There are two “cave” experiences in the Calasparra area which we have thoroughly enjoyed. One is very much a simple outdoor excursion and sightseeing trip. The other is slightly more serious, but even so, designed for most people.
The first of the “caves” is Calasparra’s best known attraction – the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (the Sanctuary of our Lady of Hope). La Esperanza is about 5 kilometres from the town itself to the north by the Río Segura. However, if you are driving there from Calasparra, do stop en route at the ‘Mirador’ (viewpoint) de las Lomas which gives a truly superb view over the Segura valley and Calasparra’s famous rice fields, as well as of the surrounding mountains. La Esperanza is just beyond the ‘Mirador’ and down a hill. There is ample parking, but if you go on a weekend, especially a Sunday in the holiday season, the whole place will be crowded with locals and visitors alike. It is a very popular destination.
The site of La Esperanza is a deep gorge carved by the Río Segura. At the ornate entrance to the main area of the Sanctuary, look up at the sheer cliffs and rock face which bound this side of the valley – together with the nets which are positioned to prevent rock falls on to unsuspecting visitors. Of course, the main feature of the location is the magnificent church in the natural cave in the rock. It is well worth looking around. It is longitudinal and rectangular in shape with rock walls and ceiling. The rock ceiling slopes quite markedly, being high at the altar end and less so at the back.
The signboard at the entrance says that the church was founded at the beginning of the 17th Century, although it is said that there was a cult of the Virgin in existence here well before then. However, there is a fascinating story behind the creation of the Sanctuary. The legend tells of a shepherd looking after his sheep by these caves who stumbled across an image of the Virgin, lost many years previously by a Christian Knight. The shepherd told the civil and religious authorities of his find and they, and others from Calasparra, came to see the image and take it back to the town. However, although small (it is popularly known as “La Pequeñica”) it was so heavy for its size that it was decided that the Virgin had to be venerated there and so the church was constructed in the caves themselves. At some point, a larger image of the Virgin was added and, by 1786, both images were being venerated. In 1840, La Virgen de la Esperanza became the Patron of Calasparra and her fiesta is celebrated every year on 8 September.
Next to the church, on one side is a gift shop, and on the other the “camarin”. The latter is where images of the virgin are dressed for religious occasions, with numerous vestments and gowns, the crown worn by the Virgin and chalices etc on display. These cloaks and gowns are intricately embroidered in various colours and are really works of art in themselves. Regardless of your religious orientation, it is a display well worth seeing.
If looking at all these sights has given you a hunger and thirst, you will be relieved to find that at the end of the road by the church is a large restaurant and bar. Then, if you feel that you need exercise after eating and drinking, you can descend the steps to the path which goes alongside the fast flowing Segura for what is a very pleasant terrace walk indeed.
The second cave is the ‘Cueva del Puerto’, a “real” cave! In fact, it forms part of a system which is one of the largest in Murcia. There is, however, a specially developed guided “tourist” route for visitors on Saturday late afternoons and Sunday mornings/early afternoons, at hourly intervals. To get there, you follow a signposted rural road from the Venta Reales, some 5 miles or so from Calasparra on the Cieza road, for some distance amid citrus trees and through a very short tunnel under the railway line. After crossing another rural road, you soon arrive at an obvious parking area immediately before some gates across the road (which may be open) with the Cueva del Puerto Interpretation Centre (which is visible perched on the hillside for much of your drive on the rural road) several hundred yards up the steep hill in front of you. Although it may be possible to park in the very limited space at the Centre, we decided to have the invigorating exercise of a steep climb up to the Interpretation Centre, pausing occasionally to look at the superb scenery. When we were there (September 2012), the Centre was still very much a work in progress and still not open.
100 or so yards from the Interpretation Centre were two large wooden doors in the hillside with the title ‘Cueva del Puerto’ above them. These appeared the obvious entrance, but to our surprise, we had to climb about another 50 metres up the hill to another small building to reach the entrance we would use. The humidity in the caves is over 90% and the temperature constant at around 18˚C. You will certainly sweat whilst on the tour! On your tour, you pass through numerous caves and passages such the “Sotano de Gaudi” (Gaudi’s Cellar) where the stalactites, stalagmites and columns are particularly impressive. You will also see a whole host of other rock formations on which you can use your imagination – a monkey, a vagabond, gnomes, an elephant, a dolphin, a snake, plus interesting coral-like structures.
The tour of the caves (6€ per person in September 2012) is not for the fainthearted, although anyone with normal mobility should have no problem. It is guided throughout and the guide had both a torch and stick with which to indicate interesting features; in Spanish naturally. If there is only a handful of people on the tour, which lasts the best part of an hour, you may also be offered a torch, but if you remember, take your own. The tourist route through the caves is well constructed with concrete paths and steps with white painted edges. It is also lit, but there are shadows so the extra light of a torch may sometimes be helpful. Some surfaces are quite steep and you will occasionally be advised to tread carefully because of damp on the ground, or to watch your head/back in the lower sections (there are no hard hats provided!). We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and felt our early Sunday morning start had been more than adequately rewarded.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at, and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clive and Rosie’s most recent book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), or phone Patti on 986 433 978.