Sunseekers love it, those in need of a good pampering session cannot keep away from it. But is the Murcia coastline really an ideal choice if you’re simply looking to get away from it all? Of course! thinkSPAIN|today uncovers some of Murcia’s best-kept secrets – its wildlife, forgotten villages and picturesque, verdant countryside...
LA MANGA’S plush spa resorts, top restaurants and celebrity hang-outs have achieved international fame and Murcia is finally on the global tourist map, competing with more traditional chic Spanish destinations like Marbella, Palma de Mallorca, Madrid and Barcelona.
But if being coated in mud and seaweed and trussed up in clingfilm isn’t your scene, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should rule out a trip to the Murcia region. This picturesque corner of Mediterranean Spain is a sea of pine and palm forests, deserted coves, warm and tranquil coastal waters, golden sun-drenched beaches, nature reserves and forgotten villages – all inhabited by endangered species of birds and animals, and some of the most friendly, open, welcoming people you will meet on your travels through this country.
And what’s more, the Murcia region has more hours of sun than practically anywhere else on the Spanish mainland, and its winters are mild too – sothere is no reason to wait until next summer to visit.
Exploring the natural side of Murcia is a relaxing, peaceful experience, the perfect getaway for those stuck in the heat of a polluted city in summer or who want to escape the madness of a bustling coastal resort. In spring and autumn, though, you can marvel at the ever-changing landscapes, an ocean of colours that unfolds at your feet – and enjoy some much-needed sunshine and dry weather that is often lacking in more northerly parts at the start and finish of the year.
Salinas de Marchamalo
If you’re near the Mar Menor, head to its southernmost point and breathe in the crisp, salty air of the Salinas de Marchamalo (second photo). Long under threat by ambitious developers and fighting to keep alive the centuries-old salt-extraction trade that takes place there, the salt lagoons are currently out of danger thanks to an EU conservation order. Indeed, anything else would be sacrilege. You can easily imagine, strolling round this natural paradise, that you were anywhere from a tropical rainforest to a snow-covered sierra. The exotic plantlife, the vast, silver lakes with their hordes of flamingos, and salt mountains, create dramatically contrasting landscapes at every turn.
Easy to reach from the La Manga motorway, taking the first exit for Cabo de Palos, or on foot from Playa Paraíso, the Salinas de Marchamalo is nonetheless another world altogether from the whitewashed apartment blocks and high-rise hotels.
Secret coves, unspoilt beaches, abandoned lakes, enchanted woods, dunes and an exotic cross-section of wildlife, particularly flora – this is Calblanque in a nutshell.
To enjoy the silence, avoid it in August. Tourists descend on the area en masse, and it is not unusual to see up to 1,200 people at a time roaming around the nature reserve. On the other hand, it is the ideal season to catch sight of one of Europe’s few giant silk moth colonies, a type of butterfly that is in fact native to Surinam, México, Guatemala and Brazil.
During the remaining 11 months of the year, the regional park is a botanical paradise with a whopping 668 species of flora and fauna, of which some 175 are in danger of extinction.
Calblanque’s 14 kilometres of coast include the secluded bays of Reventón, Arturo and Las Mulas and sweeping golden beaches such as Las Cañas and Negrete (main photo).
Taking a step back from the shore you will pass between green gardens of Eden curiously interspersed with what appear to be sand frozen in motion, sculpted by mother nature, and which are in fact fossilised dunes.
Other phenomena of nature include a cluster of Sandarac trees, a strain of the Cypress which is native to Morocco’s Atlas mountain range. Calblanque’s crop is the only known example of the tree in Europe. Ornithologists, amateur or otherwise, will have a field day seeking out typically-European species like the Avocet, Black-Winged Stilt and Snowy Plover –another good reason to visit Calblanque in winter, since along with the colourful colonies of flamingos, these birds take refuge in the park during the colder months of the year.
To reach Calblanque, take the La Manga motorway. It is signposted once you pass the turn-off for Los Belones.
Canons warning enemies
It wasn’t always calm and peaceful on the coast of Murcia, although what remains of the old military barracks above a rocky cape near Calblanque no longer rings with the air-splitting boom of canons warning of approaching enemies, and is instead a popular tourist attraction. You cannot miss it if you are in the Cabo Negrete area, since it stands some 300 metres above the sea and its massive black cannons give its presence away, pointing towards the distant horizon beyond the western Mediterranean, ready to defend the coast from invasion. Once you reach it, up close the building is highly impressive with totems that remind one of the great mausoleum of Chichén Itzá in Mérida, eastern México.
Despite the Manhattan skyline below slightly marring the view, a thick, rolling carpet of pines, palms and Sandarac trees at your feet, and the Las Cenizas and Peña del Águila mountains above mean this part of the Calblanque nature reserve is an ideal refuge from the worries of the world, now that the cannons are silenced forever.
You can reach it from Portmán, taking the MU-314 from the ancient Roman port, or the less complicated route from Los Belones via La Manga Club and the town of Atamaría.
Three beaches in one
El Portús, the only beach accessible by car between Cartagena and La Azohía, is a melting pot of nudist camps, family homes, and coves where deep-sea divers flock throughout the year. Among the brand-new holiday homes scattered along the coast are quaint, village houses, a chapel on a hill and an abandoned police headquarters with the Spanish flag painted on the rendering, now faded by the sun.
It’s not all sunbathing and sea-fishing, though. From El Portús you can take the footpath climbing up towards the summit of the La Muela mountain, some 550 metres above sea-level, heading for the Cabo Tiñoso – a walk that allows breathtaking views from the vertiginous clifffaces that you encounter en route. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you are not scared of heights the unrivalled panorama from the top is dramatic and beautiful.
To get there, take the road heading for La Azohía from Cartagena and turn left after the village of Canteras. El Portús is three kilometres further on.
A lost village
It is said that due to a mining disaster 20 years ago, Portmán is something of a ghost-town. When the great ship the Lavadero Roberto dropped literally tonnes of waste in the sea back in 1987 meant a massive sea-clearing exercise had to be carried out and with it, a certain amount of regeneration. Yet now,this small fishing village is a favourite with tourists seeking sun-drenched views and beaches where they do not have to fight for towel-space amongst thousands of others who have had the same idea.
All the charm of a coastal fishing village, Portmán’s tiny port and lighthouse with spectacular panoramas of the bay and its clusters of fishermen’s houses mean it is the ideal place to escape the madding crowds, but without sacrificing a bit of sunbathing.
A fascinating mining landscape can be admired en route to Portmán from the Cartagena-La Unión road, or a quicker route takes you from La Manga towards the plush resort of La Manga Club, crossing velvety green golf courses and dense pine forests.
Lighting the way home
Marking the only stretch between the Mar Menor and the Mediterranean that is possible to navigate by ship, the Estació lighthouse next to the ultra-modern drawbridge of the same name watches over fishermen setting out before the sun rises over the sea and returning home late, tired and loaded down, as well as lost tourists and furtive teenage couples seeking romantic hideaways off the coast. You can reach it by taking the Gran Vía de La Manga, the main road along the coastal strip.
Also guiding the ships to home and safety is the lighthouse at Cabo de Palos, visible from the Estació, which is as much the symbol of the village as the Tour Eiffel is to Paris, the Colisseum to Rome or the Sagrada Familia to Barcelona. From its summit, visitors can take in a sweeping view stretching across the extensive, idyllic beaches of La Manga and Calblanque, the sheer, dramatic cliff-faces of Cala Flores, and the tiny uninhabited island of Las Hormigas. At full moon, those standing on the top of the lighthouse can take in a dramatic, haunting view of the silver satellite riding the night sky.
To get to it, head for Cabo de Palos from La Manga, straight for the coast.
Refuge for the rich and powerful
Although the Murcia coastline, particularly in the Mar Menor area, is becoming a sea of shining, new resorts, remnants of its recent past and burgeoning reputation as a holiday destination for those with money and taste remain in Cabo de Palos.
Holiday homes built decades ago had individual character and were often tailored to the individual whims of the powerful families in the Cartagena area and Murcia capital who sought a beach residence with all creature comforts for their summer vacations.
Curiously, some of these houses were built into the cliff-face, giving them a ‘hanging’ appearance. Take a stroll along the Paseo de la Barra and the Playa de Levante, and the coves of El Descargador and Cala Fría to find out how the other half lived at a time when holidays were the enviable privilege of the landed gentry.
Now, luckily, a holiday in Murcia is within the budget of most of us, even if we cannot slip into the sumptuous summer residences of the wealthy of yesteryear, or the five-star luxury hotels that abound on the coast. And as its fame as a holidaymaker’s magnet continues to grow, the sun continues to shine and an estimated 300,000 Brits make it their home over the next decade as predicted, it is comforting to know that the tourist-led building boom has not wiped out the natural charms, hidden corners, wealth of wildlife or the peace and tranquillity that makes Murcia more than just a place to lay down your beach towel and catch a tan.