Friday, November 5, 2010



Remember me, I’m attempting the impossible, rolling all our ‘besotted with Cuenca’ experiences into one day.  I’m getting there! But it is a tough ask.
By now we’ve started  our daily walk.  Sometimes down by the River Tomebamba where laundry ladies still wash their clothes spreading them on river banks to dry, other times crossing over one of the many bridges to explore the other side of the river, the newer part of town. The modern Cuenca of wide boulevards, modern multi storey apartment buildings, hospitals and American style supermarkets.

But most days we turn left from Calle Larga into Benigno Malo, treading deeper into the narrow cobbled streets of old Cuenca. Here the streets are lined with buildings no higher than the first story, most if not all just as old as the building Jen and Chris are so lovingly renovating.

Sometimes we peek in through doorways and along passages at courtyards and balcony’s draped in shrubbery and elaborate decoration.  No building in Cuenca should ever be judged by its cover. There are surprises lurking behind each facade.

Another aerial view of old Cuenca showing Calle Larga home bottom arrow left, with the Cathedral and Parque Calderon top at the end of Benigno Malo...all within easy walking distance.

Each day we pass the same shoeshine man, the same footpath vendors and each day our first stop is the tiny pane yuca shop, always busy, always turning out fresh batches of the tiny baked delicacies we have become addicted to.

We pass internet outlets open to all hours of the night, furniture and movie DVD stores. Another street to cross and there ahead is the massive and magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. 

Known locally as the new cathedral, this one is an oversized baby in contrast to the old cathedral,  Iglesia del Sagrario or Church of the Shrine which began construction in 1567.  This white washed church still stands on the opposite side of Calderon Parque, lovingly restored, its appearance like a benign and wise grandfather silently amazed at the size of his young grandson across the way.

The new Cathedral never failed to impose its sheer size and beauty on us,  its immense bell towers, the bright blue tiled cupolas, the patterns and stonework dwarfing all other buildings. I tried in vain to capture its scope with the one camera shot and found it impossible.

Our initial destination though is the Parque Abdon Calderon, Cuenca’s heart, a shady oasis of fountains and benches  in the middle of the commercial centre and separating the two Cathedrals.

In time my reluctant traveller will become one of the elderly men, all dressed in suits and ties, who meet each day to sit and gossip on the park benches.  What they think of my husband’s bare legs we’ll never know, he spoke no Spanish and they had no English.

I could never resist a quiet moment inside the Cathedral and I’m never alone, Cuencans pop in constantly for a quiet prayer or maybe a rest.  Inside the cavernous church with its many side altars and high vaulted ceiling it is so easy to feel at peace with the world.

Outside the traffic is gathering momentum, sellers of religious artefacts rub shoulders with the icecream vendors and a gentleman encased in silver garb, a mime artist, moves past to a new vantage point.  Two policemen chat on the corner.

Older shoe shine men have choice spots under cover on surrounding streets, the youngsters, some no more than 10 or 11 ply their trade in the open park tolerated by patrolling policemen.  Whether our shoes needed it or not we daily paid more than the asking price for our shoe shine, from the youngsters of course. Naturally we were sought after customers.   

On any given day the park will be the focus point for a gala parade, a display of national dancing, of music, or displays of school art.  Even rap dancing, though on Sundays only. When the day’s entertainment starts with a parade surrounding streets are closed and traffic diverted into other parts of the town.  At the sound of music  I begin to hurry and I’m not alone, a festival of national dance has started, and a crowd is gathering.

How many times in the next few months I will race ahead to the sound of music, fearful I may have missed a special celebration, wondering how everyone else seemed to know the day’s events and I didn’t.  But of course they all read their Spanish language newspapers, while gringo me wanders the streets in ignorance.


Robyn Mortimer