During my trip to Alicante, I decided to visit a part of Spain which I had never been to before: Murcia.
Now, aside from the two cities still under Spanish control in northern Africa (Ceuta and Melilla), Murcia is probably the least popular province in the country—for domestic and international tourism, both. Indeed, I would say that the place has a rather unfortunate reputation. Students of mine used to joke that “nadie vive en Murcia” (“nobody lives in Murcia”). Every time I expressed an interest in visiting, the Spaniards around me would shoot me a look of puzzlement and concern. Needless to say, this only strengthened my resolve to go.
And as luck would have it, the train from Alicante passed through another town which has long been on my list: Elche. I thus had a full and rewarding day trip with hardly any planning required.
With a population of around 200,000, Elche is a medium-sized city, only slightly smaller than nearby Alicante. The vast majority of Spanish cities are built around an obvious geographical landmark—a river, a bay, or a mountain—but Elche seems to be in the middle of nowhere. There is a tiny trickle of a creek (the Vinapoló) that passes through the city, and that is all. Perhaps this is because the city is 10 km distant from its original location to the south (nearer the coast). This was an ancient city of considerable importance, founded by the Greeks and occupied by the Carthaginians and Romans. But, for whatever reason, Elche was moved north to its current location during the Moorish period and has since languished in moderate obscurity.
But Elche remains famous for two reasons. (Well, three if you count its sizable shoe industry.) One is the so-called Lady of Elche, a stone bust discovered near the city. This is one of the most spectacular ruins found in the country, though it is not exactly known who made it nor whom it is supposed to represent. The standard interpretation is that it was made by the ancient Iberians (though not a whole lot is known about them), and it may represent a Carthaginian goddess. In any case, I recommend a trip to the National Archaeology Museum, in Madrid, in order to see it. The workmanship is of astoundingly high quality. And it is so stylistically different from Greco-Roman sculpture that one cannot help but wonder about this ancient people.
Of course, I was not in Elche to see this bust. I was there to visit the Palmeral, or Palm Grove. This is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of palm trees. However, in the case of Elche it is both very large and very old. The tradition of cultivating date palms in the area goes back to Roman times, was greatly expanded during Muslim rule, and was preserved into the Christian period. Today, there are about 70,000 palm trees in the city of Elche with many more just outside the city limits. What is more, this tradition of palm cultivation and water management (mustering enough water in such an arid area is quite the challenge) was deemed historically important enough for UNESCO to declare the Palm Grove a World Heritage Site.
I arrived in Elche early, at around 10 in the morning. But it was already hot. I could tell that it was not a day to be outside. Indeed, the temperature was set to ascend above 40 degrees (well over 100 Fahrenheit) by lunch-time.
The Palm Grove is just a few minutes away from the local train station and, in no time, I was immersed in the thicket. I am not sure exactly what I had been expecting—an enormous, dense jungle of palm trees, perhaps—but the Palmeral appeared to be just a municipal park with all of the trees replaced by palms. Legions of pigeons were hanging around, and geese sat silently in a little pond. Apart from me, there were just a dozen or so people present. It was hard to believe that this was a World Heritage Site.
At the time of my visit, I did not really grasp why so many palms had been planted here. I assumed that it was just for the aesthetic effect (which I found questionable). But of course these palm trees were originally cultivated as a crop.
Dates, as you may know, are an important ingredient in North African cuisine. Indeed, the date has a symbolic importance in Islam. The prophet Muhammad was said to have broken his own Ramadan fast by eating a date, and this has become a common tradition. (Wine can also be made from dates, though this is expressly prohibited in the Quran.) Palm trees also have a significance in Christianity, of course; and the leaves from Elche are still used in Palm Sunday celebrations today. I should also mention that other parts of the tree—the seeds, the sap, and the leaves—also have various uses, such as animal feed or material for baskets. The date palm is, in short, quite a versatile crop.
But I knew virtually none of this as I strolled through the grove, sweaty, thirsty, and snapping the occasional picture. If you are going to visit, read up a little bit on the history first. And don’t go during the hottest part of summer.
My train arrived in Murcia at around one o’clock in the evening. The weather by now was blazing. Not having done any research into the main sites of the city, I had no idea what to expect. But my immediate impression was disappointment. The train station itself was undergoing repairs. The area looked like an open construction zone, and the stairway leading to the different tracks was a mere scaffold. What is more, the area immediately around the train station was not particularly welcoming. The streets were dirty, the buildings shabby, and there were many drunkards lolling about. If this was Murcia, I could understand why nobody wanted to come here.
Yet I decided to suspend judgment until I got into the center of town. The walk quickly took me into more seemly parts of the city. I soon passed by an attractive park (La Floridablanca) and arrived at the Segura river. The area surrounding the river was quite lovely, though sadly I felt little inclination to stay and soak in the sights, as by now the sun’s rays were like laser beams on the back of my neck. Rather, I had to get inside, drink some water, and eat something.
For this, I went to Bodegón Los Toneles, a well-rated tapas bar. I was surprised to find the menu full of dishes which I had never heard of (I thought I knew Spanish cuisine pretty well). To order, I had to trust the wisdom of the waiter, who directed me to order three separate dishes. The first was called “michirones,” and it is a bean stew made with fava beans. Next I had zarangollo, which is just scrambled eggs with zucchini and onion. Last was a dish called chapinas, which consisted of little bits of lamb cooked in oil and garlic. All three are typical of Murcia, and all three were extremely delicious. Suddenly I began to feel much better about my choice to visit Murcia.
Murcia, I should mention, is among the larger cities in the country, with a population of almost half a million. Its name goes back to its Muslim heritage, originally being called Mursiyah. Indeed, unusual among Spanish cities, the visitor can find a statue of the city’s Moorish founder, Abd ar-Rahman. Though Murcia is extremely hot, it occupies a fertile valley that has made it a major exporter of produce. This is also partly why the food is so good.
My first visit was to the city cathedral (pictured above). Like many cathedrals in Spain—especially in the south—this one was built over what had been the principal mosque before Christian “reconquest.” Also, like many of the great European cathedrals, this one took quite a long time to build: the better part of a century, from 1394 to 1465. And this does not count the impressive bell tower, which took an additional two centuries—1521 to 1791. Naturally, during such a large span of time, many styles were incorporated: the interior is mainly gothic, while the outside is a mixture of Baroque and Neoclassical.
More importantly, however, all of these styles are well done. The cathedral is imposing and impressive from the outside—dominating the entire center of the city—while being quite attractive within. As usual, the church is full of paintings, friezes, sculptures, and other works of art. I was especially impressed with the choir stalls, though these are not gothic originals. The cathedral was gutted by a fire in the 19th century, requiring the organ and the stalls to be replaced. Thankfully, the repair job was done with beautiful taste in a neo-gothic style in keeping with the rest of the cathedral. In short, by the time I concluded my visit, I was convinced that the Murcia Cathedral is among the most beautiful in the country—and that is no small thing.
My next stop was the Casino de Murcia. Now, I normally have no interest in casinos. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, this was the first time in my life that I stepped foot in such an establishment in my life.
Yet this casino is not simply a sordid place of gambling. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The self-guided audio tour took me from room to elaborate room, each one fitted out with luxurious decorations. And each of these rooms seemed to be a kind of homage to a Spanish architectural style—with one room fitted out like the Alhambra, another like the Royal Palace, and another like the library in the University of Salamanca. I could not help but picture a posse of paunchy, cigar-smoking men dressed in tuxedos, waddling through these rooms while they casually placed bets and discussed their (legally dubious) business dealings. It is, in short, an evocative space.
My next stop was the Museo Salzillo. This is a museum dedicated to the work of the esteemed Murciano, Francisco Salzillo (1707–83), one of the great (though lesser-known) artists of the Baroque period. If you have some sensitivity to language, it may have struck you that his name is not especially Spanish. His father was the Italian artist, Nicolás Salzillo, who moved to Murcia during one of the high points of the city’s history, in the 1700s. The son surpassed the father in both fame and ability. Indeed, Francisco’s work is considered so important that his museum occupies what used to be a large church, as well as some neighboring buildings.
Like his father, Francisco was a sculptor, working in the medium of polychromed wood. The bulk of the museum is given over to his nativity figurines. Now, I normally have little interest in this sort of thing. Spain is absolutely full of nativity figurines around Christmas, and I cannot say I have ever derived much enjoyment from the examination of any of them. But the works of Salzillo are of another order: the level of craftsmanship is so superlative that the tiny scenes become genuine works of art—moving human dramas played out in miniature. The visit culminates in the aforementioned church, where Salzillo’s Holy Week floats are stored. These are just as striking and dramatic as his nativity figures. I emerged onto the street convinced that Salzillo deserves a much larger reputation.
It was around four in the afternoon now, and the temperature was truly unbearable. I had to count every minute I spent outside, wary of dehydration and sunburn. The streets were basically deserted—since the locals are smart enough not to tempt fate with this weather.
My last stop in the city was for an iced coffee. For this, I stepped into a large coffee shop called Cafélab; and although I normally do not go in for fancy coffee, I must admit that it was delicious. But I was originally attracted to the establishment because a (much smaller) café in my hometown has almost the same name: Coffee Labs. It was—nonsensically, perhaps—like a little taste of home. But the baristas seemed very amused when I told them about the coincidence.
Now my visit was over. Sweaty and exhausted, I walked the 20 minutes back to the train through what felt like an actual desert. Even the area around the train station was mostly empty by the time I arrived. There is really no way to exaggerate how punishing a Spanish summer day can be. Stepping onto the train was a sweet relief, and I dozed during the journey back to Alicante. After so many years, I had finally stepped foot in Murcia. And I am sure I will return.
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