Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Murcia: Bold and New.

My day began early, bleary-eyed and sleepy on a Saturday morning, filled with the anticipation of travelling abroad and the hope that all would go smoothly along the way.  The hubbs, also half-asleep, was by my side as we swiftly made our way to SFO in the darkness of the early weekend.  My mind was racing-- did I remember my passport?  Did I pack appropriately?  How long was this flight exactly?  Actually I should say "flights", considering that there were three connectors I had to catch just to get to Alicante, along the southeastern shores of Spain.  After nearly twenty five hours of travel, our plane finally touched down (on time!) at the small, yet efficient Alicante Airport.  We were now just a short driving distance from Murcia- about an hour, spent chatting with our fellow bloggers Amy Gross, Julia Crowley, Cindy Rynning and our chaperone, Mike Matilla.  We were all a bit punchy by this point, but eager to begin our exploration of the region, starting with the city of Murcia itself.

Fields of gold.
Along the way to town, riding side-by-side with our driver, Pepe, the van became quiet as we all were taken aback by the incredibly unique landscape of the surrounding region of Murcia.  In comparison to other parts of Spain, this rocky, dry terrain was more Mediterranean than areas I'd visited in the past-- I couldn't help but think to myself, "this is a tropical desert."  The further we traveled, the more the land started to resemble parts of... Arizona?  Indeed, with beautiful clay colored dust, palm trees springing up left and right, giant cactus hulking alongside adobe-esque homes and roads that reached from the sea to the mountains, all in plain sight without foliage blocking the view.  This Spain was very foreign to me, completely and utterly different from the lush, fervent seaside towns of the North, more isolated and vast than Madrid and it's neighbors.  On one side you have the ocean, and not far from it, on the opposite side of the highway, you have a giant, sluggish mountain range that rises up from the plains like a dinosaur resting peacefully under an ashen colored rug.

The view at 120 km per hour.
The strange part, I had noticed, is that the further inland we traveled, the more greenery began to appear.  Not just a little plant here or there-- we're talking acres and acres of apricots, peaches, almonds, olives, lemons, table grapes and the like.  Modest homes made from clay, stone and wood, surrounded by palm trees and almond groves, fruit trees and vegetables for miles.  Striking plant life against a rather bleak landscape, much like California's own central valley, where irrigation is king even though the water supply is limited.  Like any other dry climate, Murcia sees very little rain in the winter and there is an abundance of sunshine and heat during the summer months, leaving very little natural water sources accessible to the people.  And yet, they thrive, dependent on their bountiful harvest of produce and flowers, often times referred to as "Europe's Orchard" amongst the growing communities.          

Old meets new(ish) outside our hotel.
We arrived at our hotel, the NH Rincon de Pepe, a startlingly modern hotel amidst the classic cobblestone streets and cool stone buildings of ancient Murcia.  Located in the heart of the city, walking distance from the gorgeous Castillian gothic Cathedral Church of Saint Mary, the hotel is host to two restaurants, a casino and the now blogger-infamous La Muralla bar.  Our rooms were spacious, comfortable and relatively well equipped to our needs, while the general property and atmosphere of the hotel was pleasant and relaxing.  A quick wash of the face, a glass of water and a huge sigh of relief for landing safely at our destination, we were ready to get down to business.  Well, sort of.  Actually, we were completely starving and in need of some decent sustenance after our long journey.  Perhaps a glass of wine or two, a cerveza, some local tapas and a good, long introduction to our surroundings.  We also finally were able to meet up with additional fellow bloggers Meg Maker, Robert Dwyer and Mary Cressler, traveling from different parts of the U.S.-- all three having had lost their luggage lost via Amsterdam.  Travel snafu aside, it was impossible to pass up the opportunity to get our first taste of Murcia...    
The gorgeous cathedral just steps away.
After we dropped off our own luggage, freshened up and settled in, we were asked to re-group for a casual lunch around 2:15 in the afternoon-- which, if you were wondering, is Spain's most important meal of the day.  Lunch here is not your average deli sandwich or fast food bite to eat.  Lunch is the biggest meal, usually one of the longest ( about 2-3 hours) and is chock-full of hearty, savory dishes.  For our introductory meal, it had been arranged for us to eat at the hotel's own alleyway restaurant, La Barra.  Situated around the corner and down a vibrant, skinny lane, La Barra's facade is a relaxed, down-tempo outdoor eating area where friends and neighbors can meet up for tapas while enjoying the fresh air.  The restaurant staff was nice enough to arrange a table for the nine of us to share, under a dark canopy, shielding us from the warm summer sun.  Our chaperone Mike, was integral in our food decision making (thanks Mike!), by helping us to understand the menu.

Typical Murcia lane.
We started out with a couple of dewy, cool pitchers of cerveza.  Traditionally, it's pretty common to start your meal or tapas session off with a cold bottle of Mahou, Cruzcampo, Estrella Damm or Estrella Levante.  After all, we were about to embark on a wine tasting bonanza for the next 5 days, why not give the palette a refreshing break?  There were glasses of Cava ordered as well- the bloggers wanted bubbles.  Bubbles in beer or bubbles in Spanish sparkling wine, it didn't matter.  Menus were quickly passed around and the fun began...

For our first course, I decided to go with the habitas salteadas con jamón y heuvos rotos (broken lacy eggs with ham and beans)- upon Mike's recommendation.  The hubbs pilfered half of this dish, and we found ourselves arguing whether or not his rollitos de salmon marinado el eneldo rellano de marisco (salmon roll stuffed with dill, caviar and crab) could compare.  Both were, without a doubt, divine.  It is very a special moment when you arrive in a country and are taking your first bite of local fare.  The beans in my dish were grown locally and cooked perfectly, and the jamon was savory and crisp.  The hubbs starter was melt-in-your-mouth tasty, although due to outdoor heat became a little too warm after a few minutes.  Nonetheless, each dish was a delicious intro to this unfamiliar region's culinary capability.

Mmm beer.
Mike in blue, ready to eat.

Beans, "lacy" egg, jamon.

As more dishes began to arrive, cameras appeared and the obsessive photo taking took action-- Tranco de bacalao rebozado con pisto murciano (salted cod with potatoes), tortilla el gusto espanol (layered potato omelette), festival de verduras del tempurada el iberico (salad festival of local veggies with ham) and for the sweet-tooth in all of us, postre de la casa sugerencias del dia (rice pudding).

Salmon roll.

Spanish tortilla.
It's a festival in my mouth!
Beautiful food in a beautiful setting will always be a good thing...  And I think I speak for most of the Murcia 8 when I say, "sabe tam bien" wholeheartedly.  Can't wait for the next meal.  If you can believe it, this was just lunch.  Our American tummies were bursting at the seams, and yet, we took a siesta and continued to eat more about 3 hours later.  It's almost impossible to to *not* eat in Spain, especially in a social aspect.  Spaniards eat like it's a sport: work hard, play hard, eat tons and walk it off.  A lifestyle I could definitely get used to.

It's a good thing there's a lot more coming where that came from... Stay tuned!

*All photos are author's own, taken over the course of 6-22 to 6/28 of 2013.

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