If you want to go somewhere where no one speaks English, Spaniards spend hours gossiping and eating jamón in bars, and bulls still run in the streets, then Cuenca is the place to go. Drive two hours east of Madrid (best way to get there is by bus for €11.45) and you’ll reach the tiny village perched on the side of a cliff.
The casco antiguo of Cuenca is World Heritage site of medieval buildings and stone cathedrals. Cuenca is also known for its casas colgadas (hanging houses) which are built literally on the edge of the cliff. One of the most famous sights is from the bridge called Puente de San Pablo, where you get the best view of the casa colgadas. There are swallows that live in cliffside nests that fly around the bridge and dive down into the gorge.
On the day that we went there was a huge festival called San Mateo. People were out drinking and singing in the streets all day starting when we arrived around 11 AM. In Cuenca they celebrate San Mateo every year with a traditional running of the bulls ceremony. So I had no idea what to expect! We wandered around the town for a while appreciating the festive atmosphere, colorful buildings and sunny weather. Some of the shops were closed because of the festival, but we were able to find another local dessert to try called alajú, which is basically like sticky almond bark covered in paper. Not my favorite (no offense Cuenca).
Around midday we pushed our way through the crowds back to the main plaza in front of the cathedral to watch the running of the bulls. Some streets in the center of town are blocked off, they let the bull loose, and people try to poke and taunt the bull. A bit mean, yes, but at least they don’t kill the bull like in the bull fights. It was super crowded, so it was hard to find a spot with a good view that was also not potentially dangerous. They set up “barricades” on the side of the streets that were just small wooden fences. We chose to stand on the top of the cathedral stairs… turned out to be a bad choice. At one point the bull got angry and ran up the stairs. People started screaming as the bull came closer and closer and rammed into a guy who fell on the ground in panic. I was probably two feet away from the bull with nothing in between us. Quite a scary moment!
We walked back up to the bus stop and watched the sun set over the valley. Overall it was a great day! A bit strange being the outsider tourist watching a local tradition, regardless it was really interesting to see. And Cuenca itself is a beautiful city to wander around. Can’t say I will be back any time soon, but if you are in Spain around the time of San Mateo, I would definitely recommend it.