I remember walking around Amsterdam on cold, dreary day in 2015 with two mates by my side and something of a home in Germany waiting for my return. I had been in the Netherlands for three days and had been in Germany for maybe two to three months. We walked past a hip, wood-paneled store, glowing yellow from indoor fairy-lights that proudly displayed a pile of imitation leather “travel gear” in the front window. Above that pile was an ad for the store which read “be a traveler, not a tourist.”
Of course, we all had a laugh at that. We were living in Germany, after all. We weren’t tourists in Europe, we were exchange students (looking back, that’s arguably worse in many ways). The distinction between traveler and tourist seemed so banal and pointless of a thing to make. It was something used to sell a product, to flush the ego of the new wave of back-packing, share-economy-and-hostel-using young adults.
I’ve come back to thinking about that in the past few weeks, however. Where is the line between tourist and traveler? Where’s the line between those two characters and someone who actually lives in a place? Is there any? Was I living in Germany because I had a room and school there? Am I living in Murcia because I am eating, drinking and sleeping in the casa de mi novia or am I still just visiting? Am I a bit more Murciano or still a guiri?
Maybe if we take a few recent day-trips as case studies, we might be able to figure something out. If not, to hell with it. We might as well enjoy it either way!
Bullas is a small market town in the middle of the Region of Murcia. If there’s any place that makes you feel like a local just by visiting, it is Bullas. It’s the sort of town that you can walk around, poke your head into open doors and say “hola” to the people inside, because it’s very likely your local tour guide knows them.
Saying that, Bullas is hardly sleepy. It’s had an influx of tourism thanks to its connection to Caravaca de la Cruz and a beautiful water hole nearby. Still, it remains totally Spanish, totally Murcia.
I was lucky enough to take a trip to Bullas with Bonica’s family, where I shared a beautiful home-cooked meal, served on a long-table. To eat, surrounded by extended “family”, a meal of typical, locally-grown food is perhaps one of the most integrating and homely experiences one can have overseas. That’s one way to feel Murciano.
Buying food at the local market, a bustling affair for such a small town, was also an experience that made me forget I was a tourist. Local produce carries the flavours and spirit of the region. If they’re transported outwards, they lose some of that. It’s always best to buy from the source and talk with the people who make it.
Bullas’ water hole is the most touristic aspect of the whole town, even though it seemed most of the visitors were Spaniards, not foreigners. Still, to know that a few years ago, it was apparently relatively unknown, completely Bullas’ own, fills me with a sense of guilt and grief. I was incredibly happy to have seen the caves and crystal clear water, but I feel it a shame that nothing that beautiful can remain hidden for long. Maybe to have lived somewhere you need to know a few secrets?
Taking a train to Lorca on a whim was probably the most touristic I’ve been in the past weeks (barring the trip to Alicante, of course). Lorca is another town in the middle of the Region but, compared to Bullas, it feels like a city! There are tall buildings, roundabouts, even traffic! Lorca’s centre is tiny, able to be walked around in an hour or so, but the main draw is outside the city limits.
The Fortress of the Sun looms over the town in a very medieval way. You can easily see how it was an important defensive outpost and lookout during times of war. I decided (basically because I couldn’t find any transport information) to walk the steep grade towards the castle, getting a bit lost along the way. This definitely didn’t feel like tourism. This felt like traveling.
Even if I wasn’t far from town, walking through the curious, chaotic outer-neighbourhood and then along the barren, mountain road up to the castle made me feel like a wandering knight or pilgrim approaching the end of a long journey. Any moment, I could have been jumped upon by bandits, or shot from the towers. Thankfully, I made it all the way up without incident to find that the Castle itself had been taken over by the digital ghost of tourism.
While it was incredibly interesting and calming to walk through the grounds and towers, having a constant electronic voice guiding me was a bit annoying. Audio guides can be a great help, but I’d like to find things out on my own, perhaps by reading. They make the experience less authentic, in my opinion. But, ya know, different strokes for different folks!
Caravaca de la Cruz
Possibly the holiest site in the Region of Murcia for Catholics, Caravaca de la Cruz is the end point for a “camino” or pilgrimage that crosses the entire region. Why? Because there’s a miraculous golden cross there, gifted by angels. Also, it has a pretty nice garden.
Caravaca receives a fair bit of tourism, religious or otherwise, which means big money for souvenir shop owners. In the compact old-town centre, you’re unlikely to find a store that isn’t draped in dangling rosaries or piled high with plastic recreations of the Caravaca cross. The other main draw of the city, “Los Caballos de Vino” (celebrated with a highly decorated horse running) is a colourful and religiously significant yearly fiesta. Basically, if you’re going to Caravaca, expect an intensely Catholic vibe.
This is an interesting and sort-of awe-inspiring experience in itself, but it does not a traveler make (unless, of course, you walked the whole “Camino”). Nor does taking the short hike to the “Las fuentes del Marqués”… but at least it’s a start.
Unlike Bullas’ “recently discovered” watering hole, Las fuentes is a well-known and well-trodden site. Despite that, its beauty still holds up. It is a small area of wilderness between city and pasture that is fed by absolutely crystal clear water. There’s a quiet holiness to this site that seems almost more powerful, to me at least, than the church at the top of the hill.
But Did We Get Anywhere?
These past weeks of traveling within Murcia, with or without family, have been incredibly enlightening, both difficult and comforting. I feel like I’ve been taken in by the region, made to feel at home. Though I am still struggling with the language a bit, I have gotten a rare glimpse in to the lives of the people who actually do live here.
This sort of experiential travel is so undervalued in our day to day Instagram culture. As well as traveling widely, we should be traveling deep. It’s an awesome experience to build a second home anywhere. It’s a challenge to integrate and to learn, but in the end you become a little bit stronger and wiser for it. You come to realise that your life is not the only life, that all across the world people are living, struggling, fighting, loving in corners of the world that aren’t seen on TV or in tourist guides.
So that’s where I think the line is, if there is one. It’s somewhere between the surface and the every-day. It’s somewhere lost in the laundry, under the pillow or at the local bakery. It’s somewhere on the plate, in the stomach and in the heart. It’s wherever you break out of old comfort and find new comfort.