48 Hours In Murcia

Stunning Baroque architecture, a wealth of history and the most mouthwatering food await visitors to this delightful Spanish city, writes Alex Leith
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

In late July and August, any Murciano who can heads to the seaside or mountains to avoid the searing 40C heat. In contrast, June is the perfect month to stroll from square to square, shaded by trees and enjoying the Baroque architecture of this beautiful and underrated city. It's also a good time to enjoy the fresh fruit and vegetables from the fertile valley around the town, known as the Huerta de Europa ("market garden of Europe").

BEAM DOWN

You can fly to Murcia's San Javier airport from Birmingham on MyTravelLite (08701 564 564; www.mytravellite.com); from Leeds/Bradford on Jet2 (0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com); from London Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); from Manchester and Nottingham on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com); from Nottingham and London Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com); and from Southampton on FlyBE (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com). San Javier airport is 45km south of Murcia. Only three buses leave the airport each day, at 5.15pm, 8.15pm and 9.30pm (single ticket €7/£5, return €12/£8.50, journey time 45 minutes). If your plane doesn't connect with a bus, take a taxi (around €5/£3.50) into San Javier village, where buses leave every hour on the hour. Either way, the bus will arrive at the Estacion de Autobuses (00 34 968 29 22 21) in the centre of town. A taxi all the way into town costs around €40 (£29).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Murcia sprouts from the highly fertile, tortilla-flat valley of the Rio Segura. Originally irrigated by the Moors, who founded the city in the 9th century, the river valley is a bountiful oasis protected from its otherwise arid surroundings by parallel mountain chains, almost always in view from the city streets. Murcia lies on the banks of the river - most of its high spots are to be found within walking distance of one another on the north side. From the Estacion de Autobuses it is a short stroll to the cathedral along the pretty north bank of the Segura. In Plaza Cardenal Belluga, dominated by the Baroque façade of the cathedral, you'll find the main tourist office (00 34 968 35 87 49; www.murciaturistica.es, open 10am-2pm, 5-9pm April-September, 4-8pm October-March, closed Sunday afternoon).

CHECK IN

Murcia has lots of reasonably priced accommodation, mostly situated near the cathedral. The most luxurious is the four-star Arco de San Juan at Plaza Cebollos 10 (00 34 968 21 04 55; www.arcosanjuan.com), located in an 18th-century Neo-Classical palace. A double room at the weekend (Friday- Sunday) costs between €97 (£69) and €150 (£107) including breakfast (€110/£79 midweek). The Hispano II at Calle Radio Murcia 3 (00 34 968 21 68 59) is good value at €49 (£35) Friday, Saturday, Sunday per double room without breakfast (€65/£47 Monday-Thursday). Its reception also deals with the Pension Hispano I, situated on the other side of the block in Calle Traperia 8, which will set you back €39 (£28) for a clean, spacious double excluding breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

Starting in the Jardin Floridablanca, walk over the Rio Segura across the iron Puente Viejo to the beautiful flower-laden Glorieta España. Then walk through to Plaza Cardenal Belluga, where you will see the ornate but asymmetrically positioned cathedral façade. Walk around the front of the cathedral tower, still the tallest structure in the city, and up pedestrianised shop-filled Calle Traperia. You reach bustling Plaza Santo Domingo, laid out in 1547 as the main city square, and the prospect of shade beneath its 15m fig tree. Carry on up Gran Via Alfonso X, a tree-lined rambla, and up to the impressive fountain in the Plaza Circular.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Enjoy the fruit and vegetables of the Huerta de Europa right next to the cathedral in the Meson Plaza de la Cruz at Plaza Hernandez Amores 4 (00 34 968 21 33 07; open 9am-3pm, 7pm-midnight, closed Sunday). Sit inside and you can watch the waiter speed-chop succulent local tomatoes for the ensalada de la casa, with salmon, fresh cheese, peppers and olives, which costs €5.50 (£4). This salad is best eaten with a half ration of one of three types of ham: cocido (pink slices, saturated in lemon and oil, €4.20/£3); serrano (cured, chewy, tangy €4.20/£3) or, best of all iberico, (darker, melts in your mouth, €11.50/£8). Scores of hams hang from the ceiling to complete the atmosphere.

WINDOW SHOPPING

For well-designed local handicrafts, including a wide range of traditional esparto (basket work) products, try Paparajote at Calle de los Apostoles 14 (00 34 968 21 58 25; www.paparajote.com) based in what was formerly a 19th-century modernista pharmacy. La Peladilla on Calle San Antonio is a pasteleria which specialises in pasteles de cierva - savoury rabbit or chicken pastries made according to a recipe devised by medieval monks.

AN APERITIF

Murcia is an excellent place for outdoor drinking, with a choice of pretty squares glittering with silver tables and brimful of locals who've stopped for a beer or an ice cream. Plaza Santo Domingo is the most popular. Plaza de Belluga, by the cathedral, and Plaza Romea, in front of the 19th-century Teatro de Romea, are also fine places to kill a lazy hour or two with a drink in your hand. El Arco de Santo Domingo, in Plaza Santo Romea, is a fine people-watching spot with quick and friendly service. Most of the (rather raucous) post-midnight life is conducted in the university area.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

You are spoilt for choice for good restaurants in the city. Doña Lola at Plaza Cristo del Rescate 1 (00 34 968 22 00 96) serves good local food at a surprisingly low price (around €20-€30/£14-£22 a head) in a low-lit space with a little street-side terrace. Main courses include rabo de ternera en salsa (oxtail in gravy) and revoltillo de morcilla (soft black pudding in scrambled eggs). The guiso (local speciality stew) of the day is also recommended. El Hispano Calle Architecto Cerdan, 7 (00 34 968 21 61 52; closed Sundays in July and August, similar priced menu) is a local institution, with decor as traditional as its food. The lubina a la hierbabuena (sea bass in mint) is recommended. Raimundo at Plaza Raimundo Gonzalez Frutos 18, (00 34 968 21 23 77; closed Monday and 9-24 August) adds a creative touch to the traditional themes. Expect to pay over €30 (£22) a head.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Jardin Floridablanca, with its splendid rubber trees, white doves and fragrant rose bushes, was the first public garden to be built in Spain (in 1848) and provides soothing shade from the mid-afternoon sun.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

El Convento de Santa Clara at Plaza Santa Clara 2 is known locally as Las Claras. Don't be put off by the modern-looking exterior: the incense-scented Baroque interior is delightful, an intimate place with a frescoed dome and several statues by the 18th-century local sculptor Francisco Salzillo. Services start at 10am, 11am, noon, 1pm and 8.30pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Tapear (eating tapas) is a popular pastime here. These snack-sized dishes are of supremely good quality because of the fertility of the area and Murcia's proximity to the Mar Menor and its fine shellfish. The best place to go, day or night, for a wide range of tapas bars serving an extraordinary variety of dishes are the plazas of Santa Catalina, Las Flores and San Pedro, all located to the east of the Gran Via. Best of the lot are La Paba in Plaza Las Flores and El Fenix in Plaza Santa Catalina. Try a marinera (bread roll with Russian salad and anchovies) with a beer or a cafe con leche.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Francisco Salzillo, whose 18th-century life spanned Murcia's Baroque-influenced heyday, is one of Spain's most important sculptors. He specialised in life-sized wooden religious figures, which you can see in the Museo Salzillo at Plaza Agustin 3 (00 34 968 29 18 93; open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-2pm and 5-8pm; Sundays and Bank Holidays 11am-2pm; closed Mondays; admission €3/£2). Many of Salzillo's figures, including a stunning Last Supper group, are carried around Murcia during the city's exuberant Good Friday celebrations. But you'll probably spend more time studying the 600 statues, each of which is a foot high and which were produced to order for the belen (crib) of the rich local Riquelme family, which give you an idea of the life of the 18th-century Spanish peasantry.

TAKE A RIDE

Catch bus 42 from the bus station to follow the river northwards along the Valle de Ricote through the lush countryside full of palm and citrus trees as far as Cieza. On your way back stop in Ricote. Here there are two of the region's most beautiful Baroque buildings, the Palacete de Llamas and the San Sebastian church. A return fare is €6.50 (£5).

WRITE A POSTCARD

Murcia's most eccentric hang-out is its 19th-century, eclectically styled Casino at Calle Traperia 18 (00 34 968 21 53 99). Here you can lay bets, dance a waltz in a room with frescoed ceilings and 54-bulb chandeliers, or simply enjoy a cup of coffee among the pillars of its classical vestibule, a calm place to collect your thoughts.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

... is the cathedral on Plaza Cardenal Belluga. It was built between the 16th and 18th century and reflects the influence of at least five distinct periods of architecture. Most memorable is the west façade which looks on to the Plaza de Belluga. This was built, like much else in Murcia, during the 18th century and demonstrates the indulgent Baroque exuberance of the period, dripping with medallions, capitals and cherubim. Around the corner, in Plaza de los Apostoles, there is a vast stone chain attached to the wall. Local legend has it that a stonemason arrived in Murcia in 1587 suggesting its addition to the cathedral, staking his life on the fact that Murcia's bishop would approve once it was completed. On its unveiling, the bishop apparently liked the stonemason's work so much that he chopped his hands off to prevent him from building similar chains around rival cathedrals.

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