Summers in Murcia are hot at the best of times. Located in the south east of Spain, temperatures can easily rise to the high 30s; not even mad dogs or Englishmen want to venture out into the midday sun. The landscape reflects this inhospitable heat: arid vistas that seem more akin to a moonscape stretch out as far as the eye can see. Crumbling sandstone cliffs, gnarled terraces and dry river beds snake into the heat haze. So where to find respite?
A trip to Calasparra, a small town in the heart of the region offers a couple of possible remedies – a plunge into the fast-flowing waters of the Río Segura, or a walk around the cooling paddy fields where the famous Calasparra rice is grown followed by sampling their paella at the Virgen de la Esperanza.
The river seems an anomaly. Where on earth did all this water come from? With river banks lined with luscious bamboos, it feels it should be in another continent. As should the paddy fields, surely. Not in Spain. But for any country that takes its rice dishes as seriously as Spain does, I suppose it comes as no surprise. The short plump grains grown here serve paella especially well. The constant flow of the irrigated fields fed from the river ensure the rice stalks are a cooling green.
Back upstairs at the Virgen de la Esperanza, the first thing to assault you is the noise. This is a cavernous canteen of a restaurant packed out with large families getting their Sunday fix of paella. There is no need for elegant fine dining. Paella is the Sunday roast. Each region of Spain boasts its own specialities and here is no different. The staple seafood and meat paellas are on offer alongside the local favourite: rabbit and snail.
These are small succulent snails prepared in a rich garlic and tomato sauce that do not require much coaxing from their shells. They make a surprisingly good bedfellow for the rabbit. The rabbit has the tenderness of chicken with a hint of game. But all of this is forgotten the minute you taste the rice. These plump beauties have soaked up the juices from the rabbit, the garlic sauce from the snails and the sofrito – a rich tomato sauce.
We step out into the glare of the afternoon. While not really ready to face the heat, a float down the river could suffice.