Stunning walks in Murcia’s Sierra Espuña

by Emma.Sturgess

The peaks are high and the isolation splendid in one of Spain’s lesser-known walking destinations, the scenic Sierra Espuña in Murcia

When walking in the Sierra Espuña, the thing to remember is the packed lunch. Only a loon would hike there in summer – the climbs are too stiff to attempt under pounding sun – and in the off-season, the natural park is blissfully quiet. That means no other people, not even someone to buy a sandwich from.
 
The Sierra Espuña is a stunner of a destination, all soaring peaks (well, one really big one, with a military communications post on top) and shaded valleys. There are cliffs and eagles and fortified towns, ice caves, terrifyingly twisty roads and spots of crazy lunar-style landscape. It’s bliss on a stick, but so far out of the way in the rural southeast that it fails to register even on many a Spanish radar.
 
Dominated by the aforementioned 1583m Morron de Totana, or Espuña, the area rises above the Murcia plain, a little bubble of terrain ripe for mountain-biking, climbing, hunting and, if you really must, off-roading. But explorations on foot allow for closer examination of the pine forests and wild boar mud baths, and plenty of opportunities to stop and watch groups of Barbary sheep hustle urgently though the trees.
 
One favourite route through the park starts high at around 1400 metres, and passes a handful of the area’s 26 pozos de nieve. These deep, circular 16th-century wells were built to store the snow and ice that cooled the populations of nearby cities, and prolonged the life of their perishable goods. Walk on through forest clearings and you’ll leave the casual visitors behind. A neat 16km loop, not without its challenges, takes in a generous but exposed ridge en route to the Pedro Lopez peak, drops through woodland littered with abandoned stone houses, and climbs, steeply enough to hurt the average city-dweller, back to the starting point. 
 
Just as scenic, but rockier underfoot, is the walk named after the Bonelli’s Eagles that nest nearby. The Águilas routes are tucked away just off the road, descending below pretty cliffs. You can extend the walk along rough paths to a tiny group of houses where you nod the obligatory greeting to the farmers looking after their lemon trees. They might smile encouragingly; they know you’re heading for a climb on the other side of the gorge. It is possible to tackle other, shorter routes, or even take a day off and explore Murcia city or the wine country to the north, but the trouble is that the tracks are very tempting. They all look as if they lead somewhere impressive, and more often than not they do.
 
Inntravel, the outdoorsy operator who masterminded our walks, is well known for choosing reassuringly tasteful hotels. There aren’t any in the park itself, which means that each walk is followed by a spot of hairy driving on the way down to home base, but guests are rewarded with, for example, the landscaped gardens of the Monasterio Santa Eulalia, whose ornate chapel is still the focus of local religious festivals, or a down-to-earth welcome from the British owners of the simple La Mariposa. The favourite, though, is Hospederia Casas Nuevas, an old engineer’s house converted into a restaurant with rooms. Not only is the food elegant and plentiful, but the view from the terrace is of the brooding peaks you may well have climbed earlier.  
 
 

Emma.Sturgess

Give or take the odd stint in restaurant kitchens, I've been a food and travel writer all my working life. I love the thrill of taking off for Las Vegas or peering into the shiniest shop windows in Lyon, but for me there's no place like the UK, and in particular the North's grand cities. I write for The Guardian and Food and Travel Magazine and contribute to many guides and books. 

Covering Liverpool lifestyle, arts and ents stories for the commuter newspaper Metro's North West edition gave me a chance to reaquaint myself with the grown-up side of a city I knew from childhood visits. As a kid, the greatest thrill of a trip to Liverpool was the chance to see Fred the TV weatherman's huge map floating in the Albert Dock like a bizarre waterlily. Now I live close enough to go anytime and am tall enough to see the bigger picture, it's the scale of the place - the sweeping Mersey vista, towering Anglican cathedral and rewarding clamber to the Georgian terraces - that's the real draw. Add the possibility of acquiring a decent flat white - a fairly recent phenomenon - and it all falls wonderfully into place.

My Liverpool

Where I always grab a coffee: Bold Street Coffee strikes a pleasant balance between self-conscious cool (there’s vinyl and turntables behind the bar) and an inclusive vibe. They take their hot drinks seriously.

My favourite dining spot: For sheer mind-boggling, multisensory genius, Marc Wilkinson’s Michelin-starred restaurant Fraiche is a short cab ride over to Oxton, and worth every tick of the meter.

Best place for people watching: Take a seat on Church Street and watch the world and his wife pass by.

Where to be seen: Prop up the curvy blue-lit bar at San Carlo and you’re likely to be sandwiched between celebrities.

Most breathtaking view: The Panoramic restaurant, on the 34th floor of Beetham’s West Tower, has extraordinary views all the way to Wales. It’s glorious at night.

My favourite stroll: Liverpool’s waterfront never seems to be quite finished, but a walk around the Albert Dock, particularly the riverside path, offers historical perspective and cobweb-clearing in one.

The best spot for peace and quiet: St James’ Garden is a sunken green space in the quarry whose stone built much of the city centre. It used to be a cemetery – don’t trip over the gravestones.

Where I’d go on a date: To see something at the Everyman theatre. Shakespeare or a visiting comedian? Depends on the date.

The best shopping opportunities: The Liverpool ONE development keeps attracting interesting new tenants, but for shiny geegaws, don’t forget Chinatown. 

Don’t leave without: Humming a bit of The Beatles.