Often overlooked in favour of the more flashy Spanish tourist spots, the region of Murcia is fighting for its share of the limelight. JANELLE ESTREICH discovers it has plenty to shout about.

There’s nothing like a good fight to draw in the crowds. A little namecalling here, some mudslinging there and before you can say ‘Sydney is better than Melbourne’ you’ve got a spectacle on your hands.

And a spectacle is what the region of Murcia, in Spain’s furthest south-west corner, needs. Of the 17 regions that make up Spain, Murcia is among the least visited. Unlike the showy resorts of the Costa del Sol and balmy beaches of the Costa Brava which draw tourists like seagulls to hot chips, Murcia is yet to claim its space on the postcard stand.

But it’s not as if they haven’t got their fair share of attractions. Murcia is also blessed with beaches, year-round sunshine, good food and wine, and a vibrant culture. It seems they’re just not as good as shouting about it as their neighbours – or perhaps they’ve been too busy brawling among themselves.

The best way to understand the rivalry between Murcia, the capital which shares the region’s name, and Cartagena, the region’s second city, is to think of Sydney and Melbourne. Both have plenty to boast about and each would like to think they are superior to the other. Likewise, Murcia and Catagena both claim the ‘cultural capital’ tag, and each has their share of political and financial clout.

Thankfully, the objective people of the regional tourist body have the foresight to promote both, and the geography of the region (three hours’ drive) means you can easily spend time exploring each city (listed below in no particular order), being sure to stir up the locals by mentioning their rivals as you go.

Making the most of Murcia

Dubbed greenbellies by Cartageneros for the high volume of vegetables grown and eaten in these parts, Murcianos have occupied a fertile patch of the Segura valley for some 1200 years. With a population of 400,000, Muricanos easily outnumber their coastal rivals (185,000) but the prevalence of spacious plazas, grand old buildings and pedestrianised streets give the city an accessible feel.

Aesthetically, Murcia exudes old school grandeur, its buildings dominated by baroque architecture which was financed by the city’s booming silk trade up until the 18th century.

Bishop’s Palace, beside the equally impressive Town Hall, is a fine specimen of baroque style, but is completely outdone by the nearby Cathedral of Santa Maria. Looming large over Plaza del Cardenal Belluga, the highly decorative Cathedral was five centuries in the making, and combines a rich mix of architectural styles and sculpture. And the best part? An altar was built into the facade so that the Cathedral could be enjoyed from the outside (over a cold beer at one of the plaza’s cafés).

And plazas are the place to see and be seen in this city. Jag a seat at one of the many alfresco restaurants, bars and cafés that line the main plazas and soak up the social buzz.

Plaza de Santo Domingo is a popular local haunt which once hosted bullfights and executions but today goes for more palatable concerts. Plaza Julian Romeo is an open square with a grand old theatre on one side, and home to the regional tourist office. Of a night, head to Plaza de la Universidad where the city’s student population congregates. The tipple of choice around these parts is jugs of red wine and Coke – you’ve been warned. See www.murciciudad.com.

Capitalising on Cartagena

Labelled aladroqu – a type of sardine common to the area – by Murcianos, these slippery fish have the advantage of serving up coastline with their culture. Not to be outdone by their inland rulers, the city is doing a fine job of preserving its historical assets while embracing modernity.

The best natural port of the Mediterranean, Carthaginians and Romans fought over the city in antiquity, leaving a rich archaeological legacy in their wake.

In 1987, excavation work beneath the Old Cathedral uncovered the remains of a grand Roman theatre, thought to be one of the largest in Roman Spain. The theatre is slowly being unearthed as a tourist attraction, which, along with a museum, is scheduled for completion this year. Also found beneath the town’s now defunct bullring are the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, which has not, as yet, been marked for excavation.

The problem is that the Roman city is under the earth so it is slow progress to uncover it. Houses must be removed and those people must be compensated,” says local guide Pedro Jose Martinez Hortelano.

An impressive display inside the Castle of La Concepción, accessed via a swanky 45m outdoor lift if you don’t fancy walking, gives a good background of the city’s history and development, while outside panoramic views of the city and harbour put it all into perspective.

Previously an industrial city, Cartagena is now better known in Spain as a military port. Its harbour is the country’s primary submarine base and it is working to promote itself as a stopover for cruise ships and luxury yachts (Larry Ellison’s Rising Sun was in dock when we visited). A catamaran tour is the best way to see this.

See www.ayto-cartagena.es and www.puertoculturas.com.

• For more information on the region of Murcia, see www.murciaturistica.es.”