My second weekend in Spain was all about day trips! On Saturday, September 17th I headed to Avila and Segovia on a guided tour and then on Sunday, September 18th, I visited Cuenca on the day of their San Mateo Festival. This post is all about Cuenca, while you can read about Avila and Segovia here!
Before I even arrived in Spain, Cuenca was on my mind as a destination for a day trip. The small city was listed as a place near Madrid worth visiting, so when I found an organized trip to the city on the day of a festival, I decided to sign up and go. “Citylife Madrid,” a company that organizes trips and activities for young people, especially international ones like me, hosted this journey to Cuenca.
#views in Cuenca
Just like the day before when I went to Avila and Segovia, I woke up at 6am and took the 7am bus from my host family’s suburb to the Moncloa station. There, a coach bus from City Life was waiting. I really had no idea what to expect from this company and this group! I actually thought that our visit would be a guided walking tour and that there would be lots of mingling amongst group members, but the minute I got on the bus I realized that wouldn’t be the case because everyone there was with at least one other person. From listening to the conversations around me on the bus, I found it was largely a mix of study abroad students from the U.S. and other countries in Europe, with just a few au pairs. I pretty much invented the Lone Wolf Lifestyle (trademark pending), which not a lot of younger people are yet comfortable with so there weren’t really any other solo travelers for me to chat with. Even so, once we arrived in Cuenca, we were simply told to meet back at the bus in the evening, so I actually never saw any of my fellow travelers again (or if I did, I didn’t recognize them).
When our bus got to Cuenca, I headed out and into the main city where the parade for the San Mateo Festival had already begun. I had no idea what the San Mateo Festival was when I arrived (Google let me down on this one) and frankly, after attending, I still have no idea what the celebration was for. The parade lasted for several hours and was just a long stream of youth wearing matching t-shirts and dancing to loud EDM remixes of pop music while drinking miscellaneous liquids from liter sized soda bottles. When I heard the word “festival,” I imagined flamenco dancing and cheese tasting, not sloppy Spanish teens chugging drinks and spraying wine at each other. It was surprising to say the least, and if I was more “party animal” and less “uptight, sheltered brown girl,” I probably would’ve been happy to buy myself one of the canvas-covered, wine-filled bottles worn by the festival goers on a string around their neck.
I watched the parade for a bit before straying a bit from the city’s center to get some food and see the Hanging Houses, the major tourist attraction in Cuenca. The Hanging Houses are simply a few houses partially hanging off a cliff. I walked halfway across a low-key scary bridge to get some pictures of the houses and also of the #views. Cuenca has a huge gorge in the middle and the city is pretty much on a giant hill, so I ended up with lots of great landscape photos.
Like I said, I was not getting much enjoyment out of the festival, so after seeing the Hanging Houses, I had about six hours to kill in Cuenca. How did I spend a large chunk of that time? Well, sitting on the steps of the church in the Plaza Mayor where the parade had been and where a bullfight was scheduled to take place. I was sitting so long that my butt started to hurt. I even made three long overseas calls because I needed something to do!
Eventually, though, the bullfight began! I was sitting on steps of the church with DOZENS of other innocent spectators, while lots of people (well, pretty much all guys) ran in front of and around the bull. On the other side of the square were dozens more spectators, except they were behind wooden blockades. I thought that myself and the other viewers on the church steps were perfectly safe. The bull is in the middle of this huge square and he has a handler guiding him a bit, I thought. Well, my little bubble of security was burst like a shrimpy little latex balloon when the bull climbed the steps on the other side of the church. I didn’t see the bull go up but I knew that he had gone up the steps when the people from that side of the church were pushing back against me. This cued of us on the church steps to start walking backwards down the steps on the opposite side. Suddenly though, all the people in front of me straight up turned around and ran so that was the cue to rest of us on the steps who couldn’t see the bull that it was time to run. I dashed off the steps and against a wall where others were but the bull starting running straight towards us, so I sprinted around the corner and behind a metal barricade where about three other people already were. Unlike the wooden barricades, which were nailed into the ground and thus unmoving, this metal thing was more of a shield. I found this out because the bull followed me around the corner and rammed in to the piece of metal three times, lifting it up off the ground. At this moment, I seriously saw my life flash before my eyes. I think the adults who were also behind the barrier with me said something to the bull’s handler because luckily, before the bull went in for a fourth head butt, it pulled away and started chasing after a man down the alley. Once the coast was clear, I darted across the alley and climbed over a wooden barrier so I could get walk far, far away from this bullfight.
I found myself in another alleyway where a Spanish family was enjoying drinks and tapas and where a group of men were playing the guitar and singing, a huge pan of paella in front of them. My heart was beating, my hands were shaking, my face was hot, and my stomach was in a huge knot, so I popped a squat on a bench amongst these merry folk and sat there for the next few hours reading a book (Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, in case you were wondering).
I read until 8pm when we were told to be back on the bus. I arrived exhausted after, quite honestly, a long day of nothingness. Everyone else on the bus seemed equally dead but I hope they were all tired because they enjoyed themselves.
The sun setting over Cuenca at the end of a long and weird day.
It’s been almost two months since my trip to Cuenca and the verdict is still out on whether or not I’m glad I went. Sure, I didn’t really have fun, but it’s not liked I had given up some other amazing experience to be in Cuenca. Also, I was able to soak up some sun (aka vitamin D) and get lots of reading done. I’d say what really makes me wish I didn’t go though was the false advertising on the part of Citylife. The trip cost about $25, which I originally felt was a reasonable amount to pay because I thought I was booking a guided tour. In the end, Citylife didn’t provide anything except the bus and I could’ve easily used my public transport card to get to Cuenca on my own.
While Cuenca wasn’t exactly what I expected, it definitely wasn’t a complete waste of a day (how many of you have a crazy bull fight story?). Have you ever traveled somewhere and felt ambivalent about it? Let me know about your experiences in the comments below!