From the River to the Alameda
In the beginning, Murcia was an “alcazaba”, that is to say a fortified enclosure from within which its first inhabitants took refuge from the river floods, epidemics and the attacks of the fearsome Moorish tribes.
In the first space, which has an area of about a hundred thousand square metres, was built the main Alcázar, the residence of the emir’s governor, the Caramajul tower, which had a huge water wheel inside used to supply the inhabitants, the main Mosque and the Prince’s house or Darajanife. It is not surprising to find that even now, eleven centuries later, a large position of the political, administrative and religious sectors have their headquarters here. This is where the old, well- heart of the city beats, and thus is a good starting point for our voyage of discovery.
In the Glorieta, bringing to mind the leafy flower- beds and fountains, which gave life to the Prince’s palace, the sun gently warms the bronze statue of Cardinal Belluga (1662/1743), a bishop and warrior who in peacetime forded the river and walked among the orchard trees to show interest in the life of the country folk. Behind the statue, like a balcony over the river Segura hangs the “martillo” or hammer as it known, an arched wing of the former Bishop’s Palace and facing the river between palms and jacaranda trees stands the Town Hall, built on the ruins of the Prince’s Palace.
The narrow Calle Arenal, with its shields and pigeons, take us into the Plaza de Belluga, where our most highly- prized historical building stands: the Cathedral.
Bishop Pedrosa laid the foundation stone in 1388: then no- one could imagine that the work would take four centuries to finish, a long period which explains the widely differing styles of architecture to be found in it: it has 23 chapels each with its own artistic conception, from that of the Marqués de los Vélez, with its lacey stonework typical of the most ornate Gothic style, (1507) to the Junterones chapel (1525), one of the most original of all Spanish renaissance works.
The Sacristy also belongs to this period, inspired by that of San Lorenzo by Brunelleschi. The altarpiece of the capilla Del Socorro, the choir stalls, dating from the 15th century, and the woodcarving of Saint Jerome by Salzillo are among its other treasures.
With the tower, the renaissance came to Murcia. It took the place of another, less impressive tower, which in its turn replaced the minaret of the mosque. The Florentín brothers between 1521 and 1525 built the first srage of the present tower. The second stage with its rich logic capitals, garlands and statues of the saints in their niches, was finished in 1645, while a further 120 were to pass by before the third stage was commenced: the lantern, which crowns the octagonal roof, is 92 metres above the ground. However, the most beautiful and admired jewel of the whole collection is the West Front (1736- 1754), a lovely stone façade, work of the sculptor and design Jaime Bort. Murcian masons, painters, gilders and joiners of Spain’s Golden Age worked together on a project, which has been catalogued as a work of art of international baroque.
The West Front faces the Bishop’s Palace, built between 1748 and 1768, on a piece of land donated by the Fajardo family, well- known in Murcia since the 15th century. In the rococo style, the shield of Bishop Roca y Contreras blazes forth from the main balcony of the north façade, picked out in red.
The south door onto the Glorieta is more baroque in style, while inside the palace we admire the square courtyard and the bishop’s chapel. Alongside we find the former seminary of San Fulgencio, today the School of Dramatic Art, the Theological College of San Isidoro, taken over by the Licenciado Cascales Secondary School, and the museum- church of San Juan de Dios, where a choice selection of religious carving of the 16th to 19th centuries may be found.
Adjoining the Town Hall is a new wing designed by well- known Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. The Plaza de Belluga, sunny and relaxing, offers room for culture and leisure, where on leaving the cathedral visitors love to sit for a while at a café table, in the shade of the orange trees, to admire yet again the magnificent Wet Front of the Cathedral, with its clusters of columns, medallions, capitals, black stone pedestals, niches, cherubim, balusters and stone figures silhouetted against the blue sky.
Around the Cathedral, we find two more squares of different shapes and sizes: the Plaza de los Apóstoles, which takes its name from one of the cathedral doors, in the gothic style, and the Plaza de la Cruz, in the lee of the tower. These squares are part and parcel of the city, reminding us of the old courtyards shared by blocks of houses: an ideal place to rest, chat and stare while we enjoy coffee and toast or fresh orange juice, wine with a tasty tapa or even a plate pf spaghetti, as all sorts of eating houses are to be found round the Cathedral and the Glorieta, with colourful parasols shading the tables and chairs which are not stowed away until nightfall.
There is always time to linger in the narrow streets and tiny squares, amid the bustle of the city, to window- gaze and follow our noses as far as the bars and restaurants in whose kitchens steaming pans of stews, greens, meat or fish tempt us. Inside, slates are covered with the names of hot or cold tapas such as zarangollo, (stewed courgettes, potatoes and onions with scrambled eggs), fried baby broad beans with chunks of cured ham, pickled sardines each mated to an anchovy, black pudding, salads of lettuce and tomato, oven- trays of baked potatoes with garlic mayonnaise, salt fish and cooked meats, crushed olives, stewed beans, or chard stems with pine- nuts. All this adds to the relaxing gaiety of our city centre.
The narrow, bustling Calle Trapería, reminding us of the old Moorish market lanes, leads out of the Plaza de la Cruz. Once Murcia had been won back from the Moors, King Jaime I ordered the street to be laid out and named Troncada. Trapería (now named after the Cloth Merchants´Guild) is a river of people coming and going, some slow down or halt before the windows of the Casino, where in the nineteenth century the worthy citizens would sit to be admired like fish in a bowl. Inside wonder at its old- world splendours: gilding like cigar labels, divans, horns of plenty, golden cherubim, plaster mouldings round the ceilings, velvets, slim columns like those of Pompeii and the Louis Quinze style ballroom, the work of Ramón Berenguer. Leading out of Calle Trapería are a number of narrow, winding streets which seem to lead to nowhere in particular but which take us swiftly to where ever we need to go, cosy little squares and peaceful lanes, ever shady in the height of summer. In the midst of this labyrinth stands the Fontes mansion, fronting onto a square, which was a Moorish graveyard: the neoclassical Cerdá and Guillamón houses, the Puxmarín mansion and the church of San Bartolome with its treasured woodcarvings by Salzillo. The headquarters of the guild of silversmiths, from its doorway we can see into Calle Platería, home of Jewish jewellers and weavers, a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare, which Azorín compared to a corridor in a house. In this area including the Gran Vía, Calle Trapería and the Romea square the traditional shops are to be found, with their motto: “Murcia, Open Centre”. The old street of the soap- makers, Calle Jabonería, lined with fir trees and red carpeted in the festive season is typical.
Platería and Trapería streets meet and embrace at the Cuatro Esquinas: so do the locals, exchanging news, sharing congratulations or expressions of sympathy. Passers- by of all social conditions come together at these cross- roads with its aroma of roasting coffee, confectionery and meat pies. A mere breathing- space spates the Cuatro Esquinas from the Plaza de Santo Domingo, and it’s well worth- while to make a short detour to the left to see the Plaza de Romea, formerly known as the Plaza de Esparta, where we see a statue to the memory of Fernández Caballero, the Murcian composer, the work of Planes, which looks over towards the Romea theatre. This was opened by Queen Isabel n 1862 but has been burnt down twice. It is said that a curse augurs a third fire as it is built on the site of a monastery graveyard. There is a magnificent stage curtain painted by Emilio Sala. To the west of the theatre is the Vinader mansion, an example of late 18th century architecture, while to the east is the Fontanar home, birthplace of F. Díaz de Mendoza, the actor, opposite the Gonzalez Campuzano mansion. The Romea lends character to the square: flanked by the highest casuarinas trees in the region, it is not unusual to see famous actors, actresses and musicians relaxing over a coffee or a snack, and on summer nights outdoor entertainment is laid on to the delight of the citizens, although the square is busy at all times of the day and night because of the many shops, restaurants and bars around.
Through an archway, we return to the Plaza de Santo Domingo, formerly the Market, and site of royal ceremonies, tourneys, executions, bullfights and other celebrations. Laid out in 1547 as the main square of the city, it is reported to be the citizens´ favourite. It is an inviting place for a leisurely stroll, buying a bunch of flowers or a newspaper and sitting in the sun, which is reflected off the dome of the Cerdá building. Ask for the menu and choose some dishes from our traditional cuisine: the best thing is the day´s special: fresh vegetables, roast lamb or fish baked in salt, rounded off which such typical Murcia desserts as “paparajotes”, lemon leaves deep fried in sweet batter or squares of cinnamon flavoured custard known as “leche frita”, or fried milk, often served with vainilla ice-cream. The square is shaded by a magnificent ficus tree, planted in 1893; among its roots, surrounding by pigeons, is a bust of Ricardo Codorniú, the botanist, known as the Apostol of Trees. The Almodovar mansion, a mannerist building reconstructed in 1908, is on a line with the convent church of Santo Domingo with its two facades, the west unfinished and the east, which gives onto the square, brick- clad, with its two towers and belfry.
To the north lies a long tree- lined parade on the site of the legendary gardens of the lesser Alcazar, or Moorish palace, pleasure grounds of the Arab Kings. On the left of the promenade, we find the towers of the Santa Clara convent, their windows modestly hidden behind wooden latticework. This way the first convent to be built in Murcia, founded by King Alfonso X himself. In the courtyard are Islamic remains and a beautiful cloister with its three rows of stone archways, the arched galley on the first floor and a tiny window, one of the few remains of the Gothic style in Murcia; the finely worked pillars show Mudejar influence. Over the remains of 12th and 13th century Moorish dwellings, which still show signs of their carved wooden ceiling panels, a cultural centre has been set up. To the right of the avenue, opposite Las Claras, on the site of the bath- house and dwelling of the Moorish women, stands the convent church of Santa Ana, founded in 1490; some of its wood carvings and altar- pieces are specially lovely. The nuns of the order of Santa Ana are specialists in typical convent confectionery: try some of their delicious pastries.
The Alameda de Alfonso X is a delightful shady promenade lined with leafy plane trees. The Book Fair and handicraft exhibitions take place here in an ideal setting, light and airy, warm and peaceful. Tall trees also peep out from the rear of the Jesus y Maria school. A little further up, the Archaeological Museum holds pieces from the Neolithic age and even more from the Arnarican, Iberian, Roman, and Moorish periods, including hand- painted ceramics and plaster- work from the convent of Santa Clara.
The avenue takes us far as the Plaza Circular, but along the way we pass a trail of specialized shops, fashion franchises, banks, seafood and other restaurants where you can enjoy anything from a hearty plate of Germany sauerkraut to roast lamb, a whole feast of fresh vegetables or aubergines a la crème, a delicious local speciality. Murcia is sensuous, baroque and generous, as you can see perfectly from the dozens and dozens of bar and restaurant counters, vying to tempt the passer- by.