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I’m part Spanish. Basically, my ancestors were on the wrong side of the Spanish Inquisition which has meant a convoluted family journey from Cadiz (hence my surname) to Ireland via the Caribbean, then to Southern Africa and eventually (in my case) back to Europe (London). So I’m a bit of a mixed bag, to say the least. But after all that, I believe I can still feel my Spanishness inside me, and love the land of my forefathers. Every time I touch down in Spain it feels like I’m coming home.
As much as I love all the traditional tourist sights of Spain (which let’s face it, have to be seen), I love diverting off the tourist track, too. It’s my way of inhaling my idea of the real Spain and gives me a chance to practice my fractured but enthusiastic Spanish (I speak pretty good menu Spanish, the rest needs work – a lot of it!). Any efforts made to converse in Spanish are greeted with friendliness and warmth, and sometimes gentle correction, which is great – I’ve found it a great way to learn more.
Which is why I love visiting Murcia for a proper Spanish fix. The area is best known to visitors (particularly from the UK) as the home of La Manga Club – an upmarket sports resort with three immaculate golf courses, 28 tennis courts, a large gym and several pools, both out and indoors. Sporting heaven and luxurious accommodation that gives you plenty of opportunity to get in your favourite form of exercise. A great spot to base yourself and take advantage of all the amazing facilities while exploring your surroundings.
You’re sitting in the middle of the Orchard of Europe – so much fruit and veg is grown here which means everything you eat has hardly travelled at all, and tastes fabulous. The markets are a dream with peaches you can smell from 50 metres away (yes, seriously) and huge flavoursome garlic bulbs being sold for 3 for €1 (yes, seriously) to mention two of my personal favourites.
The market moves around the region through the week – Sunday mornings are my favourite market days when it appears as if by magic in the picturesque fishing village of Cabo de Palos. An early start with a walk on the beach, followed by pan con tomate and cafe con leche for breakfast overlooking the harbour and you’re set up for some serious shopping. Hundreds of stalls sell everything from lip gloss to shoes and clothes, tablecloths, frying pans and a wide range of kitchen utensils, to fabulous food at great prices. Cabo de Palos also boasts three ceramicos – real treasure troves packed with pottery and glassware in beautiful vibrant designs.
There’s a large, usually quiet beach with a chiringuito (beach bar) and Restaurant Katy which is always packed with locals tucking into the freshest of fish. At the harbour on the other side of town you can also feast in a range of restaurants overlooking the sparkling azure ocean, people watching and taking in all the boating activity. I haven’t tried this restaurant, as I can’t resist my regular haunt.
My favourite is Miramar which serves a deliciously simple dish called Trimarino – prawns, clams and baby whitebait served in an irresistible mix of olive oil, garlic and chilli. Love the food of Spain. Speaking of food, the local Mercadona makes supermarket shopping a joy, with its fabulous fish counter, tempting jamon and the ever-colourful cornucopia of fruit and vegetables. And again all great value for money.
If you’re looking for history and culture, the capital of the region is nearby. Murcia was founded in 825AD, it has a beautiful Gothic-style cathedral, lots of shops and riverside restaurants to chill out in.
Or the port city of Cartagena is even older, having been founded in 227BC. It’s packed with historical sights, like the remains of the amazing Carthaginian walls dating back to the 3rd century BC. You’ll also find great retail therapy, including the large El Corte Ingles, of the heavenly department store chain. After all that shopping and exploring you’ll probably feel the need to head back to the beach from some relaxation.
The little seaside town of Mar de Cristal nestles on one side of the Mar Menor, a large salty lagoon separated from the Mediterranean Sea by La Manga (which means the sleeve in Spanish), a 22 km sandbar with a width ranging from 100 to 1200 metres – also known as the Strip. A typically Spanish promenade with palm trees runs alongside the beach and there’s a decked chiringuito (beach bar) and a laid-back beachside restaurant called Café Arena Mar de Cristal that serves the best patatas bravas ever. Well, you’ll have to try them to see if you agree with me.
A visit to the Strip (the sandbar previously mentioned) is a must. Packed with restaurants, bars and shops, it’s a holiday haven that Spaniards from all over the country make their annual pilgrimage to. It’s wonderful to see all the families happily holidaying together. The vast beach on the sea-side is dotted with restaurants and the ocean is beautiful to swim in. Lazy, hazy days from sea to sand to local eatery for sustenance. Bonobo is a very short stroll from your sun worshipping spot and serves good traditional Spanish food at wallet-pleasing prices. I love their baby whitebait – or small fried fish as its translated as on the menu.
If you head to the other side of the Strip, you can bathe again in the lagoon that is the Mar Menor. It’s watersport heaven here, take time out to sail or ski, or if that’s not your thing there’s plenty of beach area and beautifully warm, shallow water to float away the day in. It’s the perfect place for families with endless paddling opportunities. These waters are also revered for their health-giving properties, well I always feel better when I’ve immersed myself in their balminess.
Not surprisingly, there are more restaurants here, too. I particularly love Escuela del Pieter with its great menu and beachside location. A lot of the customers come in for lunch by boat, which seems like something to aspire to in life! Very cool to see them wading through the water in anticipation of a delicious lunch.
The restaurant serves beautiful baby lamb chops (a staple on Murcian menus), lovely fish and complimentary, refreshing gazpacho to start off with. A chilled bottle of Spanish Rose completes a delightful meal before you head for some beach time. If you eat in the restaurant you can use one of their sunbeds (and an umbrella) for free. It’s hard to tear yourself away – unless it’s back up to the restaurant for refreshment – the Sangria is particularly good.
Other places in the area worth a mention are the somewhat sleepy (in a good way) Los Belones which has a great bodega (wine shop) and several restaurants including Run which serves a good selection of Asian food – all cooked with the best Spanish ingredients, of course.
La Union is set inland surrounded by hills and has the roving market on Tuesdays. Tapas bars are packed with locals on market day, offering the chance to mingle and taste the morsels on offer. Try Taperia Edward for a real taste of Spain (I recommend you order the Russian Salad).
Or if you’re looking for more hustle and bustle the bigger (and much busier) town of Los Alcazares runs for miles along the water (it has three exits off the motorway) so there’s plenty to explore. For serious foodies the farming town of El Algar is home to one of the best restaurants in the region. Los Churrascos is always a joy to visit, we’re welcomed back like old friends and spend ages deciding what dishes to order – frequently going back to the old favourites, they’re just too good to resist.
I’ve been visiting Murcia for many years and feel there’s even more to discover. I always feel a slight sadness when my plane takes off heading home, maybe because a part of me will always be there loving those blue Spanish skies…and everything else that goes with them in this wonderful region. But I know I’ll be back to explore again soon. Let’s hope so, anyway.
It’s best to hire a car to get around, roads are good and generally fairly quiet and easy to drive on.
All photos are by Sandy Cadiz-Smith, with the exception of the following:
Mar de Cristal Seascape by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería
Los Alcazares Seascape by Alex Holyoake
Sandy Cadiz-Smith is a food and travel writer who loves cooking, eating out and exploring new lands – inspiring you to cook more, eat more and travel more along the way.