For many, VALENCIA’s enviable perch on the Mediterranean would be enough of a draw. Not so for the city itself: Valencia has been reinventing itself at a heady pace, and shows no signs of slowing down. Well on the way to equalling – indeed, eclipsing in some instances – the cosmopolitan vitality of Barcelona and the cultural variety of Madrid, Spain’s third-largest city has finally shaken off its slightly provincial former reputation. In the last decade and a half, a vast, iconic La Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias cultural complex has been established, the state-of-the-art metro has continued to expand and dozens of hip new bars, restaurants and boutiques have injected new life into the historic centre. Valencia has also fully redeveloped its beach and port area, in part sparked by its hosting of prestigious yachting jamboree, the America’s Cup. Nevertheless, despite its size and stylista cachet, Valencia retains an unpretentious if tangibly charged air.
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Always an important city, Valencia was fought over for the agricultural wealth of its surrounding huerta. After Romans and Visigoths, it was occupied by the Moors for over four centuries with only a brief interruption (1094–1101) when El Cid recaptured it. He died here in 1099, but his body, propped on a horse and led out through the gates, was still enough to cause the Moorish armies – previously encouraged by news of his death – to flee in terror. It wasn’t until 1238 that Jaime I of Aragón permanently wrested Valencia back. It has remained one of Spain’s largest and richest cities ever since.
Valencia has long boasted some of the best nightlife in mainland Spain. Vivir Sin Dormir (Live Without Sleep) is the name of one of its bars, and it could be taken as a Valencian mantra. The city is alive with noise and colour throughout the year, with explosions of gunpowder, fireworks and festivities punctuating the calendar. Valencia’s fiestas are some of the most riotous in Spain and the best is Las Fallas, March 12–19, which culminates in a massive bonfire where all the processional floats are burned.
The most atmospheric area of the city is undoubtedly the maze-like Barrio del Carmen (in Valenciano “de Carmé”), roughly north of the Mercado Central to the Río Turia, extending up to the Torres de Serranos and west to the Torres de Quart. This once-neglected quarter continues to undergo regeneration, as buildings are renovated and stylish cafés open up next to crumbling townhouses, all of which makes for an incredibly vibrant, alternative neighbourhood. The city walls, which, judging from the two surviving gates, must have been magnificent, were pulled down in 1871 to make way for a ring road, and the beautiful church of Santo Domingo, in Plaza de Tetuan, has been converted into a barracks – it was from here that General Milans del Bosch ordered his tanks onto the streets during the abortive coup of 1981. This incident, however, isn’t representative of the city’s political inclination, which has traditionally been to the left – Valencia was the seat of the Republican government during the Civil War after it fled Madrid, and was the last city to fall to Franco.
The oldest part of Valencia is almost entirely encircled by a great loop of the Río Turia, which is now a landscaped riverbed park. In 1956, after serious flooding damaged much of the old town, the river was diverted. The ancient stone bridges remain, but the riverbed now houses cycle ways, footpaths and football pitches, as well as the astonishing Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias, Europe’s largest cultural complex. As further proof that Valencia is ever inventing itself, the city is now getting its own Central Park. The 23-hectare Valencia Parque Central is currently being built on old rail lines, in the area of the new Sorolla train station, and is one of the city’s – if not Spain’s – largest redevelopment projects to date. The massive park will include plazas, promenades, children’s gardens, an art centre, an amphitheatre and more.
Valencia’s main beach is the Playa de la Malvarrosa to the east of the city centre, which becomes Playa de las Arenas at its southern end.
Valencia and Murcia
Named “El Levante” after the rising sun, this lush region is the part of Spain that wakes up first. Valencia has the Mediterranean Sea as its front yard, while the inland huerta is one of the most fertile in Europe, crowded with orange and lemon groves, date-palm plantations and rice fields still irrigated by systems devised by the Moors. Paella originated in these parts, and a juicy orange is named after Valencia. Evidence of the lengthy Moorish occupation can be seen throughout, in the castles, crops and place names – Benidorm, Alicante and Alcoy are all derived from Arabic. The region also encompasses the historical Murcia, which offers a fascinating contrast to the sun-and-sand debauchery on the water. Explored from one end to the other, this is a land of ancient and modern, of beauty and beastliness.
The growing self-assurance of the region is evident in the increasing presence of Valenciano – a dialect of Catalan – which challenges Castilian as the main language of education and broadcasting in the area. There are even a few extreme trains of thought that challenge the dialect’s Catalan origins, but those beliefs have remained largely on the margins.
Murcia is quite distinct, a comunidad autónoma in its own right, and there could hardly be a more severe contrast with the richness of the Valencian huerta. This southeastern corner of Spain is virtually a desert and is some of the driest territory in Europe. It was fought over for centuries by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, but there survives almost no physical evidence of their presence – or of five hundred years of Moorish rule, beyond an Arabic feel to some of the small towns and the odd date-palm here and there. The province’s capital city of Murcia, with its lovely cathedral and terrace tapas bars, makes for a comfortable base for exploring the region.
Much of the coast is marred by heavy overdevelopment, with concrete apartment blocks and sprawling holiday complexes looming over many of the best beaches. However, away from the big resorts, particularly around Denia and Xàbia (Jávea) in Valencia, there are some attractive isolated coves, while the historic hilltop settlements of Altea and Peñíscola are undeniably picturesque, if touristy. In Murcia, the resorts of the Mar Menor are reasonably attractive and very popular with Spanish families in high season; the best beaches are in the extreme south, around Águilas, where you’ll find some dazzling unspoilt coves. The increasingly vibrant cities of Valencia and Alicante are the major urban centres, and there are several delightful historic small towns and villages a short way inland, such as Morella, Xàtiva and Lorca.
The Valencia area has a powerful tradition of fiestas, and there are a couple of elements unique to this part of the country. Above all, throughout the year and more or less wherever you go, there are mock battles between Muslims and Christians (Moros y Cristianos). Recalling the Christian Reconquest of the country – whether through symbolic processions or re-creations of specific battles – they’re some of the most elaborate and colourful festivities to be seen anywhere, above all in Alcoy. The other recurring feature is the fallas (bonfires) in which giant carnival floats and figures are paraded through the streets before being ceremoniously burned.
Getting around by public transport is relatively straightforward with frequent train and bus services, though you’ll need your own transport to really explore the area. The motorway network is excellent, but tolls are quite pricey.
Gastronomy is of great cultural importance to the Valencians. Rice is the dominant ingredient in dishes of the region, grown locally in paddy fields still irrigated by the Moorish canal system (acequias). Gourmets tend to agree that the best paellas are to be found around (but not in) Valencia, the city where the dish originated. The genuine version doesn’t mix fish and meat – it typically contains chicken, rabbit, green beans, garrofón (large butter beans), snails, artichokes and saffron – and should be prepared fresh and cooked over wood (leña), not scooped from some vast, sticky vat; most places will make it for a minimum of two people, with advance notice.
Other rice-based dishes vary around the region: arroz negro is rice cooked with squid complete with ink, which gives the dish its colour, and served with all i oli, a powerful garlic mayonnaise. Arroz al horno is drier, baked with chickpeas. Fideuà is seafood and noodles cooked paella-style. The most famous, arroz a banda, is found on the south coast around Denia – it’s rice cooked with seafood, served as two separate dishes: soup, then rice. Around Alicante, you can try arroz con costra, which is a meat-based paella topped with a baked egg crust. Apart from rice, vegetables (best a la plancha, brushed with olive oil and garlic) are always fresh and plentiful.
The sweet-toothed should try turrón, a nuts-and-honey nougat, which you could follow with a horchata (or orxata), a rich drink made from tiger nuts (chufas) or almonds (almendras).
La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
More than any other project, the breathtaking Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences, or CAC), rising from the riverbed, symbolizes the autonomous government’s vision for Valencia and its quest to establish the city as a prime tourist destination. The giant complex – Europe’s largest cultural centre – consists of a series of futuristic edifices designed mainly by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava.
The architecture itself is simply stunning. Even if you only have a day or two in the city, it’s well worth the effort getting here to take in the eye-catching buildings surrounded by huge, shallow pools. Calatrava’s designs adopt an organic form, his technical and engineering brilliance providing the basis for his pioneering concrete, steel and glass creations. However, despite near-universal acclaim for its architecture, the complex has not completely escaped criticism. Some feel that the vast cost of constructing it should have been used to tackle the city’s pressing social issues, while others have been less than overwhelmed by some of the content inside the Ciudad’s startling structures.
In your explorations, stroll through the Umbracle, a series of eighteen-metre-high arches towering over a landscaped walkway shaded with vegetation from throughout the region, including palms, honeysuckle, bougainvillea and, of course, orange trees.
The Hemisfèric, one of the more astonishing buildings of the complex, is a striking eye-shaped concrete structure – complete with lashes, and an eyeball that forms a huge concave screen used to project IMAX movies, laser shows, nature documentaries and more.
Museo de las Ciencias
The colossal Museo de las Ciencias (Science Museum), whose protruding supports make the building resemble a giant sun-bleached carcass, is crammed with interactive exhibits about science, sport and the human body that are sure to appeal to children, from a colourful 3D representation of DNA to a Foucault Pendulum, which at 34m is one of the longest in the world.
The Parque Oceanográfico, designed by Félix Candela, is one of the world’s largest aquariums. It’s divided into multiple zones, with beluga whales in the Arctic area, Japanese spider crabs in the temperate zone and a kaleidoscopic collection of reef fish, sharks and turtles in the seventy-metre tunnel that forms the tropical zone. The park also has all manner of splashy events, including the thrilling (though pricey) Encuentro con Tiburones (Shark Encounter), where you can scuba-dive with sharks; and a penguin visit, popular with kids, where you can feed Humboldt penguins and view their hatchery and rearing area. In the summer, the aquarium sometimes opens for night visits, while the restaurant is a sleek underwater space where you dine with fish darting past your table.
Palacio de les Arts Reina Sofía and L’Ágora
The majestic pistachio-nut-shaped Palacio de las Artes is a high-tech performing arts palace, with renowned musical director Lorin Maazel at the helm. Stages and halls of varying sizes – all with splendid acoustics – host ballet, opera and classical-music concerts, among others. Performances are staged throughout the year, and it’s well worth snagging a ticket to see one. The equally impressive 80m L’Àgora (open for events only), is a multifunctional space inaugurated in November 2009 to host the Valencia 500 Open tennis tournament, and now features various events, from sports meets to the glittering annual Valencia Fashion Week.
The port and the playas
Barcelona famously transformed its waterfront from drab to dazzling, and Valencia has done something similar to its city coastline, having significantly spruced up its beaches and boardwalk over the last decade. In 2007, Valencia became the first European port since 1851 to host the America’s Cup (which was staged here again in 2010), and to celebrate the event, parts of the forgotten waterfront were redeveloped, with a gleaming new marina and the eye-catching Veles e Vents (“Sails and Winds”) structure designed by British architect David Chipperfield helping to transform the area. The Valencia Street Circuit was also constructed in the port area as the race site of the 2008 Formula One European Grand Prix, which will continue to be held here until 2014.
As for beaches, you can catch some rays on the soft sand of the broad and breezy playas Malvarrosa and Las Arenas, which are backed by the Paseo Marítimo and extend along the waterfront. The outdoor cafés, bars and clubs here are particularly popular in the summer months. There are a number of ways to get to Malvarrosa and Las Arenas, but one easy route is to take the #5 metro at the central Colón station to Marítim Serrería, and switch to the #6 line to Neptú, from where you can walk north along the boardwalk to the sands. You can also catch buses from Plaza del Ayuntamiento, often supplemented during the summer by buses from various points in the centre; ask at the tourist office.
Fallas: Valencia on Fire
Valencia erupts in a blaze of colour and noise for the Fiesta de las Fallas, March 12 to 19. During the year, each barrio or neighbourhood builds satirical caricatures or fallas, some as tall as buildings. These begin to appear in the plazas at the beginning of March and are judged and awarded prizes before being set alight at midnight on March 19, the Nit de Foc – traditionally, carpenters celebrated the beginning of spring by decorating the torches (foc in Valenciano) they used over winter and adding them to a ritual bonfire. The fallas are ignited in succession – and the last to go up are the prize winners. Each falla has a small model or ninot beside it, usually created by the children of the barrio. These are exhibited in La Lonja before the fiesta begins, and the best displayed in the Museu Fallero; the rest are burned with the fallas.
During the fiesta, processions of falleros, dressed in traditional costume and accompanied by bands, carry flowers to the Plaza de la Virgen, where they are massed to create the skirt of a huge statue of La Virgen. The daily Las Mascaletas firecracker display (2pm in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento) sees the whole city racing to this central square for a ten-minute series of body-shuddering explosions. There are also nightly fireworks, bullfights, paella contests in the streets and chocolate y buñuelos stalls. Finally, around 1am on March 19, the falla of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento goes up in flames, followed by the last thunderous firework display of the Nit de Foc.
Valencia is known for its horchata – a drink made from chufas (tiger nuts) served either liquid or granizada (slightly frozen), and accompanied by long, thin cakes called fartons. Legend has it that the name horchata was coined by Jaume I, shortly after he conquered Valencia. He was admiring the huerta one hot afternoon, and an Arab girl offered him a drink so refreshing that he exclaimed, “Aixó es or, xata” (this is gold, girl).
There are horchaterías all over the city: the two oldest are Santa Catalina (daily 8am–9pm; t963 912 379) and El Siglo (daily generally 8am–9pm; t963 918 466), both in Plaza Santa Catalina. One of the better-known spots to cool your throat is Daniel, Avda. de la Horchata 41 (daily 10am–1am; closed mid-Dec to Feb; t961 858 866, whorchateria-daniel.es; mPalmaret), where you can sit on the breezy terrace. In the historic Mercado de Colón, try the excellent La Casa de l’Orxata (daily Mon–Fri 7.30am–10.30pm, Sat & Sun until 2am; t963 527 307, wwww.casadelaorxata.com), who make their smooth horchata with traditional methods and organic ingredients, and sell it from street carts around town.
Traditionally, however, the best horchata comes from Alboraya, formerly a village in the Valencian suburbs, now absorbed into the city – take metro line #3. One old-time spot is Subies, Carretera de Barcelona in the Almássera neighborhood of Alboraya (daily 8.30am–11pm; t961 854 673), where three generations have been honing their craft.
Week before Lent: Carnaval
Águilas’ carnaval is one of the wildest in the country. Vinaròs also has good carnaval celebrations.
12–19 March: Las Fallas de San José
Valencia’s Las Fallas is by far the biggest of the bonfire festivals, and indeed one of the most important fiestas in all Spain. The whole thing costs over €1 million, most of which goes up in smoke (literally) on the final Nit de Foc when the grotesque caricatures, fashioned from papier-mâché and wood, are burned. Throughout, there are bullfights, music and stupendous fireworks.
19 March: Día de San José
Smaller fallas festivals in Xàtiva, Benidorm and Denia.
Third Sun of Lent: Fiesta de la Magdalena
Castellón de la Plana celebrates the end of Moorish rule with pilgrimages and processions of huge floats.
Semana Santa (Holy Week)
In Elche, there are, naturally, big Palm Sunday celebrations making use of the local palms, while throughout the week there are also religious processions in Cartagena, Lorca, Orihuela and Valencia. The Easter processions in Murcia are particularly famous, and they continue into the following week with, on the Tuesday, the Bando de la Huerta, a huge parade of floats celebrating local agriculture, and, on the Saturday evening, the riotous “Burial of the Sardine” which marks the end of these spring festivals.
April 22–24: Moros y Cristianos
After a colourful procession in Alcoy, a huge battle commences between the two sides in the main square.
1–5: Fiestas de los Mayos
Fiesta in Alhama de Murcia, and Moros y Cristianos in Caravaca de la Cruz.
Second Sun: La Virgen de los Desamparados
The climax of this celebration in Valencia is when the statue of the Virgin is transferred from her basilica to the cathedral.
Third Sun: Moros y Cristianos
23–24: Noche de San Juan
Magnificent hogueras festival in Alicante (and San Juan de Alicante) with processions and fireworks, culminating as huge effigies and bonfires are burnt in the streets at midnight. It’s celebrated on a smaller scale on the beaches of Valencia (Malvarossa, Cabanyal and Aloboraya) with bonfire-jumping. Altea also celebrates with a popular tree-bearing procession and a bonfire in the old town.
Early July: Fiestas de la Santísima Sangre
Dancing in the streets of Denia, plus music and mock battles.
15–20: Moros y Cristianos
Second week: Feria de Julio
Valencia hosts music, bullfights and above all fireworks, ending with the Battle of the Flowers in the Alameda.
Penultimate weekend: FIB
Benicàssim’s international music festival, a massive party bringing together the major names in alternative and electronic music.
25–31: Moros y Cristianos
Villajoyosa sees battles by both land and sea.
4: Festa del Cristo de la Salut
Festival in El Palmar with processions by boat into the lake.
Mid-Aug: Misteri d’Eix
Elche presents a mystery play, based on a drama dating back to medieval times.
14–20: Feria de Agosto
Xàtiva’s fair has a very extensive cultural dimension including concerts, plays and exhibitions, plus bullfights and barrages of fireworks.
Local festivities in Denia.
Last week: La Tomatina
A riotous free-for-all of tomato-throwing takes place in Buñol on the last Wednesday of the month. There’s also a music festival in Morella.
Local fiesta in Sagunto, and at the same time the great Moros y Cristianos festival and a mystery play in Elche.
4–9: Moros y Cristianos
Bull-running through Segorbe’s streets.
8–9: Les Danses
Celebrations in Peñíscola’s old quarter include a human tower construction.
22: Fiesta de Santo Tomás
In Benicàssim with bands and a “blazing bull”.
Second Sun: La Virgen de Suffrage
Benidorm celebrates its patron saint’s day.
Move over Madrid and Barcelona, and make room for fashion diva Valencia. The city has a rich and vibrant fashion culture, and twice a year, in spring and autumn, the glossy Valencia Fashion Week (wwww.valenciafashionweek.com) sees catwalk shows from all the latest and greatest local and national designers. Valencia’s home-grown designers have made a splash in the international scene: look out for the flamboyant, gypsy-inspired pieces of Francis Montesinos; the sexy styles of Alex Vida; the urban look of Alejandro Sáez de la Torre; bold, geometric swimwear from Dolores Cortés; Higinio Mateu’s frisky dresses; and the avant-garde, flouncy threads of Tonuca. Shoes and accessories rival the clothes, with such renowned designers as jeweller Vicente Gracia, whose reinvented antique brooches have been worn by the Queen of Spain herself.
Where to shop? You can find both local and international designs throughout Valencia, from small boutiques to big department stores, particularly around the old town and city centre, including the Eixample (Ensanche) district, between Calle Colón and Gran Vía del Marqués del Turia; and Calle Jorge Juan by Mercado Colón.
There are a number of good day-trips to be made from Valencia, including a visit to the monastery at El Puig or a meal at some of the region’s very best paella restaurants at El Palmar, El Perelló or El Perellonet.
La Albufera, just 12km south from Valencia, is a vast lagoon separated from the sea by a sandbank and surrounded by rice fields. Being one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Spain, it constitutes an important wetland, and attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds – a throng composed of 250 species, of which ninety breed here regularly. In the Middle Ages, it was ten times its present size but the surrounding paddies have gradually reduced it. After growing contamination by industrial waste, domestic sewage and insecticide, the area was turned into a natural park. Whether you’re into birdwatching or not, the lagoon area makes a relaxing change from the city.
It’s possible to “hop on, hop off” the Valencia Bus Turístic and tuck into a lunch of paella, or eels with all i pebre (piquant sauce), in the lakeside village of El Palmar, which is packed with restaurants. On August 4, El Palmar celebrates its fiesta; the image of Christ on the Cross is taken out onto the lake in a procession of boats to the illuent, or centre, of the lake, where hymns are sung. Another 2km farther along the road to El Perelló is the tiny village of El Perellonet, where you can also sample some of the best paella in Spain.
All pulped out: La Tomatina
La Tomatina – the tomato-throwing festival of Buñol – is about as wild and excessive as Spanish fiestas get. Picture this: 30,000 people descend on a small provincial town, at the same time as a fleet of municipal trucks, carrying 120,000 tonnes of tomatoes. Tension builds. “To-ma-te, to-ma-te” yell the crowds. And then the truckers let them have it, hurling the ripe, pulpy fruit at everyone present. And everyone goes crazy, hurling the pulp back at the trucks, at each other, in the air … for an hour. It’s a fantasy battle made flesh: exhausting, not pretty and not to everyone’s taste. But it is Buñol’s contribution to fiesta culture, and most participants will tell you that it is just about as much fun as it is possible to have with your clothes on. Not that you should wear a great deal.
La Tomatina has been going since 1944 but has got a lot bigger in recent years, following a string of articles in the press in Spain and abroad. The novelist Louis de Bernières was one of the first foreign writers to cover the event: he wrote a superb account that is reprinted in Spain: Travelers’ Tales, and concluded that, if he planned his life well and kept his health, he could attend another nineteen Tomatinas, before he would be too enfeebled for the occasion.
If the idea appeals, then you’ll need to visit Buñol on the last Wednesday of August (but call the Valencia tourist office just to check, as some years it takes place a week early). You can get there from the city by train or bus in around an hour, but try to arrive early, with a spare set of clothing that you should leave at a bar. The tomato trucks appear on the central Plaza del Ayuntamiento at around noon, and then the battle commences: this is no spectator sport – everyone is considered fair game. At 1pm, an explosion signals the end of the battle and nobody hurls another speck of tomato for the next twelve months. Instead, the local fire brigade arrives to hose down the combatants, buildings and streets, and a lull comes over the town. And then, miraculously, within the hour, everyone arrives back on the street, perfectly turned out, to enjoy the rest of the fiesta, which, oddly enough, includes such refined pursuits as orchestral concerts in the town’s open-air auditorium. For more information, check out the festival website wtomatina.es, or try the town’s own website wbunyol.es.
North of Valencia: The Costa del Alzahar
Most of the Costa del Alzahar north of Valencia is dotted with beach resorts, with some of the best sands around Benicàssim, north of the provincial capital, Castellón de la Plana. Farther north still, the historic walled city of Peñíscola commands a spectacular cliff-top location, while Vinaròs is more port than resort. Apart from the appeal of the coastline, there are fine Roman ruins at Sagunto, sweeping mountain scenery and good hiking around Segorbe and Montanejos, while the fortified town of Morella is definitely worth a visit for its castle and Gothic architecture.
There’s not much else along the stretch of coast north of Benicàssim until you reach PEÑÍSCOLA, 60km away. The setting is one of Spain’s most stunning: a heavily fortified promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean, zealously shielding its warren of alleys and lanes with perfectly preserved medieval walls. Yet it’s also one of the starkest – immediately below the old walls, the requisite line of eyesore high-rises snakes out along the seafront like a besieging army.
The breezy Paseo Marítimo is a pleasant place from which to take in views of the sea, and the resort’s slender beach is well kept, if busy. The farther north you get from the castle, the quieter it becomes. There’s also a smaller cove beach, Playa Sur, 200m west of the old town.
MORELLA, 62km inland on the road from the coast to Zaragoza, is one of the most attractive – and possibly most friendly – towns in the Castellón province. A medieval fortress town, it rises from the plain around a small hill crowned by a tall, rocky spur and a virtually impregnable castle that dominates the surrounding countryside. A perfectly preserved ring of ancient walls defends its lower reaches. The city was recovered from the Moors in the thirteenth century by the steward of Jaime I. He was reluctant to hand it over to the Crown, and it’s said that the king came to blows with him over possession of the town. Today, Morella hosts an annual festival of classical music in the first two weeks of August.
Festival Internacional de Benicàssim
The annual Festival Internacional de Benicàssim (FIB; wfiberfib.com) in late July draws tens of thousands to hear the world’s biggest names in alternative pop and rock. Over the years, it has pulled in everyone from Depeche Mode to Oasis and, more recently, The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys. The dance tents are generally just as buzzing as the live-music stages, with DJs playing all night long. A four-day festival ticket is €165, or €240 with free camping for eight days around the event at the massive campsite.
The Golfo de Mazarrón
South of Cartagena, much of the scenic coastline down to the border with Andalucia is undeveloped, with a succession of fine coves lying beneath a backdrop of arid, serrated hills. The region’s main resorts, El Puerto de Mazarrón and Águilas, are both fairly small scale and easy going, mainly attracting Spanish families. Public transport is limited, however, so you’ll need your own vehicle to get to the better beaches.
ÁGUILAS, 47km from Mazarrón and almost on the border with Andalucia, is hemmed in by the parched hills of the Sierra del Contar. Along with the cultivation of tomatoes – one of the few things that can grow in this arid region – fishing is the mainstay of the economy here, and a fish auction is held at around 5pm every day in the port’s large warehouse. Carnaval is especially wild in Águilas, and for three days and nights in February, the entire population lets its hair down with processions, floats and general fancy-dress mayhem.
Águilas is also popular for its plentiful beaches, and the area has a superb year-round climate. The town itself has managed to escape the worst excesses of tourism, and retains much of its rural charm and character.
You’ll find sandy beaches, and over thirty small calas (coves) in the vicinity – those to the north are rockier and more often backed by low cliffs, while the best are the wonderful, fairly undeveloped cuatro calas south of town. You’ll need your own wheels to reach these beaches, which get better the farther you get away from Águilas, but all are signposted. The first two, Calarreona and La Higuérica, have fine sands and are backed by dunes and the odd villa, but 6km south of Águilas where the coast is completely wild, the ravishing back-to-back sandy coves of Cala Carolina and Cala Cocedores are simply superb.
If you don’t have your own transport, you’re better heading for the chain of beaches north of Águilas served by regular buses (generally mid-July to end of Aug only). Playa Hornillo is a nice beach with a couple of bars (and you could actually reach it by walking from the train station), while Playa Amarillo is decent but in a built-up area. The bus also passes playas Arroz, La Cola and finally Calabardina (7km from town). If you feel energetic, you could head across Cabo Cope to yet another chain of beaches beginning at Ruinas Torre Cope
Lorca and around
Many of the historic villages of inland Murcia are accessible only with your own transport, but one place you can reach easily is LORCA, an attractive former frontier town whose historic centre, on the hill between c/López Gisbert and the castle, still has a distinct aura of the past. For a time, it was part of the Córdoba caliphate, but it was retaken by the Christians in 1243, after which Muslim raids were a feature of life until the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold. Most of the town’s notable buildings – churches and ancestral homes – date from the sixteenth century onwards.
Today, Lorca is famed for its Semana Santa celebrations, which outdo those of both Murcia and Cartagena, the next best in the region. There’s a distinctly operatic splendour about the dramatization of the triumph of Christianity, with characters such as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and the royalty of Persia and Babylon attired in embroidered costumes of velvet and silk. The high point is the afternoon and evening of Good Friday.
Earthquake in Lorca
On May 11, 2011, Lorca was shaken by a 5.2-magnitude earthquake, said to be the most serious tremor to hit Spain in fifty years. Parts of town – particularly the old quarter – were levelled, and ten people were killed. While some tourist sights have reopened, a number are still being repaired, and you may encounter construction as the town rebuilds.