Sun-worshippers need look no further than the relaxing and, more importantly, sun-soaked Spanish island of Murcia, with its miles of pristine beaches and lively student-fed culture. Once renowned throughout the world for its production of fine silk, Murcia is now a prospering university town with an interesting cultural history, sweeping landscapes and if Spanish food-critics are to be believed, a standard and variety of delicious tapas dishes good enough to challenge many of its high profile relatives.
A university town dotted with gorgeous rococo buildings, Murcia has no shortage of chic places to stay. A good choice for those who want to be at the heart of the action is the NH Rincón de Pepe (Calle Apóstoles 34), which is a short walk from the old quarter and the city’s magnificent Gothic cathedral. Away from the centre, the AC Hotel Murcia by Marriott (Avenida Juan Carlos I 39) is a quietly stylish retreat with its own spa. Also worth a try is the family-run Hotel Casa Emilio (Calle Alameda de Colón 9), close to the centre opposite the gorgeous Floridablanca public gardens.
Murcians are touchingly proud of being one of the few cities in Spain to boast their own branch of Primark but if discount British fashion doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of alternatives. Calle Jabonerías is the place to go for top-end design. Elsewhere, the Avenida de la Libertad is home to a branch of Spain’s top department store, El Corte Inglés, while La Oca on Calle Jerónimo de Roda is the place to go for cool pieces of modern art or furniture. Behind El Corte Inglés, you’ll find an interesting street market piled high with cheap and cheerful bric-a-brac.
While residents of Barcelona and San Sebastián may beg to disagree, according to Spain’s food critics, Murcia is streets ahead of the competition when it comes to tapas. There’s a distinctly Moorish flavour to tapas in Murcia, not least at La Mejillonera (Plaza Cardenal Belluga 7), where tiny plates of mussel stew are flavoured with Moroccan cumin. Ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad) is typical and found everywhere, although Bar Los Zagales (Calle Polo de Medina 4) does some of the best. For bigger plates and lashings of salty cheese, try Pepico del Tío Ginés (Calle Ruipérez 4).
Los Caballos del Vino
A wonderfully bizarre festival that takes place in nearby Caravaca de la Cruz, the running of the wine horses is a 13th-century tradition that’s still going strong. Festivities include a race where horses in lavishly decorated costumes dash through the town’s medieval streets.
Entierro de la Sardina
Despite the name, no sardines are interred during festivities, although an effigy does meet a fiery end at the climax of a noisy and colourful parade. Escorted by Brazilian samba bands, each float is sponsored by a different sardinero (fishing) association.
Murcia Tres Culturas
Bringing together artists, performers and authors from three major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), the festival aims to overcome racism through culture.
Festival de Cante Flamenco de Lo Ferro
Held in San Pedro del Pinatar just outside Murcia, this is the place to come if you want to see flamenco dancing in all of its flamboyant glory.
Fiesta de Moros y Cristianos
Commemorating the reconquista or battles between the Moors and the Christians, the annual celebrations see ‘armies’ proceed through the city centre before festivities culminate in a huge bull fighting display. It’s not for the faint-hearted – many of the bulls (and fighters) come to a gory end.