Rich in culture and a sightseer’s paradise, Murcia is an essential stop on the itinerary of visitors who want a real taste of southeastern Spain
The city of Murcia rises from the plains of the river Segura, dominated from afar by its 14th-century cathedral. Getting there means navigating the usual sprawling industrial belt that circles so many Spanish towns, but don’t let that put you off. Out-shouted by its bullish neighbours – Valencia and Andalucía – the region of Murcia, dubbed ‘Europe’s orchard’, is often overlooked as a traveller’s destination. But its Moorish capital, a busy working and university town with a lively student population, has plenty to engage the inquisitive visitor.
Just to the north of the old town the typical alleys and plazas of the centre give way to the wide avenues of the commercial district. Head for department store El Corte Inglés on the Avenida de la Libertad for great shopping and views from the bar on the top floor.
Murcia is great for the casual sightseer. You can easily do everything on foot and in a day. But if you’re staying in the city – and Murcia responds well if you’re the sort of traveller who likes to stop and let the place get under your skin – you can take cultural pit stops at your own pace rather than letting them dominate your agenda.
Most of the attractions are in the old town. You’ll catch yourself often looking upwards for an orientating glimpse of the cathedral’s rococo bell tower, but usually in vain, as although the Catedral de Santa María is an architectural riot, Gothic at heart with an imposing Baroque front, the surrounding warren of streets doesn’t give way to a proper vista unless you stumble into the Plaza del Cardinal Belluga.
Inside, several chapels clamour for attention with their gaudy colours but surprisingly, there is little sign of Murcia’s most famous son, the 18th-century sculptor Francisco Salzillo, a great exponent of those startling life-size statues and tableaux that feature in churches and fiestas across the country.
For a genuinely unsettling experience, head west towards the bus station. On Plaza San Agustín stands the Salzillo Museum, where you can see some of these extraordinary religious figures that are carried through the streets during Semana Santa (Holy Week) every year. With their naturalistic poses, pained expressions and plenty of realistic-looking blood, it doesn’t take much to make you imagine a movement just beyond your field of vision. After all this agony, the miniature, perfectly formed Belén (nativity) figures in the basement come as something of a relief, teeming and swarming through the display cases as they reflect the timeless bustle of the city outside.
For an oasis of calm, check out the nearby City Museum, which backs on to a tranquil market garden watered by an ancient irrigation channel. The light and airy museum is well worth an hour of your time and provides an accessible timeline of the town’s history, putting many of its most notable buildings into context.
You should also drop in to the Casino, a mid-19th-century nest of salons and atriums. The ballroom has five chandeliers and you’ll need to push a timer button to switch on the 326 bulbs to get the full effect. Signs will also guide you to another of Murcia’s hidden treasures, the delicately painted ladies’ powder room. But unsuspecting men beware: a quick peep around the door could earn you a sharp dig in the ribs and a wagging finger in your face from an affronted female tourist. The guidebooks don’t warn you about that!
The city is packed with tapas bars: try Las Mulas for scrambled eggs and potatoes, otherwise known here as patatas real murcia, or La Tapa on Plaza de las Flores for seafood bites.
Given Murcia’s reputation as the greengrocer of Spain – notwithstanding the patchwork of polytunneled hectares that rise towards you as you come in to land at the airport – it isn’t surprising that fruit and vegetables dominate the restaurant menus. Fine dining comes at a price. Dinner at the Hotel Rincón de Pepe will set you back €50 each but you’ll taste the best fresh produce the region has to offer and afterwards you can go downstairs to La Muralla for late night jazz .
There are hotels to suit every budget. For convenience and comfort, the Hesperia Murcia, close to the cathedral on Madre de Dios, is a good base from which to explore the city and it’s easy to stroll back after trying the nightlife in the bars around the university.
Outside the city, the town of Archena, 24 kilometres up the Segura, looks unpromising at first glance. But it’s home to one of the region’s best kept secrets, the Balneario, a spa centre on the outskirts. You can stay at one of three hotels - Terme, Léon or Levante - on the site. Forget the expensive treatments, though. As a guest, you’ll have free access to the warm waters of the pool complex and an endless variety of pummelling jets.
You’ll soon get used to wandering around in the towelling robes that give the place the air of a genteel sanatorium. The pools don’t shut until midnight and if you’ve been pounding Murcia’s streets all day, lying back and listening to the crickets on the mountainside while the water laps around your shoulders takes some beating.
Where to stay
Hotel Hesperia Murcia: doubles from €50.
Spa Hotel & Resort Balneario de Archena: doubles from €60 (Levante and Termas) or €50 (Leon)