Fly the nest and discover Spain’s best kept secret. From hikeable mountain trails and untouched coastlines ripe for exploration, to world class dining without a waiting list, DOSE writer Helena reviews an active autumnal break, set amongst the sunny South East region of Murcia…
Hotel Bajo El Cejo
Few things reinforce a sense of inner peace quite like being immersed within nature. It’s just before 8am and I’m submerged amongst the serene waters of an infinity pool, the sun slowly ascending to the summit of the rugged cliffs that surround me. The Fuente del Chorrico stream trickles on the fringes of earshot. I lay back in starfish formation and allow myself to float away.
We’re in the boutique Bajo El Cejo hotel, located in El Berro – a sleepy hamlet of little more than 100 inhabitants at an altitude of 650 metres, nestled amongst the mountainous Sierra Espuña. Originally home to coal miners and a watermill, the architecture pays homage to its rich heritage. Natural materials dominate throughout the space; wooden beams and ceilings, exposed stone walls and natural clay floors allow this building to blend seamlessly into Mother Earth.
Indeed, it is she that provides the principal source of inspiration here, not only for the architecture, but also the food, with field to fork ingredients featuring at every meal. The previous night’s dinner had witnessed us devouring four delicious courses of zero food miles, the elements of each dish either grown, handpicked or foraged from the fertile soils that sit nearby. Christened the ‘orchard of Europe’, the Murcia region is famous for its ‘huerta’, thanks to year-round warm weather and 300 days of southern sunshine.
Hiking in the Sierra Espuna National Park…
There are more than 17,000 hectares of diverse terrains for visitors to explore within the Sierra Espuña park, from the Paredes de Leyva cliff faces and ravines of Gebas, to the Muela plateau waterfall and surrounding reservoirs. Prior to our hiking adventure, we gain newfound knowledge at the visitors centre, named after the rewilding prodigy, Ricardo Codorníu. After a devastating flood in 1879, the park had been stripped bare, its lush green beauty washed away. A passionate lover of nature, Codorníu made it his mission to replant the forest, for which he received fame and recognition for, becoming known as the “Apóstol del Árbol” (the apostle of the trees).
Sustainability has since become the star focus of the region, having launched six new eco-tourism experiences that are designed with sightseers of all ages in mind and an opportunity to uncover a historic forest full of traditions, culture and flavours. With themes ranging from ‘Among Birds’ and ‘Panoramic Movement, to ‘Adventure’ and ‘Paths’, there is something for everyone; whether it’s taking in the breath-taking views of the park while paragliding or sampling local and organic produce.
Calasparra rice at Rincon del Grillo…
At Rincon del Grillo, where there’s an endless supply of Murcian specialities, all served within a rustic setting. We’re greeted with a plate of Pisto Murciano – a sort of ratatouille, made from peppers, tomatoes, and aubergines, handpicked from the oasis of greenery surrounding us. Mid-mouthful, I stop to smell the ñora that’s slowly being passed around the table. Powerfully smoky, this dried pepper is the secret to Murcia’s signature seasoning. After some smashed avocado and crackers to munch on, mountains of croquetas appear, each containing a different filling. There’s mushroom, aubergine, cheese and ham, all cocooned in creamy béchamel sauce and a deep-fried crumb coating. And for the pièce de resistance, a pan of Calasparra rice. Not to be confused with its close cousin the Paella, the rice is highly absorbent and able to take up two times its weight in liquid, creating an intensely rich flavour.
Sailing in Mal Menor…
The next day sees us take to the water by boat, to explore Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon: Mar Menor. With a sizeable splash, we cannonball one by one into the sea. I’m instantly blown away by the buoyancy of the saltwater which enables me to easily float without effort. I feel as though I’m suspended, a sensation similar to that of sensory deprivation, minus the tank.
Splayed out in the sunshine, we munch on Murcia al Vino, which literally translates to “drunken goat”, due to the red wine bath the cheese receives during its ageing process, giving it a distinctive purple rind. A must try, it’s made with the milk of free-grazing Murcian goats, giving it a uniquely sweet tang.
Freshly caught seafood at Bocana de Palos…
Today’s catch of the day makes its way onto my plate at Bocana de Palos, a restaurant endowed with endless views of the sparkling amethyst sea. After some tapas style appetisers, two enormous platters emerge from the kitchen: one bestowing a bacalao style seabass, and another grilled, paired simply with Padron peppers, steamed vegetables and rice. Washed down with Spanish vino Bianco, it’s a feast fit for the Gods.
Battle re-enactment in Cartagena…
We reach our destination of Cartagena just as dusk melts into night, marking the transformation of the city into one vast and vibrant party. The revelries take place for ten days during the second half of September, with more than four thousand Carthaginians taking part, a tradition that has continued since 1990. Having witnessed an enthralling battle re-enactment of the second Punic War between the Carthaginians and Romans, we join in with the annual festivities, parades of gladiators escorting us down cobbled streets, in search of Sangre Romana (Roman Blood), aka Sangria, reasonably priced at €1.50 a cup.
Trekking along the beaches of Calblanque …
Our night of revelry is counterbalanced with a morning’s worth of trekking along the beaches of Calblanque, located in the eastern part of the Murcia region and home to a wide diversity of environments, from salt marshes to sand dunes, and numerous rare species of flora and fauna that are of conservational interest. Here one can hike amongst the Aliaga bushes and Aleppo pines, or seek out the wonders of the sea floor scuba diving. Truly unspoilt, this untouched stretch of the Mediterranean coastline offers close to empty beaches, free from boisterous Brits aboard.
A visit to the Roman Theatre…
On the hunt for history, we head to the ruins of the Roman Theatre. Located in the heart of Cartagena, the remnants were hidden for centuries, buried beneath buildings inhabited through Byzatine, Visigoth, Moorish and Christian occupations. Recently discovered in 1988, the work began to restore the theatre into its former glory, successfully undertook by architect Rafael Moneo. We travel back in time as we progress through the museum, ascending the interlinking levels filled with antiquity, until we emerge onto the steps of the grand open theatre, blinded by the dazzling sunlight.
The last lunch at La Marquesita…
We move on to our last lunch at La Marquesita, where a medley of appetisers (including a sensational fruit salad, crowned with a burrata ball covered in mango coulis) give way to a traditional rice dish – Caldero Cartegenero – presented in its very own cauldron and accompanied by a rich and creamy aioli sauce. We somehow manage to make room for pudding, indulging in a custard flan soaked in lashings of sweet caramel syrup. Of course, it would be rude not to order one last Café Asiático laced with Licor 43, to close our trip in true authentic Murcian style.
In a nutshell…
With such an eclectic mix of terrains that are calling to be explored, whether that be on foot, bike or boat, Spain’s Southeast region of Murcia is ideal for active adventure addicts. Conscious of the planet? Not to worry, it’s Europe’s new ecotourist hotspot brimming with sustainable initiatives and eco beaches. And if cuisine is at the top of your agenda, it’s an epicurean dreamland of delicious dishes, boasting bounties of prized local produce and freshly caught fish, waiting to be devoured. So, what’s stopping you?
Worth getting out of bed for, if you’re a…
Head to Mar Menor Muds – The particular weather conditions and salt concentration of the Mar Menor makes the northern end of the lagoon ideal for therapeutical treatments.
Thermal Springs Spas – Set amongst stunning natural settings, the hot spring spas provide restorative powers and properties, which date back to the Roman Empire.
Thalassotherapy Centres – Said to eliminate toxins from the body, accelerate metabolism and increase blood and lymph circulation, Thalassotherapy brings the natural healing powers of sea water to the spa.
Why not try one of the gourmet experiences listed below:
Pairing: five cheeses with five wines from the Murcia Region – Delve into the world of cheese and wines from the Murcia Region, carefully chosen by the team of sommeliers at La Diligente.
Meet the vegetable garden – Learn more about the famous Murcian orchards and discover the secrets of ancient agriculture and cooking with freshly grown produce.
Like getting your hands dirty? Murcia is known for its ‘ollería’, pottery made for domestic use such as pans, plates, jugs and cups. Make your own at Las Alquerias, a nature school that runs pottery workshops and nature classes.
To find out more about Murcia and to plan your own active break, head to murciaturistica.es or browse @visitmurciaregion on Instagram for inspiration.