The Bounties of ‘Mar Menor’
La Manga Golf Club. Pablo Neustadt/©ICEX
Author: Anke van Wicjk/©ICEX
It may take somewhat of an effort, but if we are able to just disregard the signs of heavy overbuilding, we become readily seduced by the magic of this salt water lagoon or 'Minor Sea' located on the Mediterranean shore of Murcia, a region in southeast Spain. As a result of its unique natural conditions, over 2,000 years of history not only endorse the superb quality of its fish, already greatly coveted by Phoenicians, but also its health-promoting and relaxing qualities, much in demand by Romans and Arabs and still widely sought after today.
Our present route will take us along the Mar Menor, considered Europe's largest salt water lake. It is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by La Manga, a narrow 24 km / 15 mi long (literally) "sleeve" of land with a number of natural inlets called golas, and even a small archipelago.
Thanks to its calm and tepid waters as well as its mild and sunny micro-climate, it not only constitutes a natural refuge for numerous types of fish, but also is an invaluable environment for low-risk water-sports and health treatments.
We begin our journey at the northern shore of Mar Menor, and more specifically in San Pedro del Pinatar and its neighboring villages at a stone's throw from Murcia's airport San Javier, and with excellent connections to Murcia capital (at 45 km / 28 mi) and Alicante (at 65 km / 40.3 mi).
To immediately get the feeling of what this peculiar area is all about, let us start right at the edge of town in Natural Park Las Salinas y Arenales de San Pedro del Pinatar. As its name indicates this natural park comprises pine-covered dunes and sand banks, but its true raison d'être are the huge salt works with their perfectly laid out evaporation ponds disappearing in the horizon.
If it weren't for the continuous exploitation of the salt works by Salinera Española, this paradise for bird-watchers and hikers would simply no longer exist. The company has a yearly production of some 85,000 tons of salt for a wide array of purposes, but their latest proposal is an original line of different spice-flavored salts in attractive ready to use design packaging, under the names Sal de San Pedro and SosoFactory.
More than a Grain of Salt
Right next to the beach and the long palm tree lined walkway of La Mota with its characteristic wind-mills, Salinera has also made an area available for public use called Las Charcas (the puddles) or popularly "the emergency ward." One of the outstanding features of Mar Menor is its mud soil.
Already renowned at the beginning of our era, recent scientific studies corroborate that it holds an extraordinarily high concentration of curative oligoelements and a very fine grain which, together with the high salinity and warm temperatures of the water allow for a specially fast skin absorption and is thus widely prescribed for skin, musculo-skeletal and other affections. Specially provided wooden foot bridges leading straight down into the water allow reliable access to these mud puddles and draw large numbers of patients.
In view of the area's long health-promoting history, it comes as no surprise that today it is also offering a number of avant-garde spa facilities, like the hotel and thalasso-center Thalasia with splendid views over the salt ponds. This genuine marine universe with its large in and outdoor pools and magnificent treatment facilities is the perfect place to stay and be pampered.
Excellent -mostly fish- based cuisine is indeed one of the great attractions of Mar Menor. So the best way to get an idea of the local catch is to visit La Lonja, the fish auction in nearby Lo Pagán, where around 10.00 am small fishing boats gradually bring in their precious load that is auctioned off right there. Also ask to see the eel (anguila) tanks. Funny enough, although abundant, eels do not score high on the culinary list here and are mostly exported to Holland and Italy.
To savor the fresh catch you have several options like El Hijo del Rubio, a spiffy place right next door and overseeing the yacht club where seafood is prepared to perfection. And then of course there is Floridablanca. This charming nearby restaurant has been housed for fifty years in an old, now officially protected balneario, best translated as "bathing shed." These once ubiquitous boardwalks stretching from the beach well into the deeper water with at the end a colorfully painted shed -often provided with an interior stair to allow women to bath unseen- are certainly a differentiating feature of local popular architecture.
This is definitely the place to try not only a great variety of the particularly flavorful Mar Menor fish like mullet, gilthead bream or sea bass a la sal (wood-oven baked in a crust of marine salt), but also the area's hallmark caldero. Rice is gently cooked in fish stock and a concentrated sofrito of olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and ñoras (a round dry pepper) and served, fish apart, in a wrought iron pot from which this simple but succulent fishermen's dish borrows its name. The town of Los Alcázares, at some 10 km / 6.2 mi, each month of October even celebrates the Fiesta del Caldero when everywhere along the beach the locals prepare caldero the old fashioned way with the wrought iron pot hanging from cane tripods over a wood-fire.
The Dry Thing
But it is not all fresh fish that counts here. Since times immemorial, the area is reputed for its salt fish (salazones). Although there are several factories, Albaladejo Hermanos is the oldest. Under the brand name Salazones Diego, this family business, since 1930, continues the longstanding dry curing tradition, already documented in Spain from the Phoenician era.
They also operate a store with a huge variety of canned and dry cured fish, especially the coveted dry cured roe (huevas) and tuna (mojama). Traditionally the best known roe would be that of mullet (mújol) caught at the Encañizadas (a system of Arab origin in disuse but recently resumed, using labyrinthine cane structures in the natural inlets of La Manga to trap in- and outgoing fish), but today their supply market is vast. Actually most of Norwegian (high sea frozen) ling roe comes straight to Murcia to be salt and air cured here.
Mojama (from the Arab word mussama ("turned into wax") is made of tuna loins, preferably from the least fatty yellow fin tuna. Through the dry curing process the loin loses over 60% of its weight to turn into a long brownish red bar. So wherever you sit down for a cool drink or a bite, as emperors and emirs did before you, treat yourself to a portion of the pleasantly pungent mojama y huevas which always come wafer thinly sliced together with freshly roasted almonds.
Now before leaving San Pedro del Pinatar, a visit is due to La Casa del Reloj (House of the Clock). This remarkable late 19th century British influenced mansion has been faithfully recovered and houses a restaurant, patio and garden terraces, and a lounge and piano bar to enjoy cocktails and a bite in style.
The Orchard of Good
As the villages that line the coast further down south have remained anchored in the 60s and offer little or no sites of interest, we now regain the highway AP-7 direction Cartagena (which founded by the Phoenicians and known as Carthago Nova under the Romans, is today an enormously lively city with, among the many venues of interest for visitors, a magnificent harbor, a Roman theatre and beautiful modernist architecture) and make a short detour on MU-311 to Pozo Estrecho where we find Bodegas Serrano, the sole wine-grower left in the southern part of Murcia.
Once the domain of the Meseguera (a rather coarse variety only used for bulk wines), owner Manuel Martínez over the last fifteen years has planted new white, but lately also red grape varieties, with Syrah performing exceptionally well. His line of products, under the designation Vino de la Tierra Campos de Cartagena, includes from a creative brut nature sparkling wine to a mono-varietal Syrah sweet red.
And precisely while driving through the Campos (Fields) de Cartagena to our next destination La Manga Club in Los Belones, we become keenly aware that Murcia is staunchly holding up to its longstanding reputation as the "Orchard of Europe." Miles and miles of open air and greenhouse plantations continue to produce a significant proportion of the top-quality vegetables found on supermarket shelves throughout Europe.
Reaching Los Belones, we drive up into La Manga Club three 18 hole courses, amidst pine covered mountains and palm trees, offering gorgeous views over the plains of Cartagena and Mar Menor in the distance. The resort which comprises a great number of villas, a fantastic hotel, a golf academy and an impressive spa- and fitness center, within five years has been thrice proclaimed "Europe's Leading Golf Resort."
Adjacent we find yet another protected natural park called Canblanque, Monte de Cenizas y Peña del Aguila, where we can stroll for hours along its unencumbered beaches, dunes and small salinas and have a dip in the Mediterranean. From here we reach our last stop at the southernmost tip of Mar Menor. Yet instead of heading to the overbuilt La Manga which does not look or feel much different from any other tourist area of its kind throughout the world, we stay in nearby Cabo de Palos.
It is a charming fishing village located on the cape of the same name and watched over by a majestic 18 th century stone lighthouse. Its picturesque harbor is lined with small restaurants and terraces alongside the quay. So why not treat yourself to a last caldero or pescado a la sal at the always well attended restaurant La Tana. A soft sea-breeze and a glass of cool rosé from DO Bullas (the youngest of Murcia's three DOs) will make this an even more memorable closure of our journey along Mar Menor.
Anke van Wijck Adán is a sociologist and has a Master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe.