Going out with a bang

The last stop on our final weekend hurrah in Spain was a city that Andrew had been dreaming of all year long. I think his year in Spain would have been incomplete had we not gotten to spend a day visiting Cuenca. Andrew seems to only gain energy on weekend trips, returning home ready to face a week of work, while I start off eager to escape, only to be worn out with the thought of getting home and doing the laundry we’ve accumulated by the end.

Cuenca itself is interesting enough and definitely merits a visit, especially if you are looking for a day or two trip from Madrid. We traipsed around the old town, which is fairly small, gawked at the Casas Colgadas, houses built into the side of a cliff, literally “hanging houses,” admired the brightly painted houses in the center square and toured the Cathedral. Also worth checking out is the Parador de Cuenca, an ancient convent turned government-owned luxury hotel. An iron bridge connects the old town and Casas Colgadas to the Parador across a deep gorge in the middle of the city. Walking across the bridge was definitely not my favorite part of our visit to Cuenca.

What I remember most about our time in Castilla-La Mancha, though, is the extraordinary hospitality that we received from the family run hotel and restaurant we stayed at for the night. The hotel itself was located a few miles outside of the city, per Andrew’s bargain hunting requirements, so when we pulled in the gravel parking lot to the establishment, we were surprised to find a full parking lot and people spilling out of the entrance way. Already, I felt intimidated by the amount of boisterous Spaniards blocking our path to the check-in counter and began to second guess Andrew’s choice of accommodations. The check-in counter was conveniently located right inside of the restaurant area, where a large group of people was indulging in an aperitif and socializing before the lunch hour. I generally hate to tromp into a group of Spaniards when I’m not expecting to, mostly because they always are dressed fabulously and have their makeup perfectly in place and on a normal travel day I’m dressed in flats or tennis shoes (heels or boots are really the only acceptable footwear for stylish Spanish ladies) and wearing minimal makeup. This phenomenon is only exaggerated on Sundays, when everyone puts on their best face and outfit and prances out onto the streets, into the bars and restaurants, to see and be seen. Of course, we showed up at prime time cocktail and tapas hour on a Sunday, the last day of our trip. I look ragged and tired, the ladies at the bar were polished and styled. Needless to say, I felt as though we were on display as we waited patiently and rather nervously at the counter: the under-dressed and awkward Americans. Thankfully, this situation played out in under 5 minutes and once we met the sweet lady who checked us in, we both felt right at home.

The sign of a great family run hotel establishment has to be that when the required information for the transaction has taken place, credit card number given, passports checked, room key handed over, breakfast time confirmed, the person working at the desk has the courtesy to ask if this is a first time visit to the area. The check in girl at El Rento, the place we were lucky enough to stay, promptly pulled out a map of Cuenca, slapped it down, proceeded to explain directions to the center, the best place to park and pointed out the highlights of the city. I am always appreciative whenever this happens, since it means we won’t have to search for the tourism office and won’t have to drive around guessing where we can park. This is also the perfect time to ask for restaurant recommendations so you don’t have to spend precious time scrutinizing menus and looking for a place that isn’t too expensive in a city you’ve never visited before.

The whole time we spoke, the lady we later learned was the proprietor’s daughter, patiently answered our questions and treated us graciously, genuinely glad we’d decided on El Rento for our stay in Cuenca. A little hospitality really turned our one night stay in Cuenca into wishing we had time for another night. We ate all our meals at their restaurant and we especially enjoyed our Sunday night dinner. Around nine o’clock in the evening we returned from the city, hungry from walking. We ventured back into the dining room that had earlier been packed with a huge family celebrating a first communion. Now it was filled with old folks from the community, taking part in their Sunday night ritual of eating at El Rento and watching TV together. A hushed silence dominated the tone of the room, unusual enough for chatty Spanish folks, as the guests eating at the restaurant watched an old black and white movie on the flat screen TV. We both felt priveliged, at least I did, to be in the middle of a weekly tradition that must literally be dying out as all the people surrounding the tables eating salad and deep fried croquetas were in the seventy plus category. The most endearing moment, though, had to be when a tiny, hunched over, elderly man burst through the front door, so triumphiant he’d made it another week that he raised his fists above his head, shook them and shouted a greeting to all his friends.

Staying at El Rento left an incredible impression of true familial hospitality in my mind. For a generation where everything should be done as efficiently as possible and which places personal boundaries even higher and closer, afraid of letting others in or revealing how his or her life is lived out each day, El Rento allowed us a glimpse into what it would be like to be a part of a Spanish family, if only for a few happy hours.

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