Category: Murcia

A Welcoming Trail of Stews

This is a tale of a village and a spoon, which to me perfectly reflects the spirit of the season.

Cehegín

The village in question, Cehegín, appears in the photo above. I had often admired this perched vista from the highway that connects the city of Murcia with the rugged northwest corner of the region. But until recently, I had never stopped to explore.

And here’s where the spoon comes in. Much to my delight, the day I picked to visit Cehegín, there also happened to be a culinary event, the Puente del Puchero, or Bridge of Stews.

The idea was similar to that of the itinerant Tapas Routes I wrote about several weeks ago. But this time, instead of small plates, participating bars and restaurants were serving mini portions of traditional soups and stews, all dishes meant to be eaten with a spoon, hence the tagline (which I adore), ¡¡Viva la Cuchara!!, Long live the Spoon!

This praise for a simple, comforting and nourishing way to eat seems a perfect slogan for for the times. I chanted these words in my mind (and sometimes out loud) throughout the day, imagining all the bottomless pots of stew gurgling on stove tops throughout the village. This made the quiet streets feel more welcoming and took the chill out of the wind.

Brochure

A bit of history

I love this part of the region of Murcia, both for the striking landscape and for the evocative human history. Cave drawings thought to be over 4,000 years old have been found in the area, as well as traces of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and, of course, Catholic conquerors. All of these peoples had their reasons for staking a claim on this land, like its geographical advantages (protected caves and extensive lookout possibilities) as well as its strategic importance in terms of religion and politics (often one in the same).

As far as I can gather, none of these people had it easy. Throughout this long history, not only were there marauders and rivals to contend with, but also indiscriminant diseases like the Plague. Nonetheless, the will to survive has left a rich legacy in Cehegín, whose old center was declared Historic-Artistic Site by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1982.

Today, tourism is key to the survival of local monuments and traditions, not only in Cehegín, but also in much of rural Spain, which, for me, was extra reason (as if I needed it) to grab a spoon and dig in.

Without further ado, here is our day on the Trail of Stews in Cehegín:

Alubias con perdiz

Our first stop was the no-frills Bar Fernando, which was quiet minus a few regulars who’d stopped by for an aperitivo. We were the only out-of-towners there, but this didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone, and we took a place at the bar without any obvious turned heads. In fact, it took several minutes for the owner to take our order, as he was busy chatting politics with the man next to us who had dropped by alone for a beer and a snack of several fat anchovies drizzled with olive oil. We eventually got to order our puchero, and were served alubias con perdíz, a vibrant stew of white beans, partridge and a good dose of pimentón. The little ceramic bowls made for the occasion were perfect for warming cold fingers.

Olla de cerdo

Our second stop, La Bodeguica (“the little bodega” –ica/-ico is a common diminutive in Murcia, often used instead of the –ita/-ito predominant in the rest of Spain), was more modern in decor than Bar Fernando and also had a younger crowd. An array of creative canapés – mini slices of baguette topped with different meats, cheeses and spreads – displayed on the bar caught our attention, but we decided to stick with the spoon route and were served Murcia’s traditional olla de cerdo, a pork-laden stew which literally (and understandably) translates as “pig pot.” In spite of the small dish, the portion (as you can see), packed with meat, garbanzos and bits of celery, was far from skimpy. I followed Manolo’s lead and stirred the morcilla in with the rest, which gave each spoonful a warm hint of cinnamon and clove.

Cocido con pelotas

We decided we had room for one more stew, so made or way to the Bar-Terraza Cine Alfaro, a little place on the Plaza of the same name in the historic center. We grabbed two stools at the bar, which gave us a direct view into the kitchen and of the walls plastered with photos of the Real Madrid soccer team over the years. Here, they were serving cocido con pelotas, a meatball stew. As evident in the photo, they did not skimp on the goods here either, and loaded our bowls with tender meatballs, chicken, garbanzos, carrot, turnip, potato, and yes, a bit of broth, too. By now, the chill I had felt before my first spoonful of the day was a distant memory.

Tired façade

In between bowls of stew, we visited historic Cehegín, where restoration is a work in progress. Several crumbling corners serve as a reminder that this part of Spain was largely isolated and poor in the grand scheme of history.

Yet thankfully, there are many signs of a growing determination to preserve the town’s architectural heritage, like the lovingly restored 17th century Council Chambers and 18th century Fajardo Palace, which house the Archaeological Museum of Cehegín, pictured below. Here you can see remnants and objects left behind by the different peoples who have called this land home.

Archaeological Museum of CehegínArchaeological Museum of Cehegín 2

These buildings and the display below from the 19th century are evidence of more prosperous times in Cehegín, when certain tables were set with china and silver according to the dictates of royal etiquette. Apparently, all these knives, forks and spoons were for one diner.

Aristocratic dining

The craftsmanship was admirable, yet I found myself asking, who needs all those utensils when all you really need is one big spoon?

Alubias con perdiz 2

Happy Holidays to everyone! Eat lots of soup, and savor tradition, wherever you are!

The Basics:

  • When: This was the second annual Puente del Puchero, and hopefully there will be many more to come. The event takes place around the 8th of December, a national holiday, which, when it falls on a weekday, typically turns into a long weekend, as folks “make a bridge (puente)” to Saturday and Sunday.
  • Where: This event is a joint effort between several villages in Northwest Murcia, so you could easily spend a whole weekend trying different stews. This year, the following villages participated: Cehegín, Moratalla, Mula and Pliego.
  • How: Pick up an event map/guide at a local tourist office or at any of the participating bars, which tells you who’s serving what. This year, the price was 2.50 € for a serving of stew and a drink, which is quite a bargain considering the amount of hearty ingredients that get packed into those little bowls.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew with Bacon, Serrano Ham, Chorizo and Garlic

When I first heard the word michirones, Manolo and I were strolling through Murcia’s historic center trying to decide where to stop for tapas. He casually suggested we try michirones at El Pepico del Tío Gínes, and I, having been in Murcia for less than one month, literally had no idea what he was talking about. Nothing sounded familiar, which is not surprising in retrospect, for you can’t get much more local than this.

Michirones, I would find out, are fava beans stewed with cured ham, bacon, chorizo, garlic, a good dose of sweet pimentón and bay leaves. This classic Murcian tapa is rustic and hearty, packed with sustenance and a deep cured ham flavor. The pimentón and chorizo turn the broth a vibrant red color that is both warming to look at and to eat.

Michirones are typically served in an earthenware dish strategically placed within reaching distance of everyone at the table. As is the case with many tapas, eating michirones is a communal experience. You help yourself to the beans and meat in the central dish with your fork, and try to get them to your mouth without leaving too much of a trail. (This distance seemed precariously long to me at first.)

This is not to say that the delicious broth goes unconsumed. For soaking up the pimentón spiked liquid, fresh bread is the favored tool, dipped with gusto directly into the common dish.

The bar where I had my first michirones, El Pepico del Tío Gines, was founded in 1935 and is a tradition in itself, with an ambiance you’d expect in an old Spanish bodega –chrome bar, hams hanging from the ceiling, the requisite wooden barrel. I loved my first taste of michirones, unlike anything I had ever eaten, although I struggled to remember how to say what I had eaten. The word just wouldn’t stick.

I can’t remember exactly when the word michirones began flowing off my tongue naturally. I think it was a gradual process, aided by weekly dinners with friends at the cantina of a neighborhood association dedicated to preserving local traditions. We’d invariably order the flavorful michirones, some of the best I’ve had (the restaurant has since closed, sniff, sniff).

After watching Valentina, Manolo’s mom, prepare a batch, I decided it was time to try for myself.

So how about some michirones for dinner?

Michirones

This recipe is based on Valentina’s version in addition to recipes I consulted in the following books on local cuisine: Las 50 Mejores Recetas de la Cocina Muricana and Memorias de la Cocina Murciana.

The dish is traditionally prepared with unshelled dried fava beans. Peeled and split beans fall apart more easily in the cooking process, which isn’t appropriate for this dish. Keep in mind that the cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans. If the skins are too tough for your liking, simply remove them as you are eating by squeezing on the shell with your fingers to release the soft interior into your mouth. In fact, you often see heaps of fava bean skins on plates when michirones have been served.

I suggest not adding any extra salt until the end, if it is needed. I have found that the cured meats provide enough.

A strong red wine from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia, pairs well with the dish.

1 pound dried fava beans, soaked at least overnight*

3 quarts water

⅓ pound dried Spanish chorizo, cut into ¼-inch rounds

¼ pound unsmoked bacon (thick slices are best), cut into 1-inch lengths

1 serrano ham bone, if available

¼ pound thick-sliced serrano ham or proscuitto, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 head of garlic, rinsed

6 bay leaves

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

1-3 whole dried cayenne peppers (optional, if you like a little kick)

Salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients (except salt and pepper) together in a 5-quart soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, uncovered, for 10 minutes and skim off any foam. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, about 2-2 ½ hours. Add more water if necessary. (The cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans.) The broth should be intensely red from the pimentón and chorizo, but relatively thin and clear in consistency. Once the beans are cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste.

*NOTE: Some recipes say to soak the beans for 48 hours, changing the water once or twice. I haven’t tried this yet, but am curious to see how much the longer soak decreases the cooking time.

Holiday Cookie Series: Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales

If you visit a home in Murcia this time of year, you will inevitably be presented with a tray of traditional Christmas sweets to choose from. In addition to the creamy turrón and crumbly polvorones found throughout Spain, the Murcian Christmas tray also includes local treats, such as the almond-packed cordial.

These aromatic cookies are a balancing act between several Mediterranean flavors and textures. The crunchiness of the almonds is offset by moist candied squash, and the first impression of these principal ingredients fades into lingering hints of cinnamon and lemon.

After two years here in Murcia, cordiales have become an essential part of Christmas for me. They have been offered as a welcoming gesture and shared with great pleasure around many a holiday table. It seems no coincidence that cordial, in both English and Spanish, also means from the heart.

In each place I call home, I pick up recipes as comforting souvenirs. I imagine that no matter where I spend my Christmases in the future, these Murcian cookies will be part of my seasonal baking routine, joining the ranks of spiced pumpkin bread and ginger cookies.

This year, I decided it was time to learn how to make my own cordiales, and immediately thought of Fuensanta, my friend Inma’s mother, whose cordiales were not only the first I ever tasted, but also the most flavorful.

We met in Inma’s kitchen on a Saturday in early December, and Fuensanta quickly got to work mixing the ingredients by hand. Instead of measuring, she discussed the quantities with her husband, Paco, who had also come to help. After each step, Paco confirmed the dough looked as it should.

Both fretted that the cookies would run in the oven, thus losing their characteristic dome shape. (While a few did spread a bit, I would argue it doesn’t really matter, for the taste is the same.)

Inma and I joined in when it came time to shape the dough into little balls, which we carefully set on wafer paper (the kind used in communion) for baking.

The golden result was pronounced Christmas cookie tray-worthy. The highest praise of all came from Manolo’s grandfather, who described our cordiales as “como los antiguos” – like they used to make.

Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales

This recipe is made for sharing. Fuensanta bakes a big batch of her cordiales at the beginning of the holidays and stores them in airtight containers, where they keep for up to several weeks. This means she always has some on hand for holiday visitors. In fact, locals say these cookies get even better with age.

Making the dough is a relatively quick and easy process in Spain, where candied squash (called cabello de angel,angel hair) is available in cans. I haven’t been able to locate this product in the US (let me know if you find it somewhere), so have included a link to an Emeril Lagasse recipe for spaghetti squash jam. This extra step will obviously make the cookies more labor-intensive, but can be done days in advance.

Wafer paper, or oblea, another common ingredient in Spain, is available by the sheet at most local bakeries in Murcia this time of year. In the US, you can find wafer paper on many specialty baking sites on the Internet, such as here, where it comes in packs of 100, and here, where it can be bought in individual sheets. To make one batch, ten sheets would be a safe bet. But the wafers can be omitted without any loss in flavor – simply use parchment paper instead.

With the quantities involved, the entire baking process took us about three hours, since we only baked one sheet at a time. (The ovens here tend to be smaller than in the US.) If you bake two sheets at once (which may take longer than the time given), be sure to rotate them at least once to ensure even browning.

2 1/4 pounds finely chopped almonds

zest of 2 lemons

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

6 eggs

1 1/2 cups candied spaghetti squash

Wafer paper (8 x 11 inch sheets) (optional)

Make candied spaghetti squash, if you are not using canned. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line baking sheets with wafer or parchment paper.

Mix almonds, lemon zest, sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Fuensanta uses her hands, but a wooden spoon would work, too. Add eggs and mix to blend. At this point, the dough should be goopy, but not runny. Work in candied spaghetti squash with your fingers, breaking up any clumps, until more or less evenly distributed. Be careful not to overmix—you don’t want to release too much water from the squash.

Shape dough into ping-pong-size balls using your hands and set them on prepared baking sheets, spaced about 1-inch apart.

Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool before serving. If you have used wafer paper, break into individual cookies, making the edges as neat or as rough as you like. The wafer is at its crispest on this first day, and many children (and adults) here like to nibble at the leftover crumbs.

YIELD: 40-50 cookies

My Neighborhood: A Saturday Market Feast

A Saturday aperitivo at the Plaza, our neighborhood market, is a well-loved ritual for many locals. While Spanish-English dictionaries will lead you to believe that the aperitivo is a pre-lunch affair, experience in Spain has taught me otherwise. Here in Murcia, at least, it is not unusual for an aperitivo to begin at around 1:30 p.m. and end nearly twelve hours later, with one last drink in a friend’s home. Meanwhile, nearly the entire day has been spent imbibing – a few bites here, a few sips there – and talking. This is typically what happens when we begin at the Plaza.

La Plaza - Saturday at Pasqual's

But beyond the timeframe, an aperitivo at the Plaza is not a typical bar experience. For here, you buy your own fish and meat at your purveyors of choice in the market and then take them to Cafetería Pascual, where the owner cooks them up for you. The preparation is simple – either a la plancha, on a griddle sizzling with olive oil, or al vapor, steamed in a big pot seasoned with bay leaves. Both methods bring out the flavors of the literally market-fresh products. You don’t have to specify. You just leave your bags in the queue on the counter, and Pascual takes care of the rest.

Our first stop – Pescadería Manolo:

Plaza - Pescaderia Manolo

Our fishmongers:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri

The fish:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri (2)

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Our next stop – Cafetería Pascual:

Pascual napkinDSC01550

This is not a meal for the timid – there are no signs explaining what to do, and you must be pro-active to get your food in line. Nor is it a meal for the impatient – it can take up to an hour, or more, to get your first cooked item. It’s best not to think about the time, and instead focus on more important matters, like beer and warm-up nibbles, such as locally cured sausages or a plate of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad.

A “martini,” which here means vermouth and is a typical aperitif, can be dangerous at this stage, particularly given the volume of the pour.

DSC01540

It can be difficult to pace yourself, especially when you arrive hungry. I have found it is easy to forget how much fish and meat is coming my way. So after I’ve had my fill of steamed mussels, griddled razor clams and prawns, I remember there are more plates to come – the griddled sausage, pork filets and boiled local morcillas, blood sausage stuffed with caramelized onions and pine nuts. Oh yeah, and the quail eggs, which will come perched atop thin slices of baguette.

La plaza - Mussels! (2)

This whole process takes at least three hours, during which time the empty beer bottles have steadily accumulated and the conversation has steadily gotten louder. A Saturday at the Plaza is a boisterous feast, which is clear in the aftermath…

DSC01551

Once the frenzy has died down, we plot out our next step – going home is usually out of the question. This is an aperitivo, after all.

Excursions in Murcia: Balneario de Archena, Resort and Spa

A quick note: Yesterday – ten years (!) since I originally published this post – I realized it was in private mode. By making it public, it appeared as a new post. The Balneario de Archena is still a wonderful escape and something to dream about for post-pandemic days.

Original post:

One of the things I love about living in Murcia is the sense of discovery I feel while exploring the region. When I arrived here nearly two years ago, I knew close to nothing about all the region had to offer, which felt, and still feels, like an exciting opportunity.

One Eureka! moment came when I heard there were thermal baths just a half hour from the city. It took me over a year to get there – you can’t do everything at once, after all – but I can now say with certainty I recommend the trip.

archena, alberca, ruta de tapas 013

Manolo and I chose the historic Balneario de Archena, one of several spa resorts in the area, and were not disappointed. Tucked away in the valley of the Rio Segura and surrounded by arid mountains, the Balneario de Archena feels like a modern-day oasis.

This spa is all about the water, which flows from the earth at a temperature of around 130 ºF and is rich in minerals, such as sulfur, calcium and magnesium. For centuries, doctors in Spain have recommended the thermal waters of Archena, not only for relief from specific ailments like muscle and joint pain, but also for general well-being.

The ambiance on this weekday in late September was low-key and free of glitz. Most of the other clients were Spanish, minus a few stray Brits and yours truly, and the average age must have been around  70.

archena, alberca, ruta de tapas 007

The mineral-packed waters felt almost creamy against my skin as I slipped into the principal thermal pool, where the average temperature is a constant 95-97 ºF. My muscles relaxed instantly, and I felt myself being pulled by a distinct current, as if I were floating along a lazy river. Turns out I was in a generated current loop, which took me through a winding indoor-outdoor circuit. I then tested out the many waterfalls, spouts and jets around the pool, enjoying massages varying from relaxing to invigorating.

My next stop was the balneotherapy zone, the Balnea Termalium, a restorative circuit of saunas, steam rooms, therapeutic pools, and even an igloo.

Manolo and I sweated it out in the Russian, Aztec and Estonian saunas, which varied in temperature and relative dryness. The estufa de Archena, a  steam room with a strong dose of sulfur, provided humid contrast. And a few minutes in the icy igloo were nothing short of bracing. We exerted a bit of effort in the lap pool, which helped us more deeply relax in the saline flotation pool. And the lemon essence rising off the aromatherapy pool was gently awakening. I felt pampered, and convinced — I had a new highlight to add to my growing Murcia itinerary.

Practical Tips:

  • As a day trip: The Balneario de Archena is an easy day trip from Murcia. We went on a Friday so we could take advantage of the 29 € per person weekday special, “Escapeterapia.”  This included use of the two indoor-outdoor thermal pools as well as the balneotherapy zone, lunch in the Espacio Termalium restaurant and a free swimming cap (required). (The lunch was good, a basic plato combinado with meat, a vegetable and potatoes, but not the highlight of the day.)
  • To stay overnight: There are three hotels at the resort, including the restored nineteenth century Hotel Termas, pictured below, and two more modern accommodations.

archena, alberca, ruta de tapas 011

  • Promotions: If you are planning a trip to the Balneario de Archena, check here for special offers and promotions.

A bit of history:

Iberian peoples are thought to have used the waters at Archena as early as the fifth century B.C. But it was the Romans who left more of a trace – excavations have uncovered remains of Roman thermal baths on the site of today’s spa.

In the eighteenth century, these lands belonged to the Order of St. John, and the healing waters and their patron, Our Lady of Remedies, were sources of devotion. The existing chapel, La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, pictured below, dates from 1878, once the land had passed into private hands.At this time, the Balneario de Archena was a popular summer destination for wealthy families from all over Spain.

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The Casino, once an exclusive club and now a café and bar, dates from the same era.

archena, alberca, ruta de tapas 008

Some old postcards from the nineteenth century:

Archena 3

Archena

Archena 2

Archena 4

SOURCE of postcards: Memoria Gráfica de Murcia

My Neighborhood Series: Stately Homes

No one lives in the house next door. Day after day, year after year, the gate remains locked and the windows shuttered. The house is a silent neighbor, minus the occasional catfight in the abandoned yard. No summer parties in the garden, no other signs of life, which is such a shame.

The House Next Door - Rear View

This house must have been a lively place at some point. In the early 1900s, La Alberca, my village, would fill with summer residents, city dwellers of means who came here to escape the heat of downtown Murcia, just a few miles away. Many of these folks had likely earned their money in the thriving local silk industry.

La Alberca, surrounded by farmland and in the foothills of the low-lying mountains, was cooler than the city . There were popular baths here and a small alberca, or reservoir, where holidaymakers enjoyed refreshing and reputedly restorative waters. Knowing the Spaniards, homes like the one next door would have seen their fair share of parties, particularly in this time of relative prosperity.

The House Next Door - Seen from My Kitchen

I love the house next door. Es preciosa, says Manolo, and I agree. It makes me daydream. I imagine opening the front door, which creaks of old age and lack of use, and entering the world as it was at least a lifetime ago. In my mind, the table is still set for a family luncheon, all doilies and silver and china. I tiptoe through the scene, not wanting to disturb the peace of decades of rest. The floors are stunning, a mosaic of colorfully elaborate Victorian encaustic tiles, typical in homes here in the first part of the last century. Dusty family photos sit atop antique commodes, elegant señores and señoras wearing the formal expressions demanded of the occasion. And a radiant portrait of Murcia’s patron virgin, La Fuensanta, hangs on the wall.

In another fantasy, I somehow earn enough money to buy the house next door, and the owners, whoever they may be, agree to sell. I repair the roof, which has begun to crumble in places, and add a fresh coat of paint. Manolo, whose thumb is much greener than mine, brings the garden back to life, pruning the majestic palms, perhaps planting some more lemon trees (there are already a few), and restoring the trellised walkway leading to the front door. The evening of our housewarming, I string lights among the grape vines to welcome visitors, bringing the house back to life.

The House Next Door - Originaly Entry Gate

The House Next Door

 

 

 

It pains me to think of the continued effects of time on the house next door. Other beautiful old houses in my neighborhood seem to be in a similar situation, all but abandoned. In some cases, the homes have been passed on to future generations and now belong to so many people that they belong to no one, really. And perhaps nobody in the family has the means, or the time and will, to maintain these historic properties. Each house has its own story, and, yes,  its own potential to inspire.

Another Crumbling Villa

Abandoned house on the hill

ADDENDUM: And, thankfully, many old houses in the neighborhood have been lovingly maintained and restored. Here are a few:

A lovely villa

Former baths, whose interior has been converted into condos

A charming home

The House Next Door - Originaly Entry Gate

The House Next Door

It pains me to think of the continued effects of time on the house next door. Other beautiful old houses in my neighborhood appear to be in a similar situation, all but abandoned. In some cases, the homes have been passed on to future generations and now belong to so many people that they belong to no one, really. And perhaps nobody in the family has the means, or the time and will, to maintain these historic properties. Each house has its own story, and its own potential.