From cultural sights and sporting activities, to delicious food and a laid-back lifestyle, family-friendly Murcia ticks all the boxes for an authentic Spanish break – without the crowds. By Heidi Fuller-Love.
Murcia might be a relatively new arrival on the Spanish tourism scene, but with visitors staying an average 11.9 days, according to recent government statistics, this sun-drenched region is becoming popular with UK holidaymakers.
A dizzy blend of Florida-style resorts and typical Spanish villages, Murcia is an easy two hours and 40 minutes flight from the UK’s main airports. Tucked between flamenco-loving Andalusia, Don Quixote’s Castilla-La Mancha and Valencia, home of paella, this vast and varied region encompasses mountains and deep gorges, natural reserves and wine-producing vineyards, lovely towns and laid-back coastal resorts.
The north is renowned for its Denomination of Origin wines – Bullas, Jumilla and Yecla – produced in tousled vineyards stretched between villages where visitors can stroll narrow streets to sample the local vino along with tapas in typical bodegas. This region of Murcia also bubbles with hot mineral springs, which can be enjoyed in towns such as Archena, whose vast thermal bath complex includes a Dead Sea floatation pool.
Extensive forests – including the pine-forest-studded regional park of Sierra Espuña – cover much of the region and are a big draw for nature lovers. Hikes take you along a tangle of walking trails to discover strange limestone formations and the pozos de nieve ice houses where, before fridges were invented, ice was stored to be sold during the summer months.
Salt lagoons, sandy beaches and exhilarating water sports
Talking of nature reserves, further south Mar Menor is Murcia’s 170 square km salt lagoon where pretty pink flamingos and other migratory birds come to spend the winter months. Separated from the Mediterranean by a 22km spit of land called La Manga, Europe’s biggest salt water lagoon is also a prized spot for water sports enthusiasts who can enjoy activities ranging from canoeing and windsurfing, to stand-up paddle, scuba diving and sailing.
Mar Menor, which translates as ‘the lesser sea’, sits on Murcia’s Costa Cálida or ‘balmy coast’, whose beaches rival any of the best in Spain. The 250km stretch of Mediterranean coastline, which sweeps in a golden glow of silky sand beaches and secluded coves from Alicante to Almeria, comprises lively urban beaches such as Playa de la Palmas and Playa de Poniente, as well as off-the-beaten-track beach havens like Las Mulas and Calblanque.
Cultural sights, cool cities and superb shopping
Murcia is renowned for its lush countryside and dense forests, but culture enthusiasts and city slickers will find plenty to enjoy here, too. Located on the banks of the deep green Segura River and flanked by mighty mountains, Murcia’s eponymous capital, which was founded by the Moors more than a thousand years ago, is a delightful hotchpotch of exuberant Islamic architecture, stunning churches and fascinating museums. They line lively streets packed with cafés and bodegas serving some of the region’s best tapas.
Half an hour’s drive further south brings visitors to Cartagena, the legendary 3,000-year-old coastal city centred around its beautifully conserved Roman amphitheatre, picturesque cathedral ruins and striking modernist buildings, including the delightfully eclectic Palacio Consistorial.
Last but certainly not least, the cobbled streets of the market town of Lorca, an hour’s drive west of Cartagena, are famed for the fervour of its Semana Santa Holy Week celebrations. Crowned by its 13th-century castle, Lorca’s lovely old town lined with beautiful Baroque buildings also offers some fabulous souvenir shopping: this is the place in Murcia to buy traditional colourful jarapa rugs and delicate jarra de la novia wedding pottery.
Food, festivals and expansive golf courses
Gourmets will enjoy this region famed for its food specialities. Dishes to look out for include white-wine-flavoured rollos de vino pastry rings and a delectable sweet and savoury pie made with grated lemon, eggs and chicken called pastel de cierva. Syrupy local drink mantellina from Totana made with wine and honey is well worth sampling, too.
Visitors seeking a way to work off those calories can practice their strokes on one of the many world-class golf courses for which Murcia is rightly famed. From the Nicklaus trail, which incorporates six Jack-Nicklaus-designed 18-hole championship courses, to the world-famous La Manga Club, there are plenty to choose from.
Add to that a smorgasbord of exciting events throughout the year, ranging from the San Javier International Jazz Festival in July, to the spectacular Santa Semana processions at Easter, and you’ll understand why marvellous magical Murcia is Spain’s rising star.