Famed for its enviable Mediterranean climate, watersports and its myriad festivals, the Region of Murcia, in southern Spain, is also a haven for history buffs and culture vultures.
The region’s strategic location has ensured it retains many of its important historical links: rock-paintings in cave-shelters dating back to the Iberian period; the splendour of Roman antiquity with its urban refinement and penchant for the theatrical; Visigoth cities; Arab medinas; Christian castles, watch-towers, churches and temples; and numerous civil and military buildings.
The mix of cultures affords an opportunity to sate one’s appetite for all things cultural, historic and relaxing in a picturesque region of Spain which boasts four stunning cities.
The region’s multicultural capital, Murcia – the seventh largest city in Spain – boasts a beautiful baroque cathedral dating from 1394; the imposing 15th-century Almudí Palace, which has been both a grain store and the city’s law courts; and, a couple of miles from the city but clearly visible, the castle of Monteagudo, an 11th-century fortress atop a rocky hill almost 150m above sea level … to mention only three attractions.
Going from one terrace to another, from one square to another, walking about the streets and enjoying life in the open air is one of the best ways of blending in with the Murcian atmosphere. Enjoying some cañicas – small draft beers – here, while chit-chatting, is a real pleasure. If you add a couple of typical tapas from the region, we’re talking about luxury.
You won’t be able to say ‘no’ to marineras (Russian salad served on top of a long, crunchy ring-shaped bread stick, and topped off with an anchovy in brine), caballitos (prawns covered in pastry), matrimonios (anchovies in brine and vinegar) or pasteles de carne (beef-filled pastries).
Cartagena, 27 miles south of the city of Murcia, can trace its maritime origins back to 227 BCE, when the Carthaginians first set foot on its shore. Like the region as a whole, Cartagena enjoys a plethora of archaeological sites with many Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Moorish ruins remaining.
And, its Port of Cultures project is designed to make the city’s historical and cultural sights more accessible for tourists – a good example being the panoramic elevator which connects the port with the Concepción Castle, which adorns the top of one of the city’s five hills.
Directly across from City Hall, the Museo del Teatro – the city’s jewel – showcases artefacts excavated from the magnificent Roman Theatre, which dates from between 5 and 1 BCE.
And, of course, the city has fresh seafood aplenty. Try the typical caldero, a type of fish stew served with rice and garlic, washed down with local wines and accompanied by the traditional drinks of the area such as the asiatico coffee – coffee with condensed milk, cinnamon, lemon and whole coffee beans.
Smaller in size but equally big in character is Caravaca de la Cruz, one of five holy cities in the world and permitted, by Papal authority, to celebrate the Perpetual Jubilee, meaning a celebration every seven years at the town’s Sanctuary of the True Cross. And 2017 is one of those years …
Legend has it that, in 1232, the Moorish King Abu Zeid was converted to Christianity when he saw how two angels brought a cross down from heaven to a priest held prisoner in the castle, in order for him to give mass.
Almost 400 years later, inspired by the legend, on the site of the fortress, the Sanctuary of the True Cross was built, with its spectacular red marble façade and its fascinating Holy Art and History Museum. Created by the Knights Templar to house a fragment of the ‘True Cross’, it is, now, primarily a shrine to which thousands of pilgrims pay their respects every year.
Caravaca has narrow streets and small squares, with its baroque and renaissance buildings all overlooked by the castle and church at the top of a hill. Yet for all its apparent ‘other worldliness’ it remains a living town, with its sun-bleached houses and towers seemingly defying the onset of the 21st century.
Lorca is the city of the sun; the city of 100 shields … or, maybe, even 100 names. Indeed, its many names are a consequence of its various influences from the Iron Age to the 21st century.
It has, arguably, more monuments than any other locality in the region, with plenty of free-to-enter museums, squares, palaces, notable buildings and churches too. The impressive medieval castle, for example, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together for centuries, can be seen from far away.
Its baroque town centre is one of the most important in the region, while the Columna Miliaria, milestones – eliocroca to the Romans – for the Via Augusta, which passed through the district, can be seen at the Lorca Municipal Archaeological Museum together with other Roman artefacts.
Access to Costa Cálida, Región de Murcia, is simple as it is served by Murcia-San Javier airport all year round, while Alicante airport is also nearby. Both airports are served by numerous airlines flying from a wide variety of UK and Irish airports.