Living in Cuenca, Spain: An Affordable Medieval City Close to Madrid

Madrid, like most of Europe’s big capital cities, offers plenty of excitement and culture, but these thrills tend to come with a sizeable price tag. So why not head out of the big city? If you live in Cuenca, Spain (the provincial capital) you can enjoy affordable, convenient small-town living…yet you’re as little as 55 minutes from central Madrid and its big-city action.

Cuenca, with a population of about 56,000, lies east of Madrid in the large, sprawling region called Castilla-La Mancha in Spain’s heartland. A medieval city dating from the 700s, Cuenca’s historic center lies on a high spur of rock surrounded on three sides by dramatic gorges. Cream-colored stone buildings and steep, narrow, cobblestoned streets and alleyways make it a delight to explore. (The modern city lies downhill, on more level ground.)

For decades Cuenca was an artists’ Mecca, attracting artists from all over Europe, North America, and Japan. (The city’s modern-art museum, housed in a 15th-century building that juts over the gorge, is still a must-see.) But today Cuenca is betting on tourism. In the last 20 or so years the city has opened several new museums; built a new auditorium for concerts, dance, and theater; renovated a plethora of medieval buildings and streets; and spruced up walking paths along the valleys near the city. The historic center was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. (Watch my video footage of Cuenca here.)

The Cuenca area, with its many paths and dramatic scenery, is increasingly popular with sports enthusiasts. Almost every afternoon you see cyclists, hikers, joggers, and even rock climbers along the many paths into the countryside. There is a sports club on the hills above town, complementing the popular restaurant, pool, and “beach” area on the peaceful Júcar River about a 10-minute stroll from the old city. (The day rate for use of the pool/beach on the Júcar is €4…less than $5.)

A lower cost of living only 55 minutes from Madrid

The highspeed AVE train cuts travel time to Madrid down to 55 minutes, making the city a weekend and second-home destination for Madrileños seeking a slower pace and a lower cost of living.

If you live in Cuenca you can buy your fruits, vegetables, bread, and meats at the traditional market in the city center or in shops and bakeries nearby. Have a cup of thick hot chocolate or a café con leche, with a fried-bread churro to dip in it, at the market café for a couple of euro.

A long, flat baguette of bread baked in a wood oven (pan de leña) will set you back about a euro. Meat vendors sell a staggering array of chorizos—Spanish sausages—that, sliced thin and served with the region’s red wine, make a tapas tray to die for.

And you can get Spain’s famous cured hams—jamón serrano, similar to prosciutto, and jamón ibérico—at a variety of price points (anywhere from about $5 to $50 a pound). Two shops in the city center run by the Bermejo family are a good place to start: The Bermejos have factories on the city outskirts where they cure their hams.

Also be on the lookout for regional specialties like roe deer or wild boar chorizo, tiny lamb chops from free-range sheep, partridges en escabeche (a vinegary sauce) and rosemary-scented honey—this sparsely-populated province is known for its game and its bee-keeping.

Of course, you can always opt for modern shopping as well…there are plenty of big-box stores on the city outskirts. For a Walmart substitute, go to Eroski, which has both a large grocery section and a hardware and housewares area. (There is also a large wine selection, including many local wines.) For household and construction items, go to Brico King and several large construction warehouses on the city outskirts.

Central Cuenca and the old city are compact and walkable, so you can manage without a car. Also in the center—and an easy walking distance—is the bus station. Here you can catch an express bus that gets you to Madrid in just two hours. Price: less than $15. Or go to the high-speed AVE station a few miles outside Cuenca for the 55-minute trip to Madrid. It will set you back about just under $40.

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