Journey by your Drivalia car hire into Murcia's rural interior to discover this culturally vibrant town, surrounded by rugged hills and known across Spain for its contribution to the national cuisine. It is at the centre of one of Spain's largest rice-growing areas, where the delicious "bomba" variety originates.
Rice and local food
This is the logical place to start, since paddies surround the town take up much of the countryside. If you climb up to explore Calasparra Castle you'll be able to look out over a landscape in which the sun and blue sky shimmer in the waters of these traditional rice fields. Calasparra provides Spain with a high proportion of its rice, matched only by Valencia and the Ebro Delta in Catalonia. In 1986 the rice grown here earned Denomination of Origin, which assures quality in the same way that wines or cheeses are protected around Spain and Europe.
This is because the local "bomba" variety is special. It's a short-grain rice that needs more liquid and longer to cook than other types. This is important because it gives individual grains more time and capacity to soak up the juices when used in paella-style dishes. So you won't be surprised to find that traditional restaurants in the area have a catalogue of simmered rice dishes, combining rice with rabbit and snail, local beans, clams and squid, chicken, tripe and cod, to name but a few.
The Sierra de Puerto mountains overlook the paddies around Calasparra, and tend to be covered with sparse scrubland or pine forest. There are plenty of beautiful natural landmarks here, waiting to be discovered within a short drive of Calasparra. These include the four-kilometre-long Almadenes Canyon, where sheer cliffs tumble down to the River Segura. At this point the river is little more than a mountain torrent but it becomes broad and flows through the city of Murcia on the way to the Mediterranean. Walkways cling to the rock face, offering a excellent perspective of the gorge. Just try not to look down!
Another fascinating geological attraction is El Puerto Cave, one of the largest underground networks in eastern Spain. It measures 4.5 kilometres in length and has several chambers that you can walk through, all full of otherworldly stalagmites and stalactites. There are two routes laid out - one for everyday visitors, and another for more adventurous explorers who want to journey deeper in the cave. The Cerro Negro de Calasparra is also worth a visit - it's a volcanic cone rising to almost 400 metres and boasting an 80-metre-wide crater.
Before the Romans arrived this part of Spain had a thriving Iberian bronze age culture, and there's a collection of ceramics and decorative items from this era at the Municipal Archaeological Museum, housed in a handsome 18th-century building.
Rising above the town atop a monolithic spur is the Castle of Calasparra, which was built in the middle ages by the Moors and fell into ruin in the centuries after it was re-captured by the Christians. Only the keep remains, but it's possible to gauge the scale of this fortress, which carried a lot of strategic importance in the 13th century. And as you might expect, the views from the top of this rock are fantastic.
Meanwhile, a short six kilometres by car from Calasparra is the Shrine of Our Lady of Hope. This is a hermitage from the 1600s that resembles something out of Petra in Jordon. The monument's facade, doorways and windows have been cut from the cliffs. It is ranked among Spain's most-visited pilgrimage sites and merits a visit even if you're just a casual sightseer.
You can reach Calasparra in around 80 minutes from the Drivalia car rental depot at Alicante Airport.