On a map of southeast Spain, I seek five towns that are like the fingers of a hand: located close to each other, different in size and shape and yet go well together. So I use my right hand as a search tool. Freezing its little finger at Alicante where I start from, makes the other fingers point to the inland towns of Elche, Orihuela and Murcia, finally to Cartagena on the coast.
Elche is waiting 23 km to the west. It’s Saturday night now, and Cafe Paris is definitely more busy than the famous Basilica opposite. The waiters, appearing lofty as palms and mysteriously out of reach, wave past you in soft shoes. They are true ambassadors for Elche; a town so famed for its 200,000 palm trees, roughly one per citizen, and for its mid-August mystery play, Misteri d’Elx, that it was appointed a World Heritage site twice over, though not for the incredible amount of shoes they produce.
Walking around Elche requires good shoes, at least able to cover a 3 km tour through El Palmeral, the palm groves, some within Moorish walls. A metal man engraved in the asphalt shows you the way, but drop him awhile at Huerto del Cura to experience the intense beauty of this private garden. The flat extension of Elche can even be viewed from the tower of the Basilica de Santa Maria, inside of which a child version of the Virgin dies every year and ascends to heavenly coronation through a canvas ceiling, a deafening experience repeated audiovisually in a nearby museum.
Approaching the Border
Orihuela, on the one side clinging to a mountain, is on the lower sides surrounded by orchards, palm groves and small industries. Its population is only a third of Elche’s, whereas its fleet of cars seems larger. When not jammed together, the cars just crawl along, up and down narrow streets and across the river Segura, whose bridges need repair from time to time, thereby allowing the stalled drivers to enjoy the sight of historical palaces and ecclesiastical buildings in the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles.
Architecture fails to calm down certain drivers who get extremely agitated, shouting and gesticulating to let off steam. To document the chaos I decide to conduct my own traffic count, seated safely on a cafe chair. During 10 minutes starting Saturday 11.27, a trifling 62 cars snail past, so slowly that I also record their colors, with sporadic red ones to keep me awake and shades of grey as the winners of my count. I have clearly overestimated the total number of cars, and my count was possibly opposed by a simultaneous demonstration at the solemn City Hall, not demanding fewer cars but more transparency.
The train to Murcia City takes me across an invisible border; from the Valencia region to one sharing its name with the capital, Murcia, a city of nearly 400,000. Although the local university attracts hordes of students, this area is among the least visited in Spain. The river Segura’s green soup has followed me, very tasty to judge by the giant ducks down there, even containing fish that risk being caught by the lines and hooks of patient anglers. The river, or rather a masterpiece balancing above it on two arches, is going to be my vantage point: the old bridge Puente Viejo with balustrades and lanterns in black metal, completed in 1740.
Murcia is indeed wrapped up in orchards and vegetable farms, thanks to irrigation systems introduced by the Arabs. Water mills, once dotting the river bank, have been reduced to 24 millstones at the Hydraulic Museum right below. On the other bank, a banner saying “Agua Para Todos” in huge letters adorns the reddish City Hall; part of an ongoing discussion with the government in Madrid. More peaceful is the Baroque facade in the background boasting a myriad of details: La Catedral de Santa Maria, the tower of which surely touches the sky. The front is at night flooded with yellowish light, a striking contrast to the grey illumination of the tower.
Another construction, opposite, also stretches away, not into the air but winding 1.5 km into the Huerta as the flourishing countryside is called. That’s the Malecon, flood protection walls to hold back the Segura river. Started in 1420, the Malecon is today a beloved promenade, about 10 m broad, covered with flagstones and lined with solid benches. Although successful in stopping the river, Malecon was unable to resist the waves of fitness seekers in the form of joggers and speed walkers. Their efforts are no doubt stimulated by an unmistakable scent of citrus and cheered on by waving palms.
Sea in Sight
Cartagena, half the size of Murcia, uses its more than 2000-year history in a most modern way, first recapturing it by digging into the ground, then displaying their finds by building fancy structures, often in glass, on the actual sites. The tourist office, containing built-in ruins, convinces you that Cartagena is Puerto de Culturas, Port of Cultures, their omnipresent slogan, including the fact that this city is a major naval base. A catamaran will take you around the huge harbor, sheltered by mountains and man-made defense systems.
A more poetic side of Cartagena are the modernist facades reminding you of richly decorated layer cakes, like the former Gran Hotel on the tiny Plaza de San Sebastian; furthermore the home of the neoclassical Naval Headquarters, one McDonald’s and one traditional restaurant, La Tartana. An extremely old woman in a sack of a coat is begging at McDonald’s, quite unaware that her greasy hair needs washing and her swollen feet rest. She empties plastic glasses and gnaws junk scraps with her single tooth, all the time insulting passers-by and flouting Cartagena’s shining image.
Alicante has long since polished its image: a fascinating skyline rising from the marina, and between them the Explanada de Espana, a promenade clad in palms and swirling marble mosaics. Alicante is a gateway to the resorts of Costa Blanca, although its own huge beach, Postiguet, is a magnet, at least for the locals, exceeding 300,000. Behind its modern appearance, Alicante has a charming old heart, El Barrio, the old quarter, which takes you back to those days when streets were narrow, houses low but colorful and not always in good repair. At night, trendy bar entrances are highlighted by neon signs, and the music is turned up, merely to jazz level at times.
For a complete overall view, it’s necessary to ascend to the Santa Barbara Castle. With Alicante’s old and new quarters at my feet, I imagine that the other towns pass in review: first Cartagena, coming out from recession and decay; followed by Malecon, reminding me of evening strolls in Murcia; Orihuela, an in- and outdoor museum; finally Elche’s palms whispering in my ear. I realize that a handful of Spanish towns is more than five individuals – it’s a bouquet where colors, shapes and atmospheres complement each other.