This museum, directly across the river from the Murcia City Ayuntamiento, was itself the location in the past of watermills. Its advertised opening hours when we last visited (January 2014) were 10am to 2pm and 5pm to 8pm, Monday to Saturday (shut Sundays and Festivals) between September and June; closed additionally on Saturdays in July; and open Mondays to Fridays between 8am and 3pm in August. Entry is free.
A very useful leaflet in Spanish gives an enormous amount of background about watermills, their functioning and the history of the site. The city was surrounded by a belt of water formed by a meander in the Rio Segura to the south and east (the meander disappeared in the 18th Century), the acequia mayor (irrigation canal) in the north and another channel connecting the river and the acequia in the west. In the river and acequia mayor, it is said that there were seven mills between the 13th and 15th Centuries, although an eighth may have been added toward the end of that period on the right bank of the Rio Segura. Of these mills, at least two were of Moorish origin – the Alcázar on the Rio Segura and the Molino Trapero on the acequia mayor. Some of the mills were sited on floating platforms so that, in times of danger (flood or attack) or lack of local demand, they could be taken elsewhere. Further details of the mills found on the two principal acequias are to be found in one of the display panels in the museum.
At least twenty other mills were installed in the Huerta of Murcia and some of these would undoubtedly also have been of Moorish origin. Some also exhibited quite an advanced level of technical development, with one, the Molino de la Ñora, being used in the second half of the 15th Century both for flour milling and to power a hydraulic saw to cut wood. Even so, as is pointed out in the museum, watermills brought their own problems – they could impede navigation; they often aggravated flooding as a result of the ponding of water and the related creation of marshes could be a major health hazard at certain times of the year. In the 19th Century, the gradual progress of the Industrial Revolution in Spain saw the progressive demise of the watermill.
On entering the museum, there is a small reception booth to the left and some very brief explanatory leaflets in several languages, including English. Immediately in front of you and almost bordering the river, you will see the equipment and millstones referred to in the sign outside. If you turn left after entering the building and then walk down the couple of steps to the slightly lower level, you should be able to look at various pots and items of milling equipment, including grinding stones. There are also display cases with examples of some of the old tools used by the millers including hammers and weights. Display boards tell you about the Count of Floridablanca, a famous Murcian and 18th Century Prime Minister of Spain. In 1783, a flood ruined the watermills and caused massive damage to the city. This was the spur for Floridablanca to bring forward plans to modify the course of the Rio Segura and allow the creation of a modern watermill complex. To the right of the entrance, in a small alcove, you will find facsimiles of the original plans under Floridablanca to canalise the river.
The whole of the museum contains many explanatory displays. Thus, some explain the history of the watermill in Murcia. For us, one particularly interesting display focussed on the Arab geographer Sharif al Idrisi, who studied in Cordoba and travelled incessantly. He covered the whole Iberian Peninsula, the French and British coasts, North Africa, Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria, giving detailed descriptions of each. Murcia City he described as the capital of Tudmir, with a fertile and well protected suburb which depended on the river and which, like the city, was surrounded by solid walls and fortifications. The City itself was built on one bank of the river which was crossed by a boat bridge. There were also watermills constructed on boats which could be moved from place to place, and a multitude of gardens, huertas, other cultivated land, vineyards and fig plantations.
Dependent on your degree of interest and command of Spanish, you can follow the history of flour grinding from the Iberian people who inhabited the area in the first millennium BC onwards up to the 19th Century. In particular, there are details of the historic evolution of the waterwheel according to the society and its degree of development through the ages with advances particularly made in Roman times on which the medieval waterwheel was based. Other displays deal with the more technical aspects of the watermill and related topics. Different types of mill are described. Naturally enough, several of the display panels concern themselves with the mills which operated on and around the site of the museum – the Molinos Nuevos. The predecessor of the modern complex was known as El Molino de Batán and existed pre-15th Century, but became known as El Molino del Matadero from the end of the 16th Century when a “Matadero” (slaughterhouse!) was sited by it. The more modern Molinos Nuevos saw water diverted through a series of chambers to increase the energy available to drive the waterwheels and grindstones.
On the right hand side of the entrance to the museum, you will also see many more examples of grindstones, plus smaller items in display cases such as pepper tins, evocative of the later uses of the watermill and old books on the art of flour making. Among the display boards here, about some of the equipment used in the mills, you will find details about the last of the millers on the Rio Segura, one Juan Lasheras Alemán who worked in the watermills before they became a museum. In 1985, he had actually to be moved out to allow the museum project to proceed. Rehabilitation of the mills into a museum began in 1985, with inauguration taking place in 1989. Nevertheless, it is said that, in the final years of his life, he returned daily to the museum to tell visitors about the miller’s life!
While a visit to the Watermill Museum will not occupy a great deal of time, it is nevertheless interesting, regardless of your ability to read and understand Spanish, to see relics of an important past in the history of Murcia City.
Part taken from ‘Exploring Murcia – Murcia City’, by Clive and Rosie Palmer, which is available, from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Clive and Rosie Palmer have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia.
Their book, ‘Exploring Murcia, Days Out’ is available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books including the follow-up ‘Exploring Murcia, More Days Out’), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.