, even on cloudy days. And the outdoor sculptures, from a metal behemoth resembling a giant crab to the city’s favourite icon, Jeff Koons’ flower-covered Puppy (affectionately called El Poopy by locals), are pure delight.
And so are the tapas. Bars groan with rows of succulent tapas in the hours before lunch and dinner. For about $4 you can have a tapa and about a quarter glass of txacolí, the slightly effervescent, local white wine.
One of the true glories of Spain is simply enjoying the lifestyle. For me, that means taking the time to be settled someplace; buying my food in the local markets; sipping a coffee or an aperitif at an outdoor café, while I watch the world pass by and savour the rhythm of Spain’s way of life…
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