From the Plano de San Francisco to the Plaza de Santa Isabel
With the opening up of the Gran Vía in the middle of the 20th century, Murcia of the golden domes and white rooftop terraces was split in two. The Moorish bathhouses and the Contraste de la Seda, a handsome 16th century building, were demolished, while the mansion of Count Roche, at one time occupied by the Inquisitor, and the Almudí, a building used as a grain store dating from Moorish times and opened in 1275 were saved. The Almudí has a further storey added on top in the 16th century and later the façade was decorated with a relief of a Mother which symbolises the generosity of the Murcian people. Within the building, the columns of the entrance hall and the 18th carved wooden ceiling are noteworthy. The Almudí lens dignity to the Plano de San Francisco, a name which has lingered on despiste the disappearance of the convent it was named after. Formerly known as the Carretería, one of the oldest streets of Murcia, we can find in a side street one of the 95 majestic towers which formerly dotted the city walls, hidden for centuries by the convent church of Las Verónicas, which is now used as an exhibition hall and art decoration centre. The tower is almost as high as the nearby Verónicas market hall, where you can find the best fruit and vegetables from the surrounding market- gardening land, juicy steaks, cooked meats and dried and fresh fish, or the famous prawns from the Mar Menor. To the south, bounded by the Malecón, lies the greenery of the Botanical garden, where together with many species of plants there is a small lake, fountains, ponds and the stone gateway to the Huerta de las Bombas orchard, carved in the 17th century.
The Malecón is formed by a succession of flood protection walls built from 1420 onwards to hold brack the River Segura after heavy rainfall. It is now a delightful walkway with views over the surrounding market garden area and away to the Cresta del Gallo, Carrascoy and Pila mountain chains which embrace the city on each side. Where the original valley- dwellers settled we find the Fuensanta Pilgrimage Church, within the El Valle Natural Park. From the summit of is hills we can see the Mar Menor Iagoon and the Mediterranean. The Malecón, a flat pedestrian promenade, is the ideal place for a stroll. It is over one and a half kilometres as far as the statue of Jose Maria Muñoz and just about half a kilometre to the Sarten, or Frying- pan, where the walkway widens out and you can step down to the convent of the Clarisas Capuchinas where a carved figure of Jesus of Nazareth by the Bussy and another of Santa Clara by Salzillo are the object of popular devotion. Every Maundy Thursday night a most original procession leaves from the convent to follow the country lanes of La Arboleja: the bearers, dressed in richly- worked typical costume, carry along a study for the Virgen de las Angustias by Salzillo to the clacking of castanets.
Many poets have evoked sunrise and nightfall over the Malecón lined with orange groves, fields of lettuces and scented flowerbeds: “on that Malecón between orchards, divine at sunset…” wrote Jorge Guillén after a stay in Murcia, his habit at the end of his walk being to cross the Plano de San Francisco and slip into the narrow streets of Arco de Verónicas and Aduana, on his way to the cheery Plaza de las Flores, named in 1630, when a rich landowner, Macias Coque, sold the Butcher´s Guild building to the City Council. The Plaza de las Flores boasts bay- windows and geranium decked balconies, orange trees in blossom and a palm tree soaring into the blue. This city square is so lively, baroque and sensuous that it has been copied by he neighbouring square of Santa Catalina, which also has its necklace of orange and jacaranda trees; in May, peeping out from behind the garlands of blue flowers we see the pale coloured façade of Casa Palarea, which houses the museum bearing the name of Ramón Gaya, the famous painter who is one of the city´s most notable inhabitants. In the museum, over 150 works by the painter and his local contemporaries are to be seeing.
Until the reign of Felipe III, Santa Catalina was the most important square in the city, with its ceremonies and official acts, courts to decide on irrigation disputes, the handing out of public offices, auto da fes and royal proclamations. The quaint little church stands on the site of a mosque dedicated to the memory of the Cartagena poet al- Qartayanni, who wrote from exile in Tunis: “With such great love, my friend, did I love that garden which was my homeland, that estranged from it my heart languishes”.
Founded by Alfonso X himself, it belonged to the Knights Templar and was rebuilt in the 15th century; the statue of Saint Catherine is by Nicolás Salzillo and his son carved a magnificent Lady of Dolours with its expression of intense grief. The tower dates from 1579; it originally had a clock and the sentry did duty from its battlements, serving as a look- out post to warn of attacks by the barbary corsairs; the carving of the immaculate Conception is by González Moreno.
The Santa Catalina and Las Flores squares are liked a calendar: when November is just around the corner, the pavements glow with chrysanthemums and gladioli, the air is scented with sweet fritters and in the neighbouring square of San Pedro, opposite the medieval church, today´s new generation of craftsfolk sell fruit preserved in syurp, candied pumpkin and other traditional delicacies. At other seasons we find Easter buns with a hard- boiled egg embedded in them and sweets to hand out at the Holy Week processions, and at any time of year are meat pies, whose recipe was laid down in official terms in 1691 under the orders of Carlos III.
In the side streets leading into the square there are niches for statuary and old signs advertising woollen goods, blankets or knives. On both sides of Calle Ruipérez are taverns packed with discerning dedicatees of the tapa, one of the best- loved customs of our city. There are so many varieties on offer that often no one bothers with lunch, having eaten their way through a whole long, narrow menu of tit- bits. The larders of our ancestors contained the same foods: baby broad beans cool to the tongue, sliced tomatoes, boiled potatoes with garlic mayonnaise, black pudding (morcilla), scrambled egg with baby courgettes, potatoes and onions (zarangollo), stewed dried beans (michirones), consome with meat balls, portions of fried coagulated blood, little buns with cheese and sobrasada (spicey paprika spread) or picked sardines, or tuna with mayonnaise, or a “marinera”, an anchovy perched on top of a pile of Russian salad, and of course dried or smoked tuna or fish roe, exquisite to the palate.
After a break for refreshment, San Nicolás await us, a street lined with the homes of the local aristocracy; a plaque reminds us that here in 1812, General Martín de la Carrera was shot down by the troops of the French Marshall Soult, when trying with the aid of a handful of Spaniards to stop the advance of the invaders. The church of San Nicolás dates from the 18th century, its main door having two medallions by Jaime Bort. Opposite, on the corner of Calle Aistor is a shield and further on the wall of a shady garden leads to Brujera, a by- way rampart walk which points to the nearness of the city.
walls, a section of which has been uncovered in the nearby Calle del Pilar, near the Vidrieros gateway where the Emperor Carlos V entered the city in 1541. Over the years the historic gateway gave way to the Arco del Pilar, which was demolished in turn in 1863 as it was too narrow. The façade of the present hermitage of El Pilar dates from that time, founded two centuries earlier by the side of a little pilgrims´ hostel by Pueyo the Viceroy, a man of Aragon who financed work after was laid for him while he went the rounds.
To the west walled Murcia reached as far as Calle Sagasta, and the space between the two churches of San Antolín and San Andrés was called the Arrixaca, where the Chirstians were made to dwell until Aben Hud handed his kingdom over to Castille. When Alfonso X arrived in Murcia in 1243, he proclaimed the Virgin of La Arriaxaac as Patron Saint of the city, and a carving of her is to be found in the San Andrés chapel, where it is still venerated, although since the 17th century she is no longer our Patron.
In the old walled quarter of the Arriaxaca, the passer- by will be surprised to find squares of varying size and shape: San Antolín, whose church was practically destroyed in 1936; San Ginés, Sandoval, Yesqueros or San Agustín, the largest and pleasantest on account of the garden which decorates it. The parish church of San Andrés belonged to the convent of San Agustín; two Corinthian columns, which come from the old castle at Monteagudo, hold up the present façade, finished in 1762. Next door, the church of Jesus has an elliptic interior. It is one of the most popular places for visitors to the city, as it holds a permanent exhibition of the most precious works of Francisco Salzillo, ranging from the well- loved set of Christmas Crib figures to the majestic groups of carvings carried through the streets on Good Friday morning. Except for that which gives its name to the Holy Week guild, Jesus of Nazareth, Salzillo made the other carvings between 1752 and 1777. There is no other morning in Murcia as glorious as that of Good Friday. As dawn tinges the roof- tops with gold, the blossom- scented city awakes, every citizen reverent before the endless- seeming river of purple- clad penitents bowing down under the weight of the invaluable statuary as they bear it through the streets of the baroque quarters of Murcia.
The convent of Las Angustias, dating from the 18th century, faces onto the Plaza de San Agustín. The main altar piece is presided over by a San Agustín, work of Salzillo, but there are over valuable carvings, such as that of Santa Cecilia by Roque López, or San Miguel by Antonio Dupar. Centuries ago, the coat of arms of Murcia bore a tower and palm tree, emblem of the City Museum, opposite Las Angustias. The building, remodelled in 1868, belongued to Gil Rodriquez de Junteron, secretary to Pope Julian II. It is surrounded by a garden dating from Moorish times, set out like a kitchen garden divided into different plots with many scented plants and shady trees, such as the splendid century- old magnolia and palms of different varieties. To the rear is the Museum of Bullfighting, with an interesting display of posters, bullfighters costumes, a library, paintings and sculptures. To the left is the Handicraft Centre, where are you can buy anything from a set of Christmas Crib figures to a bedspread, embroidery, matting, wrought ironwork or papier maché toys. On leaving, stroll through the spacious Salitre gardens which used to be part of the old Gunpowder Works. Under the eucalyptus, palms, orange and lemon trees, jacarandas, acacias, pines and cypresses are children at play, gossiping mothers and the elderly shading their eyes from the sunlight.
On the other side is the medieval church of Santiago, the oldest building of any outside the city walls, and behind it Calle Jerónimo de Roda which takes us to the San Esteban gardens and the Plaza de la Fuensanta, where the main thoroughfares of the city meet: avenida de la Libertad, Jaime I, Constitución and Gran Vía, the nerve centre of local business. Here the neon lights of the best- known chain stores and the most up- to date fashion franchises compete. Their flashing lights up the craft fair which has taken over one side of the garden of the Palace of San Esteban, seat of the Regional Government. The church and college of San Esteban, “the finest flower of the Company of Jesus”, were set up in 1555 with a donation from bishop Esteban de Almeyda. The doorway of the church, now used to house exhibitions, is Plateresque, the slender nave has Gothic roof tracery with its bosses and twin windows near the main door and to the rear which let in a flood of sweet light. The most interesting feature of the Palace is the courtyard with its renaissance arcades and the handsome white marble staircase.
Calle Acisclo Díaz, called after a musician from Alhama, lies between San Esteban and the church of San Miguel, built in the second half of the 17th century. It holds an important collection of carvings and altar- pieces, the main one being one of the best examples of baroque carving in Murcia, commissioned in 1731 from Jacinto Perales and Francisco Salzillo, who carved the four angels and the Coronation group; he also carried out the Holy Family group and a Saint Joseph with the Child Jesus, sharing work on the latter with his father Nicolas Salzillo.
Down Calle Acisclo Diaz we can hear the bustle of the Gran Vía. The Tax Offices stand on the corner, and to the right, opposite the Bank of Spain building, is the square of Santa Isabel, newly redesigned in an attempt to link past and present with its flower beds and the silhouette of the Vizconde archway.