In 2000 we were extremely lucky to come across a wonderfully located, fully decorated apartment only 400 yards from one of the Costa Blanca's most beautiful beaches complete with a fully illuminated 3-mile Boardwalk running parallel to the calm, sapphire waters of the mythical Mediterranean. This immensely popular Promenade is a meeting place for all kinds of walkers, talkers, observers and socialisers with its myriad collection of cafes, pubs, restaurants, play areas and exercise stations.
La Mata has that lived in feeling, less of a resort and more of a traditional Spanish village. Its night life is of the more sedate variety of eating out and pub karaoke, those seeking something more elaborate will have to travel to nearby Torrevieja for a walk on the wild side!
But if your heart's desire is a sun-kissed sojourn amid golden sands and azure sea – then La Mata is the place for you. It really has that 'far from the maddening crowd' feel to it and whether your wish is to do absolutely nothing or get yourself in shape on the Boulevard. The outside world seems to fade into obscurity in this haven of beauty on Spain’s eastern coast. No wonder it is a Mecca for the retired with its endless hours of glorious sunshine, its flawless beach, its excellent, inexpensive restaurants, its accessibility, its picturesque villas and apartments and most importantly - its safeness. In all of our 12 years visiting we have never witnessed even the slightest disturbance either in the pubs or on the streets.
The people of La Mata are extremely religious and almost anytime you visit there will be some kind of spiritual festival in full vent. This year while we were there we enjoyed the festival of La Virgen del Rosario which takes place each year on 7th October, with a colourful Street Parade or Procession followed by Mass in the church which is in turn followed by a massive fireworks display at the village square. It was really one of the most impressive displays I have ever seen, and La Virgen del Rosaria was present in the square for the entire show and was then hoisted on the shoulders of eight pallbearers and brought back inside the Church to conclude the ceremonies.
There is a market at La Mata every Wednesday morning from 9am to 1pm with great value in fruit, vegetables, scarves, bags and particularly shoes. The leather in this area seems to be of a very high quality and shoes/boots are a must buy at very reasonable prices.
If you do not get what you are looking for at the market in La Mata or if markets are your thing then you simply have to visit the Friday morning market at Torrevieja. A simple bus journey will take you there where you senses will be assaulted by the kaleidoscope of colour, the sonata of sound and symphony of scent that is a traditional Spanish market. Take time to wallow in the vastness and richness of it and immerse yourself in all its variety and multiplicity.
When the market is over if you still have the strength and provided you can carry your many purchases it is worthwhile to see some of Torrevieja. Its Marina and waterfront Promenade are quiet picturesque and can rival anything I have seen further south in either Torremolinos or Marbella. The waterfront restaurants offer excellent repas at modest prices – one of our favourites is a German haunt called De Bassus where the food is of a good standard, the vodka is plentiful and the staff are extremely helpful and friendly. It is both enjoyable and relaxing to sit here and watch the world pass in front of you.
On each occasion that we visit La Mata we like to see another part of the surrounding area and this year was no exception. I had previously been discouraged from seeing the city of Murcia because of its reputation of being one of the hottest cities in Spain, but this year I decided that it was time for me to take the plunge and visit this beautiful metropolis on our doorsteps. I also had a hankering to go and see a little inland town called Caravaca del la Cruz.
I have always been intrigued by legends and the legend of Caravaca del la Cruz goes like this...
In the 12th century, when the Moors occupied this part of Spain, a Christian priest Perez Chirinos de Cuenca was captured and brought to the Moorish King Zeyt-Abu-Zeyt who instructed him to perform Mass for him. An altar, a chalice, bread and wine and candles were provided so that the priest could celebrate Mass but the Moors did not have a cross, and the priest was distressed about having to proceed without one. At that stage legend has it that lo and behold two Angels flew through an open window carrying the True Cross and placed it on the altar to the astonishment of all present. The King was so awed by the miraculous event that himself and his family converted to Christianity and took the name Vincent with his wife taking the name Elena.
That’s the legend now the real story goes a little bit like this...
Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was supposed to have found the True Cross in Jerusalem in the 4th century. In 1230, when Jerusalem fell, the Cross disappeared and suddenly reappeared in Caravaca two years later.
Today the town of Caravaca is the 3rd largest pilgrimage centre in Spain because of the True Cross. When the Spanish landed in the Americas, the Franciscan missionaries brought copies of the Caravaca Cross to all parts of the New World, where it gained fame and devotion. It has become an amulet, to protect the wearer against all evil. Today it is the custom in Spain to give a small Caravaca Cross to friends as a symbol of affection, peace and love.
Caravaca was bestowed with the Jubilee Year in 1998, making it one of only five places in the world allowed to celebrate the Perpetual Jubilee. This means that the Holy See allows the town to celebrate the Holy Year every 7 years in perpetuum along with Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Santo Toribio de Liebana. The next Jubilee Year at Caravaca de la Cruz will be in 2017 but each year the Festivities of the Holy Cross take place on 3rd May when the relic is bathed at the Temple of the Holy Cross.
Fact or fiction – the story of the Holy Cross has meant, and continues to mean, a lot to the town of Caravaca and its people and indeed this part of Spain.
There is another legend about Caravaca commemorated each year in festival – the legend of the Wine Horses or La Fiesta de los Caballos del Vino and it goes something like this...
In the 15th century, the town passed to the Knights Templar, who built the Castle that towers over the town today. Once when the town was under siege by the Moors the Knights Templar and the towns people took refuge in the Castle. The water in the Castle became unusable and many people fell sick. Under cover of darkness some of the knights crept out of the castle to find water, but many of the neighbouring wells had been poisoned by the Moors. The knights found only wine, which they put in wineskins and raced back to the castle on their horses chased by the Moors. The wine was blessed in the presence of the Caravaca Cross and served to the people who were sick. These people recovered immediately, so the wine was mixed with the undrinkable water in the storage tanks. The water became fresh and the Christians were able to resist the enemy.
A kind of reversal of The Wedding of Cana! Truth or fabrication – it doesn’t really matter – I am a sucker for a good story – and the Knights Templar were old friends of mine from other places I have visited. I just had to get to Caravaca del la Cruz. And two attempts, one train and 4 bus journeys later, I did!
Without boring you with the gory details, suffice it to say that travel in Spain is not for the faint hearted. Local timetables tend to be obscure and staff at bus and train stations are anything but helpful. In reply to queries they shout at you and dismiss you rapidly and move on to the next customer without making sure that you have fully understood what they've said.
The very first sight of it excited me with its wonderful medieval castle towering above and all roads, streets, alleyways and laneways leading upwards to where the fabled True Cross rests. Unfortunately, due to travel constraints, it was not possible for us to thoroughly investigate this quaint, mysterious place but I shall return – of that I am certain. Next time though I will take a day trip with a private company much like the one we took to Murcia, with Viajes Rosa Tours.
For that trip, and all of €10, they will pick you
up at the McDonald Roundabout on the Torrevieja road at 9.35am and drop
you off in the centre of Murcia at approximately 10.45am where you have
the entire day to explore the treasures of this most exquisite city.
My first stop was the Tourist Office at the corner of the Plaza del
Cardenal Belluga to ask about a city tour. Strange to say, but as luck
would have it I was informed that there was no city tour because if
there had been we would never have had the pleasure of meeting with
Juan Luis who gave us one of the most comprehensive and charming tours
we have ever had of a city. Juan is by profession a school teacher who
has taken time out to indulge his passion for introducing people to
his native Spain. For the
Juan approached us as we were exiting the Tourist Office asking if we were interested in a tour of the historic or old part of the city and to be honest my first reaction was that it might be a rip off. For €50 for five of us I expected that we would be swiftly shown a couple of adjacent sites and then dumped. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Juan was delightful, he was mannerly, knowledgeable, friendly, easy to understand, a joy to listen to and above all completely passionate and totally in love with what he does. After three immensely enjoyable and informative hours we had to ask to take our leave of him so that we could sit down and try to digest all that we had heard. Juan would have happily continued with us for the entire day – all for €50! This private tour is just such excellent value that I would have no hesitation recommending it to anyone on the contrary as I told Juan I would actively encourage people to take it.
Murcia is enchanting. Its fabulously ornate Cathedral dominates the old quarter and took over 200 years to complete. Begun in 1395 and not finished until the 1500s, it encompasses many styles of architecture including Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Built over the site of the old Mosque, the Cathedral houses no less than 23 separate Chapels each dedicated to a different saint or bishop or nobleman who helped in some way with its construction. Juan went to great lengths explaining the various artistic styles in each of the chapels and telling us what noble families each was associated with and why. The magnificent Bell Tower is 93 metres high and contains 25 bells, each with its own name, which were used to alert the people of Murcia to danger such as wars, pestilence and flooding of the Segura river. Adjacent to the grand Cathedral is the equally well adorned Bishops Palace making the picturesque little Square or Plaza a must for the visitor.
Our next stop was the Casino of Murcia. Not a Casino in the gambling sense, this fabulously ostentatious edifice was built in 1852 as a Gentleman`s Club where the elite, ambitious and wealthy could come together to socialise in a select environment – no women allowed naturally!
Nowadays, thankfully, once you have your €4 for the audio tour, it doesn’t matter what gender you are. But trust me it is indeed worth the entrance fee to see this most fascinating insight into a world of exclusivity. Richly decorated and flamboyant, and inspired by the famous Arabic Alhambra Palaces of Granada the Casino exudes wealth and opulence nothing more so than the neo-Nazarite style dome with 35,000 gold leaves used in its decoration. Visit the mirrored ballroom with its stunning chandeliers reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles and if you really want to live it treat yourself to lunch in the elegant Pavilion Restaurant from approximately €18.
Murcia is awash with beautiful churches and ancient buildings and our wonderful Guide Juan did his utmost to show us as many as possible. It is also an excellent city for shopping and eating out with a huge collection of fine restaurants and cafes. Before taking our leave of Juan – we made sure to take his details. He is a native of Cartagena and has promised to meet with us there on our next visit and give us a similar tour of that city. We couldn’t thank him enough for sharing his wealth of knowledge with us and we very much look forward to meeting with him again. As we reposed in the shade in the attractive Plaza de la Glorieta with its striking Town Hall and beautiful Episcopal Palace savouring our cool drinks and basking in all our new found acumen we promised ourselves that this would not be our one and only visit to Murcia – this is a place that we intend to return to time and again. There is a richness of culture and a mammoth history in its buildings, on its streets and amid its quaint medieval squares and plazas and we have only just scratched the surface but with the help of Juan at www.murciaguides.es we will continue our explorations at another time in the future.
With our journeying at an end we returned to the sublime serenity of La Mata for a few more days of pure unadulterated pleasure lounging on silken sand, bronzing beneath the salubrious Spanish sun and bathing in the tepid pools of the mystic Med before returning home to the dank, dark, dismal days of an Irish winter.