Butterfly Maids and Painted Pigeons

 Area: West of Torrevieja. Route: Torrevieja – Orihuela – Murcia – Archena – Abanilla. Distance: 119 kilometres. Visit a fabulously decorated old-time casino to see the butterfly maidens and dance a polka, then drive through the arid south to wallow in medicinal mud.


You leave Torrevieja on the CV95, in the direction of San Miguel de Salinas and Orihuela, an inland road that takes you 21 kilometres through extensive orange groves, past the Embalse de la Pedrera and on to Bigastro. Leaving this town, you will see a sign just after a roundabout indicating Orihuela four kilometres further on. After a few minutes on this straight road, you will see the great edifice of the Seminario looming on the hillside above Orihuela.

Cross over the next roundabout and at the one after that, in front of the Hipermercado Eroski, turn left where the road becomes the CV925. Moments later, at the next roundabout, turn right to go through an underpass that brings you out at yet another roundabout, this one with a large sculpture of radiating metal bars. Take the left exit (passing to the right of Automóbiles Joyper) for the Centro Urbano and at the end of this street there is a set of traffic lights (with a Benetton sign in front of you). Turn left and almost immediately you enter the town centre with a very pretty park, the Glorieta Gabriel Miró.

Orihuela is a tricky town to drive around and it’s best to leave the car somewhere near the park because this is the way you will be leaving to continue the excursion. This is the modern part of the city but it is only a few minutes’ walk to the old town. Orihuela sits on the banks of the meandering Segura, a river that supplies a complex irrigation system dating back to Arab times and feeds the abundant orange and lemon groves that form such an intrinsic part of the regional scenery. The capital of the Vega Baja, Orihuela has no less than five national monuments and more than a scattering of museums, parks and galleries to keep the visitor entertained for hours.

It is a city of grand buildings. The most impressive of these is the 16th-century Colegio de Santo Domingo. Originally a convent with a small school, it was recognised by papal bull in 1569 and became a university. It taught theology, grammar, arts and the law until it was closed in 1824 as part of the suppression of religious orders. Almost two centuries later, it fulfils an educational role once more, housing a secondary school and part of the tourism department of Alicante University.

The Renaissance convent cloister was built in the early 17th    century and the baroque university cloister was built between 1727 and 1737. The latter has two levels of Romanesque arches, slender Corinthian columns and heraldic logos among which are the coats of arms of Spain, Calatrava and a number of popes.

Between the cloisters is the original refectory, decorated in 18th-century Valencia tiles depicting pastoral scenes, said to be one of the most important examples of this kind of decoration in the region.

The interior of the church is an outrageous confection of ornate stuccowork and rich decoration dating back to the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. The altarpiece by Juan de Juanes looks out of proportion, hardly surprising as its former home was in a side chapel and replaces the original altar destroyed during the Civil War.

San Salvador began life as a parish church but, in a series of ecclesiastical promotions, worked its way upwards until, in the 14th century, it became a cathedral. Its main structure is Catalan Gothic and two of its main entrances, the Puerta de las Cadenas and Puerta de Loreto, are from this period while a third, the Puerta de la Anunciación, is of Renaissance origin. At the rear of the church is the Museo Diocesano, which boasts Velázquez’s The Temptation of Saint Thomas among its collection of religious art.

For a change from imposing architecture, you could venture underground at the Museo de la Muralla, where a guided tour leads you through the underground remains of the city walls, Arab baths and domestic buildings. The Museo de Semana Santa houses most of the processional thrones and sculptures used in the Easter processions, while the Museo de La Reconquista is dedicated to the folklore of the Moors and Christians fiesta. Here you will see costumes, arms, musical instruments, photographs and publicity material relating to this fiesta.

For the next stop on our excursion, we step over the Valencia border into Murcia and visit the capital of the region. As Murcia is a city, it is strictly speaking outside the realms of this book, but no visit to this area would be complete without a visit to one of the most beguiling buildings you could hope to see.

To leave Orihuela, take the road that runs along the left-hand side of the Glorieta Gabriel Miró (Calle San Gregorio) and turn left at the end, heading for the N340/E15 to Alicante and Murcia. This street brings you back to the roundabout with the metal sculpture, but this time you go straight across. Moments later you come to a small roundabout where you take the exit to the left.

Follow the signs for Murcia and, after two kilometres, it joins the N340. Just after this junction the road rises and to your left you see the Palmeral, Orihuela’s palm garden, second in size to Elche, which is itself the largest palm garden in Spain.

The road from Orihuela could never be described as beautiful, running as it does through a number of small industrial areas, but the rugged hills of the Sierra de Orihuela, dotted with patches of pine woods, do have a certain grandeur.

Stay on this road, ignoring the first sign for the A7 and Alicante, until you see a sign directing you to the E15/A7, just in front of the Café Bar Casa Augusto, Cano Muebles to your right. Your map will tell you that this is a longer route to Murcia but it will get you more easily into the city centre. When you reach Murcia, take the exit for Juan de Borbón and Ronda de Levante and follow the signs into the city until you come to a T-junction with MAPFRE offices directly in front of you. Turn right. At the second roundabout, where there are a number of direction signs take the right for Albacete. You can either park here and walk into the centre, ten minutes or so, as this is the direction you will leave Murcia, or drive to the centre by taking the exit to the left and following the signs for the cathedral.

A stone’s throw from the cathedral, down the Calle Trapería, is the Casino, not a bit like a glitzy, high-rolling modern-day casino but more a gentlemen’s club where the solid citizens of the town used to socialise, discuss business and play dominoes or cards for small stakes.

It’s true that these old-time casinos can be found in many towns and villages in Spain but few of them are as grand as Murcia’s. If the magnificent entrance with its rose marble pillars and heroic allegorical bas-reliefs isn’t enough to convince you that you are entering a building of grandeur and significance, then the Islamic splendour of the Patio Arabe will. Exuberant, multicoloured intricate designs with horseshoe arches radiating fantails of blue and gold arabesques fill the entrance hall, proclaiming its importance to the city’s business and cultural life of years gone by.

The Casino of Murcia was founded in 1847 and over the following decades the magnificent palace-like building was expanded and embellished. It was recognised as an Historic National Monument in 1983 and, though a sepulchral calm pervades its halls, it now attracts more than 150,000 visitors annually.

As you stand awed in the Patio Arabé, bright daylight filters through the coloured glass canopy overhead, casting complex shadows and dancing rainbow illuminations over the walls of the upper level, around which runs a wrought-iron balustrade. An arched glass roof over a marble-floored corridor stretches before you, awash with diffused daylight and leading to a semi-circle of deep armchairs, raised five steps above floor level and surrounding a copy of the famous statue of the Dama de Elche.

Pass through the Arab arch, with its marble columns and intricate plasterwork, and into the room to the left, where you enter an elegant Edwardian library. In the centre of the room, deep maroon and brass- studded chairs surround the two enormous library tables with their brass-hooded lamps. In one corner, a wrought-iron spiral staircase twists its way up to a narrow balcony where leather-bound tomes rest in glazed bookcases. The balcony and bookcases are born aloft on the wings of a flight of herons which great cast-iron brackets.

To lighten the mood, return to the corridor and visit the last room on the left, the Tocador Señoras (ladies’ powder room), a tiny but delightful room where these days the gentlemen are allowed in, too. Gilded chairs line the walls but it is the painted ceiling that draws the eyes and the gasps. Youthful maidens with bright butterfly wings skitter across a deep blue sky. You think they are ascending heavenward to the centre of the domed ceiling until you realise they are reaching out to a flaxen-haired maid as she tumbles to earth, her wings on fire.

Before you leave the room, stand in front of one of the tall oval mirrors and see yourself reflected into infinity in the mirror opposite as you travel down an Alice-in-Wonderland hole in the wall.

The casino’s pièce de résistance is the Salón de Baile Regio, inspired by the French palaces of Luis XV and completed in 1876. As you approach the room at the side of the Patio Pompeyano, all is in darkness. Drop a one euro coin into the box to the side of the door and a rousing Parisian polka strikes up as the room bursts into brilliant light.

The ballroom is an incredible confection of gilding and gold moquette.  From its stunning painted silk ceiling hang five huge chandeliers, the light from their 326 bulbs reflected in a hundred directions from the rococo, gilt-framed mirrors. Heavenly scenes and Greek rural idylls fill panels in the frieze and a group of maidens floats on clouds. If you get carried away by all the splendour and can’t resist a twirl beneath the candelabras, don’t wait too long because, just as the first strains of a waltz fill the ballroom, the lights suddenly go out and you are plunged back into near-total darkness.

Murcia is a pleasant city and you could happily spend a few hours wandering its streets. When you are ready to continue the excursion, leave the city by going back to the roundabout mentioned earlier and following the signs for Albacete (A301) and Molina de Segura, Madrid and Alicante (A7). You will pass the large Ikea store near the exit from the motorway you came in on. Keep following the sign for Albacete.

Pass Molina de Segura, Ceuti and Lorqui and take exit 375 for Fortuna and Archena, following the road as it loops under the A30 in the direction of Archena (MU554). Take a right at the third roundabout, that looks like the roof of a sunken house, complete with weather vane, and at the next roundabout follow the signs for the Balneario de Archena. At this roundabout look to your left. At the top of a small rise is an unusual building that looks like a small fortress. This novel little structure is known as the Castillo de Don Mario in honour of the owner, Mario Spreáfico, referred to in the local tourism brochures as a “magnífico médico y excelente persona”, a magnificent doctor and excellent person. Despite its grand title, this amusing edifice with its round towers and arched windows was, in fact, a pigeon loft.

The painted pigeons of Murcia

When the Arabs settled in Spain in 711, they brought with them a culture that was to permeate almost the whole of the Iberian peninsula. They also brought with them the pigeon. The bird was valued for its meat, its plumage and for providing palomina, a high-quality natural fertiliser. Documents dating from 1268 tell of a vast population of pigeons living in the 97 towers of the city of Murcia and in the surrounding countryside.

The people of the city had taken the bird to their hearts and specially bred pigeons, often the descendants of those left behind when the Arabs were expelled or fled, were trained by professional colombaires. Two hundred years later there was so much bird manure building up on the bridge above the Segura that travellers and tradesmen were unable to cross it.

In 1773, the first pigeon sports club was started in Murcia, but it wasn’t until more than 200 years later, in 1994, that pigeon-breeding was finally officially recognised as a national sport, when the Federación Española de Columbicultura was set up. If, on your travels, you see flocks of garishly painted birds flapping around, these are the painted pigeons that make up the singularly Spanish sport of Columbicultura.

(Read the weird and wonderful story of painted pigeon racing at the end of this excursion.)

Keep following the signs for the Balneario and a few minutes later you come to the entrance to the spa with a car park to the left.

The Balneario de Archena was built in the middle of the 19th century and much of its decoration was in the hands of Manuel Castaños, the same man who decorated the Casino in Murcia. This spa actually has its own casino, its elegant green and white façade topped by a pediment of prancing cherubim and its entrance guarded by a pair of caryatid (a sculptured female figure serving as an ornamental support in place of a column or pilaster). Its palm-shaded garden is a haven of peace and quiet where you can enjoy a cool drink or use the enormous marble board and man-size pieces for a game of chess. There is also a delightful little church whose narrow Gothic style and imperial stairway make it look like the home of a fairytale princess.

‘Taking the waters’ has always been part of the Spanish approach to health and vitality, and each spa has its own specialities. That of the Balneario de Archena is mud, but not your common-or-garden type. The thermal mud here allows the chemical properties of the hot spring water to enter the body, and is especially soothing as an anti-inflammatory treatment. The spa offers a range of thermal treatments as well as hot-spring bathing.

To leave the Balneario (there’s little else to see in Archena), retrace the route to the A301 and go straight across, heading for Fortuna (14km MU411). At last you leave the busy roads behind as you pass through orange groves with beige, barren mountains in the distance, a landscape far removed from the green mountainscapes only an hour’s drive north. The barrenness isn’t total because here and there small pockets of almond groves dot the hillsides. Even so, this land has a rugged beauty all its own.

At the T-junction in Fortuna, turn left for Pinoso and then right at the traffic lights for Abanilla (eight kilometres). As you arrive at Abanilla, follow the signs for Murcia and Orihuela. (If you want to stop at Abanilla, you can get more information about the town by reading excursion 16: Alicante’s Lunar Landscape.) You soon enter large areas of orange and lemon groves with frequent vineyards.

Keep following the signs for Orihuela and, just after Benferri, you reach the A7/E15 autovia, which is the quickest way back to Alicante. For Torrevieja and south, continue on the C4140/CV870 to Orihuela until it reaches the junction of the N340.

For more information on what to see on this excursion, and to enjoy the other three excursions in this eguide, you can purchase your copy of Inland Trips from the Costa Blanca – Valencia South, direct from Amazon for immediate download.