Every morning without fail, the massive doors of Cuenca Cathedral in Spain opens. In one of its 20 side chapels, amid the splendor of gold and alabaster, Holy Mass is celebrated by the resident priest in front of less than 10 attendees.
The scarcity of attendance hardly matters, said our tourist guide Pablo Garcia Moya, because the Mass is celebrated anyway, even when the number dwindles to much less. There are probably more visitors to the cathedral on any given day than there are Mass attendees.
Located in Cuenca's Plaza Mayor, the 830-year-old cathedral-officially named Basílica de Nuestra Senora de Gracia (Basilica of Our Lady of Grace)-is the oldest building in this fortress city of Spain's Castile-La Mancha region.
Vaulted ceilings and pointed arches are supported by towering columns that soar heavenward. With walls made from limestone mined from the surrounding mountains, the cathedral is a cavern of treasures-its main altar is made of white alabaster and brown marble, while the side altars are painted in gold. Massive paintings of religious figures glimmer on the walls.
Adding a modern touch to the cathedral are the stained glass windows made by renowned Spanish artists Gerardo Rueda and Gustavo Torner, himself a native of Cuenca.
Touring the cathedral to the sound of a pipe organ being tuned, we came across an enormous door made of walnut wood, which opened to the Chapter House. Here, beneath the gaze of religious figures, canons and bishops meet every month to discuss ecclesiastical concerns, said Pablo.
As splendid as its cathedral is, the city of Cuenca is so much more. A drive across winding roads took us to the Parador de San Pablo, a beautifully restored monastery that now serves as a four-star hotel. From there, we had a sweeping view of the deep gorges that plummet hundreds of feet down to the Juecar and Húcar rivers. Stretching wide across the horizon are limestone mountains onto which cling Cuenca's famous hanging houses, or casas colgadas, as they're called in Spanish.
Some don't even cling so much as jut out of the cliffs, defying gravity, instigating fear of heights. Others blend so harmoniously into the craggy landscape they look like they've sprouted out of the mountains.
Even more amazing is their life span. Some of these hanging houses have teetered on the precipice for hundreds of years, having been built by native residents in the 14th century. At that time they were considered the safest places to live in, because their precarious positions made them unreachable by marauders.
Today the historic walled town where these hanging houses have survived through the centuries has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
To reach any of them, we first had to cross the San Pablo Bridge, an iron foot bridge that links two mountains. That's easier said than done. The foot bridge spans 107 meters long and has a drop of 40 meters, way, way down the ravine to the valley below. As we had no choice if we wanted to get to the other side of the mountain, my daughter Clarissa and I walked bravely across the bridge, cringing along the way as the wooden boards creaked beneath our feet.
We reached one of the hanging houses that had been converted into the Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol. On its pristine white walls hang a valuable collection of Spanish abstract art, works by Eduardo Chillida, Gerardo Rueda, Torner, Antoni Tàpies, Manuel Millares, Antonio Saura and Fernando Zobel, the Spanish-Filipino painter who donated most of the artworks, including his own, to the Juan March Foundation.
Zobel spent much of his life in Cuenca, and it's a testimony to the high esteem with which he was regarded that the city named the Ave train station after him. Among his paintings in the museum are "El Jucar X" (1971), "Pequena Primavera para Claudio Monteverdi" (1966) and "El Puente" (1984), the last work he did before his untimely death in Rome in 1984.
Cuenca is home to other museums and is known as an art centre with its own schools of art that attract students from all over the world. At one time some of the students playfully painted a pair of seeing eyes on one of the mountains, which is still visible from afar.
Though it was a quiet day when we visited, Cuenca hums with activity at certain times of the year. During Holy Week, a procession of religious floats attended by hundreds of pilgrims winds down from the main square through the city's cobblestone streets. And once a year, there's a bull run similar to the one made famous by Hemingway in Pamplona.
Pablo said lunch was at the Parador de San Pablo, which meant once again crossing the iron foot bridge so we could return to the other side of the mountain.
At least the meal at the Parador's elegant dining room was well worth it: a first course of salad vegetables and Manchego cheese; a main course of baked cod with almonds for Clarissa and fillet of veal with barbecued aubergine for me; as well as desserts of cottage cheesecake and ice cream with a side of honey and almonds wrapped in paper-thin wafers.
Resoli, a strong liqueur enhanced by cinnamon and orange essence, is often drunk after a meal, as it's said to be good for digestion.
Going to Cuenca is easier now that Spain has high-speed trains called Ave. From Madrid, it was only a 55-minute train ride to the Estacion Fernando Zobel, where Ana Chacon of the Cuenca Tourist Office met us for the ride to the parador.
Certainly, a day trip is possible if one is coming from Madrid. Though we had spent a full day in Cuenca, we were still able to get back to Madrid by 6:30 p.m. with plenty of time for late shopping and dinner.
From Madrid's Atocha train station, high-speed trains operated by Renfe leave almost every hour for Cuenca.
For more info, contact the Spain Tourism Board, 541 Orchard Road #09-04, Liat Towers, Singapore 23881, tel. +65 6737 3008; visit www.spain.info.