Murcia, Spain, travel review: this under sung region needs to be your next continental trip
Perfect for winter sun, the Murcia region of Spain has abundant delights, from historical ruins to excellent golf courses, and truly superlative food and wine
The Spanish region of Murcia is that neatest of tricks: an area utterly abundant in sunshine, leisure activities, award-winning food and wine, culture, and a healthy hedonistic spirit, but yet – unlike so many other Spanish cities – it is not overrun with foreign tourists. It would be a stretch to call it undiscovered – many Spaniards themselves choose to holiday here – but it is overshadowed by so many of its neighbouring regions, from the hip, thriving Valencia (east), to Castilla-La Mancha, to the north, rendered eternally famous by Don Quixote, or indeed Andalucía, to the west, where hordes of Brits abroad flock to flop on the beaches of Marbella.
Anything those regions can do, however, Murcia can too – and at a delightfully laidback, leisurely pace. 150 miles of seafront hug the region – a shoreline known as ‘Costa Cálida’, the Warm Coast, and when you dive into these perpetually balmy seas you’ll see why. “300 days of sunshine” is warmly proclaimed by many a quietly blissful Murcian resident, making it a year-round destination (in January, by way of example, the average daily temperature is 18 degrees, ideal for escaping the grey drudge of British winter).
Katrina stayed at the Barceló Murcia 7 Coronas, a briskly cheerful four-star hotel located in Paseo de Garay, near the centre of Murcia city. What it lacks in personality it makes up for in cleanliness, comfort, and convenience: it’s ideally located for exploring the city.
She also stayed at the Grand Hyatt La Manga Club Golf & Spa, in Cartagena Murcia, a five star resort recently refurbished. With a genuinely spectacular day spa, access to three golf courses, and a breakfast buffet so opulent you could weep, it’s a great option if you like your hotels with all the mod cons.
Better still, Murcia truly has some of the finest food in Spain, which, for those lucky enough to frequent the country, is quite the accolade. We’d advise a tour of the region – from the capital city, also called Murcia, to the historic Cartagena, to the beach-side playground of Cabo de Palos. Enjoy the sumptuous architecture, eat some fabulous food, engage in some water sports, and, of course, soak up those bountiful rays: we defy you not to fall in love with all Murcia is.
Meander around Murcia capital city
Murcia’s laidback pace is even manifest in its buildings. The Cathedral of Santa Maria, at the city’s centre on Plaza de Cardenal Belluga, was built across 300 years, making its interiors a curious, but not unpleasant, hodge podge of styles. Its construction commenced in 1388, long past the point where Islamic rule had been ended by James I of Aragon, from the remains of a mosque. You can see examples of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque style, a frankly dazzling facade, and a pipe organ that once laid claim to being the largest in Spain.
From there, it’s a short jaunt along the Calle de la Trapería to the Casino. Founded in 1847 as a gentlemen’s club, all can enter now - though cordoned off areas still house sharp dressed fellows supping on coffee. It doesn’t require much time, but is a worthwhile diversion, especially the luxuriant powder room, with a gorgeous painted ceiling depicting gods and cherubs, and the opulent ballroom.
Murcia the capital is a gourmand’s paradise, thrumming and thriving with gastronomic hidey-holes, most reasonably - almost ludicrously - well priced. The best tapas bars are to be found in the lattice of lanes behind the cathedral. (Calle San Antonio, Calle Oliver, Calle Fuensanta et al). The Mercado de Veronicas, sat beside the looping River Segura, is ideal for idle food-and-people-watching, as locals stock up on hams and green olives.
Wine Tasting La Diligente
For a stand-out culinary experience, though, head to the wine tastings at La Diligente. This bijou boutique offers chic tipples from the region’s vineyards, all DOPs (Denominazione di Origine Protetta: these culinary or oenological delights can only be made in a specific region): Bullas, Jumilla and Yecla. Walk to the destination along the beauteous River Segura - notable for its stunning bridges, one of which was designed by master architect Calatrava, to work up an appetite and thirst, before sitting down to slake it with an expertly curated pairing of five wines to regional cheeses - including buttery soft manchego and wincingly tart blue cheese.
Study Roman history and watch festival entertainment at Cartagena
A 45 minute drive from Murcia city, or an hour by train, Cartagena is a port city which asserts itself, through its rich Roman history and slightly bonkers inhabitants, as well worth a day trip. Founded by the Carthaginians of north Africa in 227BC, it’s named for Carthage (now modern-day Carthage) and bears ample evidence of its Roman and Carthaginian inhabitants. The most striking are the amphitheatre, currently under restoration, discovered underneath a defunct bullring, and the Teatro Romano, an epic archaeological site unearthed in 1988 and now lovingly restored.
Cartagena’s obsession with its own history reaches its zenith each September, when they hold the “Roman and Carthaginians festival” - the highlight of which is an uproarious recreation of the Battle for Qart-Hadasht from the Second Punic War. On a field by the Batel, by Muralla de Carlos III, seas of men and women garbed in red (the Romans) and blue and white (the Carthaginians) uniforms run at each other with swords, spears - even catapults. After the recreation the delightfully quirky Carthaginians take to the city to carouse - indeed, you could easily argue the whole festival is an excuse for a 10 day run of fancy dress and debauching. And as most events for the fest are free, it makes September a particularly appealing month to visit.
As to food - make certain to dine at the sleek, chic Alviento restaurant: dine on piles of paprika-laced fresh octopus, strewn across tuffets of polenta, unctuous foie gras (if your morals permit), or their triumph: a salt encrusted sea bass that yields fish so plushily soft you’ll groan with every mouthful. Wine pairings are characteristically excellent, given the region’s oenological abundance, though you will need to adjust your settings to “Spanish time” when it comes to being waited on: everything good, the region seems determined to remind you, comes to those who wait.
Sea spray and light houses in Cabo de Palos
A visit to the Murcia region could - and indeed should, in large part - be given over to dining and drinking, so good are the options available. But if you wish to put your flesh to action other than indulgence, there are bountiful opportunities as well. Those with a predilection for golf will likely already know there are many popular and well regarded courses in the area to enjoy 18 rounds. If hitting small balls into small holes doesn’t appeal, however, head to Cabo de Palos (a half hour drive from Cartagena, or an hour by train).
There, you can take a paddleboarding excursion around the fresh, friendly shoreline. You don’t need to have any skills to quickly master this sport - and even if you find yourself capsizing, the surrounding sea is so softly warm it makes for a welcome plunge.
Then you can haul your invigorated body to the Cabo de Palos lighthouse, a ten minute walk from the paddleboarding bay. For 6 euro you can climb this fully operational lighthouse’s 200 steps for unparalleled views of the coast. It was built in 1863, and standing on its balustrade, encircled by an openwork parapet, makes for the kind of quietly remarkable moment you’ll always remember. Don’t miss it.
If all of that exertion leaves you hungry, refuel in style at Bocano de Palos, where in addition to expertly cooked fish you can stop your stomach rumbling with Caldero, a local rice dish akin to Paella. The restaurant offers views of the bay as delectable as the fare, and the prices are so extraordinarily reasonable (12 euro a main) you’ll consider immigrating at first convenience.