As far as day trips from Madrid, it doesn't get much easier than the medieval town of Cuenca.
This past fall, while traveling in Spain's capital, I spent a day in Cuenca, 105 miles east of Madrid and a simple, hourlong ride on the Madrid-to-Valencia AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola) bullet train.
Cuenca is a small, autonomous community in La Mancha province that dates to the eighth century, when Muslim Arabs, recognizing its strategic location overlooking the gorges of the Jucar and Huecar rivers, began erecting the first Cuencan settlement.
But it was much later, in the 15th century, when the town's most famous landmark, the Casas Colgadas ("hanging houses"), were constructed along the city's perimeter.
Getting to Cuenca is simple. I took the 9:10 a.m. Alvia train from the centrally located Atocha station in Madrid and arrived in Cuenca at 10:08 a.m. A private van met me at the station and took me to the highest point of the Cuenca fortress ruins, where my walking tour began. (The public transportation options from the train station to the town are sparse and spotty at best, so it is highly recommended that travelers arrange on-the-ground transportation in advance.)
Walking through the narrow pathways of the old fortress, my attention was equally divided between the oldest ruins of the city's outskirts and views of the valley sprawled out below us, stretching into the plains of Meseta as far as the eye could see.
The tour itself was a walk through Spanish history, from the original Muslim settlers to the arrival of Roman Catholicism all the way up to the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. Making my way down the steep slopes and streets toward the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace and St. Julian (Cuenca Cathedral for short), my tour guide shared stories of the tyranny of Francisco Franco's rule, how clergy in Cuenca hid political dissenters and how Franco's legacy remains a source of anger for Cuenca locals to this day.
Cuenca Cathedral is Spain's first Gothic-style cathedral and was completed in the 13th century (its facade was reconstructed in 1902). Travelers looking for Catholic antiquity and artifacts should commit to a tour of Cuenca Cathedral's gorgeous interior, which still hosts Sunday Mass.
But Cuenca isn't just for history buffs; it's for prehistory buffs, too. Nestled quietly away from the cathedral and the ruins is the Museo de las Ciencias de Castilla La Mancha, a world-class science museum that houses fossils dating back more than 125 million years.
Fifteen years ago, at what is now known as the Las Hoyas excavation site, paleontologists discovered a vast wealth of preserved fossils. The abundance of algae in the area provided a protective coating over the fossils, leaving them in relatively pristine condition.
Travelers with kids should quickly seek out the museum's earthquake simulator or any of the other hands-on exhibits the museum provides.
Cuenca is also a great destination for art lovers. While it is home to a slew of galleries, the crown jewel is the Museo de Arte Abstracto, which is located in one of the Casas Colgadas built along the slope of the gorge. It hosts several rotating exhibitions throughout the year and an impressive permanent collection of Spanish abstract art. It also provides a nice bookend to the tour of Cuenca before traversing the St. Paul Bridge.
Not for those with a fear of heights, the narrow, pedestrian-only bridge connects Cuenca to the Convento de San Pablo. The bridge provides a bird's-eye view of the Casas Colgadas as well as the Cuenca perimeter.
Having toured all day, I had built up quite an appetite, so I headed over the bridge for some much-needed rest and food.
Originally built in the 16th century, St. Paul's Convent now houses the Parador, a four-star hotel and restaurant that uses locally grown produce and meat.
Fully rested and stuffed, I returned to the minivan, which delivered me back to the Cuenca train station in time to catch the AVE train back to Madrid.