In January we travelled south into Murcia to explore one of its most historic and beautiful Cities; Caravaca de la Cruz. Located in a spectacular setting surrounded by mountains the city rises up to the site of its former castle which is now occupied by the impressive Sanctuary of Vera Cruz.
This ancient church houses the holy christian relic that gives the city its name; a piece of wood said to have been part of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. The importance of this relic is such that the city has been granted the rare honour of a perpetual jubilee. This jubilee is celebrated every seven years and pilgrims to the jubilee are granted a plenary indulgence of their sins. Caravaca shares this honour of hosting a perpetual jubilee with only four other “holy cities” including Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. For those interested in seeing this rare and important Roman Catholic event, or in need of guaranteed forgiveness of their sins, the next jubilee year is 2024 and the celebrations take place on 3rd of May and 14th September 2024. Jubilees are an ancient and important Roman Catholic rite and indulgences were also, of course, the trigger for the protestant reformation in the 16th century so the perpetual jubilee of Caracava is truly a piece of living european history; we intend to try to visit next year to witness the jubilee (and perhaps gain our spiritual insurance policy…).
A visit to the Sanctuary is an essential part of any visit to Caravaca. The climb up the castle hill is rewarded with excellent views over the surrounding landscape. The Sanctuary itself is a remarkable church possessing an extraordinary baroque frontage which is carved entirely out of red and black marble and includes the usual cherubs as well as sea creatures and mythical beasts. The interior of the church is quite a restrained and moving space with the relic of the true cross itself displayed in a side chapel entered through a doorway to the side of the high altar. Even for people not possessing religious belief the effect of the carefully executed spiritual theatre is impressive; this is the Roman Catholic faith in its most profound Spanish form and is also a shadow of our shared European christian history.
The city however has plenty of other attractions to justify a visit. Its historic centre is packed with beautiful old buildings from almost every period. The usual spanish mediaeval churches nestle beside delightful early 20th century shops decorated with art nouveau motifs. The considerable former wealth of the city is evident from its collection of town houses and palaces, many of which are in an elegant neo-classical style. Caracava is a place to stroll about and simply enjoy being in delightful surroundings. We were a little surprised to discover that the city is also supplied with excellent tea shops and cafes serving truly delicious cakes; quite why the citizens of this quite remote Murcian city have such a taste for tea and cakes was not clear but we can confirm that they certainly know how to bake cake in Caravaca!
The city enjoyed a period of particular prosperity in the years before the civil war and in the 1920s its bull ring was expanded and embellished with a flamboyant exterior in what can generously be described as an “Andalusian” style. The effect is one part Alhambra and three parts silent era cinema!
Our visit revealed a city whose inhabitants have clearly always had a taste for spectacle in their architecture whether in church, home or corrida. Caravaca leaves one with the feeling of a place whose inhabitants have always been proud of their city and who still go a little bit further to make sure that things are just a bit more impressive than in other towns. The city holds a number of festivals and events throughout the year with the Pilgrimage of the Wine Horses in September being both famous and beloved. As one would expect, Easter is especially important in Caravaca with the city turned into a giant open air backdrop to an intense spiritual spectacle of processions.
Whenever you choose to go, we very much recommend a visit to this beautiful and special city.