Murcia: Spain's unspoilt gem
Despite a record-breaking micro-climate, centuries of rich culture and breathtaking landscapes, the region of Murcia in the southeast of Spain has emerged unscathed from the excesses of tourist over-development.
Costa Cálida’s (the ‘Warm Coast’) unspoilt beaches and towns are mercifully free of pictorial restaurant menus and large sunburnt men in football shirts and give a fantastic opportunity for travellers to see the
best of Spain.
Steve Holloway gives us the lowdown on some of the best places to visit.
Totana and Sierra Espuña Regional Park
Surroundings don’t come much more serene than Totana, deep in the countyside of Murcia.
Hotel Los Jardines de La Santa is a wonderful peaceful place to rest your wheeled suitcase or rucksack and a great base to stay while exploring the spectacular Sierra Espuña Regional Park.
Nestled in foothills of the Sierra Espuña, amid pine forests, farmland and orchards, the view from your balcony is impressive in itself, but the hotel is a converted 16th century monastery built around the Sanctuary of Santa Eulalia de Mérida, a church decorated with 46 fantastic frescoes.
Once the scene of fearsome fights between Moors and Christians a visit to Sierra Espuña Regional Park is now a far more peaceful prospect.
Celebrated as one of the finest examples of reforestation in Spain, this fantastic, mountainous, sprawling park is 25,000 hectares of protected natural space rising to a vertigo-inducing 1,500 metres above sea level.
There are 11 fully-signposted trekking trails in the park for all levels of mobility, and an informative visitors centre also has good disabled access.
Active types can also take advantage of climbing, cycling, orienteering and even para-gliding,
A massive effort has been made to encourage visitors to venture away from the coast and instead promote the sustainable eco-friendly tourism and the heritage of the area.
After a hard day’s yomping or pedaling, La Perdiz is an excellent, unpretentious place to re-fuel and enjoy a peerless paella, heaving with rabbit, chicken and pork, and flavoured by some of the park’s many local herbs.
If you type ‘charming coastal Spanish town’ into a search engine, and there were any justice in this world, it should immediately take you to Águilas.
It’s a carnival town in February, but by no means a ghost town the rest of the time.
Like much of the region, it’s had more than its fair share of invaders and they say if you kick a stone in Águilas you’ll uncover some history.
An 18th century castle sits on the crest of a hill, originally to repel Turkish and Barbarian attacks, but now overlooks some gentle watersports and a flourishing town.
Amid the attractive architecture there’s a real feeling of being in a genuine Spanish community which has not been adversely affected by tourism.
A working fishing harbour features a daily fish auction, and the town is dotted with a fair number of bars and restaurants, and even in the verdant town square, with magnificent huge ficus trees in each corner, the prices are low.
There are also 36 beaches to chose from in just 28 miles of coastline, from wide sandy beaches and deserted wild coves.
Hotel Puerto Juan Montiel is a good place to lay your head, the four star hotel includes a top-floor spa, and a bountiful buffet restaurant which seems to offer every Spanish meat, fish and vegetarian dishes imaginable. If it’s not there, it’s not worth eating!
Proving there’s no substitute for age and experience, Cartagena is already quite a big hit with more senior tourists who make sorties from visiting cruise ships.
But this memorable and absolutely gorgeous port city, which is also naval station, has a stylish interior which deserves to be seen by all ages
Like Águilas it’s seen a fair amount of conflict in its long and rich history and there is evidence of past occupiers. In recent years the unearthing of a Roman amphitheatre, and numerous other archaeological discoveries, has led to the city being promoted as a ‘Little Pompeii.’
Take a ride in a aerial lift to the highest point in the city for a superb panoramic view of the amphitheatre, the busy port (including the odd military ship), and enjoy the bizarre occasional soundtrack of squawking peacocks who call the surrounding gardens home.
In the early 20th century it enjoyed a period of prosperity resulting in the construction of a fair number of Art Noveau buildings which give the city centre a very stylish aesthetic.
A small but very pleasant sandy family beach Cala Cortina is just a short cab ride away, and once again you’ll find yourself mingling with more locals than tourists.
The fabulous and imaginatively decorated restaurant La Cathedral sits above a Roman theatre and has a glass floor to view Roman finds.
Hotel NH Cartagena is a thoroughly modern hotel in the centre of the city which fits in perfectly with the location.
Cabo de Palos
Mar Menor is the biggest coastal salty lagoon in Spain, rich with shipwrecks, and one of the best places in the world for scuba diving.
The lagoon’s climate and a low continental shelf attracts a wondrous biodiversity of sea life and under-water mountain ranges, and war-time German U-Boats have been responsible for the downfall of many ships.
Cabo de Palos is a great little spot at the south of Mar Menor, which has a small marina and a thriving community of diving schools.
The atmosphere in the village is relaxed but not sleepy, and the restuarants attract people from larger neighbouring towns and resorts.
One especially good harbour-side venue is the restaurant El Pez Rojo. It offers a marvellous and seemingly neverending tasting menu, which includes a local favourite El Arroz Caldero.
This simple but sublime rice dish was origninally created by local fisherman in the 19th century and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more Murcian dish.
It’s created using entirely local ingredients, from fish stock to the garlic, tomatoes and peppers grown in the surrounding fields, and Calaasparra rice, unique to a neighbouring Murcian town.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a brilliant dish, closer to a risotto than a paella, and finished off perfectly with a squeeze of lemon and a big dollop of fresh alioli.
Book a table, savour the food and watch the yachts, complete with occasional on-board poseur, glide out of the harbour and into the Med.
La Manga Del Menor Tourist Office: 34 968 146 136