Small Spanish towns are invariably extremely proud of their history. Nowhere so is this more the case than the small town of Mula in Northwest Murcia.
Indeed, we had no hesitation in enrolling ourselves for the guided tour of the old part of the town organised by the Town Hall in the late morning of the second Sunday of each month, to coincide with the artisan market in the main square. The tour is free though you have to register in advance at the tourist office (968 661 501) and, of course, the proceedings are in Spanish. However, you can follow the route and still enjoy the medieval background around you independently.
The tour begins in the main town square, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The square has long been the centre of social life in Mula. In the past, it was where the population gathered for protests and where the Mayor dispensed justice (including, it would seem, executions!).
At the northern end of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj) which is one of relatively few remaining in Murcia. It was used in the past to mark the quarters and hours to regulate the use of water for irrigation. Just by the tower is another interesting monument – the Monumento al Tamborista. This reflects a singular custom in Mula which has become internationally famous; La Noche de Los Tambores (the Night of the Drums). This is celebrated on the Tuesday night in Holy Week, beginning at midnight when the multitude of drummers go out into the streets for an uninterrupted four hours. On Good Friday and Easter Sunday they are in action again.
St Michael’s Parish Church is well worth a look, although we have never been in Mula when it was open to visitors. Work began on this church about 1560 with successive expansions thereafter. The bell tower, for example, is said to contain an inscription from 1638. The main entrance on to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento was built at the beginning of the 18th Century using marble from nearby Cehegin and work on the church was completed around the same time. The church also contains the crypt of the Fifth Marquis of Vélez, the marquises not unnaturally having been prime movers in the church’s construction and subsequent expansion. Unfortunately, however, virtually all the statues and carvings in the church date from the mid-20th Century as the earlier ones were all destroyed during the Civil War.
If you then walk up the steep alleyway by the church, you will shortly reach the Ermita de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, which has a sizeable flat area in front of the main entrance from which you can look out over the rooftops of Mula. The Ermita was the predecessor of St Michael’s Church by which it was replaced when congregations became too large to be fitted into the smaller building. Tradition holds that the Ermita was consecrated as a church on the site of a former mosque by Prince Alfonso, when he took the town in 1244 from the Moors for the Crown of Castile. This church also suffered the ravages of the Civil War with its contents disappearing, including works by that most famous of all 18th Century sculptors, Francisco Salzillo.
Looking outside the church in the opposite direction to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the impressive construction of the castle on top of the nearby hill stands out, as it does from many other parts of the town. Regrettably, when we last visited Mula (March 2014), the castle was not open to visitors.
From Nuestra Señora del Carmen, our tour went along the road on the side of the hill to the next church – that of Santo Domingo de Guzman. Interestingly, we were told that this trajectory more or less followed the line of the medieval Arab walls which are almost certainly in places incorporated in the stonework at the base of some of the houses. This church is also said to be on the site of a former mosque, being consecrated to Santo Domingo de Guzman, the founder of the Dominican order, after the Christian Reconquest of the 13th Century. However, both the main facade and the internal arrangement of the church (also determined by the irregularity of the ground on which it is built) date mainly to renovation work from the 16th Century. Above the door, in recesses, are carved stone images of three saints – Domingo, Pedro and Francisco (Dominic, Peter and Francis). The date of 1557 also appears. This is yet another church which suffered significant damage at the time of the Spanish Civil War.
As you continue on your way along the street after looking at this church, en route to the final destination – yes, another church, the Real Monasterio de la Encarnación – there are two very interesting features to note. Firstly, on the right hand side as you walk along, you will see a covered passage going through the houses which is the way up to the castle (though, as noted above, in mid-2014, final access to the castle was not possible) and known as the Portillo Medieval. Then, on the other side of the street, is part of the old palace of Los Vélez, with its ornate front.
Continuing along, you soon come to the Real Monasterio de la Encarnación. This monastery has a remarkable history. It was built in the 17th Century on the site of an earlier (16th Century) church, the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de los Olmos, the first patron saint of Mula, (although a religious building on this site is said to go back to the mid-14th Century), of which now only the bell tower remains, with an inscription on the wall dating it to February 1506. The driving force behind the construction of the monastery was one Pedro Botía, also known as Fray Pedro de Jesús. He was born in Mula in 1633, moving to the El Balate area of the huerta after losing many members of his family in that notorious plague of 1648. In that year, while in the fields, he witnessed the appearance of the infant Jesus (El Niño Jesús de Belén) who told him to take up the cross and follow him. It was in 1653 that he entered the Franciscan Order, at the Monastery of Santa Ana in Orihuela, becoming Fray Pedro. After much subsequent travel, he obtained the support of Juan José de Austria, illegitimate son of King Philip IV and stepbrother to King Charles II of Spain, for the building of a monastery in Mula to house a community of Franciscan nuns. Fray Pedro died in the Monastery in early September 1717, at the age of 84 and was buried in the church. A plaque covers where his remains were discovered in March 2008. Work on construction of the monastery began in May 1680, taking five years. There have been many changes since, with the most recent work of restoration undertaken in 2008. The Spanish Civil War again had a damaging impact upon the church and its decorations with religious icons including some done by Francisco Salzillo disappearing at that time.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who 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), or phone Patti on 968 433 978. All their books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.