Want to see Japan’s cherry blossom without the long-haul price tag? Try Murcia

Want to see Japan’s cherry blossom without the long-haul price tag? Try Murcia

I’m sipping a café con leche with Francisco and Manuel in the small Murcian town of Cieza. Both are peach farmers, and their livelihood has depended on fruit trees since they were children, just like their parents and grandparents.

Cieza sits in a valley surrounded by thousands of acres of fruit trees that stand sentry in neat rows. I’ve driven for just over an hour from the bustling Costa Blanca but the reality feels much further. The brooding mountains look superimposed onto the scene, jagged incisor peaks gnawing at the sky. At their feet, the land softens and levels out, pale sandstone foothills giving way to a natural amphitheatre.

In early spring these mountains provide a backdrop to an incredible, sensory show. The trees are slumbering now, but as the calendar turns into February, they will awaken, their delicate pink blossom transforming the landscape into a scene from an artist’s palette.

This blooming is marked by the annual Floración festival, a celebration of pastel pink petals, concerts, cycling trips and gastronomic events in and around Cieza. It’s Spain’s answer to Japan’s famed cherry blossom season, without the long-haul flight.

The skyline of Cieza (Photo: Rudolf Ernst/ Getty Images)
The skyline of Cieza (Photo: Rudolf Ernst/Getty)

Feeling peachy

Cieza is the largest peach producer in Europe, and people here are rightly proud of their fruit. The area is particularly suited to growing fruit thanks to its climate, fertile soil, and the nearby Segura River, providing much-needed water to this dry region. I wonder whether the farmers have seen changes in the climate during their lifetime. Their smiles are tinged with sadness.

“The rainfall is very different,” Manuel replies. “Years ago, it rained little by little, but nowadays we have storms and torrential rain, which destroy the flowers and fruit.”

Francisco adds: “The seasons are unpredictable now. When the sun comes at the wrong time, it burns the fruit. Last year the peaches came too early, and they were too small.” This year, it’s looking like the season will be 10 days later than usual.

Acutely aware of the challenges facing today’s farmers, I finish my coffee and head out to the fruit fields with Antonio Santos. He’s been taking tourists to see the Floración on foot, by bike, car, and bus with Agromarketing Experiencias Turisticas for 10 years. With us is guide José, who’s worked with peaches since he was a youngster. We stop at a viewpoint, the site of a former school for farming families. Despite its closure, many farms are still in family ownership today.

A man visits the blossoming trees near Cieza (Photo: Javi Carrion/Europa Press)
The blossoming trees near Cieza (Photo: Javi Carrion/Europa Press)

Stark and bare for now, the trees’ gnarled fingers reach towards the sky. Their branches sprout from just above ground level, recalling rows of ballerinas frozen in mid-pirouette. Peach farming, José says, is labour-intensive work, with pruning and fruit-picking still largely carried out by hand. Pruning intentionally creates the dancing silhouette to maximise the amount of sunlight able to access the tree. But the shape means machine-picking of the fruit is impossible.

To say the area glows pink during Floración is an understatement, José tells me, as each field is simply one hue in a palette.

“You have this subtly changing tapestry of colours, from pinky white to fuchsia depending on the weather, season, and the variety of fruit. So, the Floración is never the same.”

I agree. On a previous visit, I remember standing, surrounded by this spectacular natural phenomenon, feeling like I’d been transported into an impressionist painting as the area shimmered with colour and light.

“Even though I’ve lived in this area all my life,” José adds, “I still find it amazing to see these fields covered in pink.”

The trees in full bloom (Photo: Chamonlord/Getty Images)
The trees in full bloom (Photo: Chamonlord/Getty)

Visiting the Floración is becoming more popular each year. “Last year’s festival attracted at least 60,000 people,” says Antonio. It’s hard to imagine, as all is quiet today, the trees snoozing around us and only the odd tractor pottering about.

Antonio tells me that the most popular way to see the Floración is, as I did, a self-drive guided tour along the dusty farm tracks. We’d stopped to hear tales about farming, fruit and the area’s rich history before rounding off the morning with lunch surrounded by the blossom.

New for this season is the Via Verde de la Floración, a 5km walking and cycling track along an old railway route bordering the patchwork of pink fields. Activities include musical entertainment in the midst of the fruit trees, canoeing down the river Segura, and peach-themed gastronomic events.

“I think of it like this,” continues José, “visiting the Floración is giving value to the hard work of the farmers, which is often forgotten.”

Although the trees decide for themselves when they flower, activities for this year’s Floración kick off on 17 February, with peak flowering looking likely to be during the first two weeks of March.

For now, the peach trees sit starkly in a monochrome landscape, but already I can see their tiny hopeful buds waiting to explode into colour when the time is right. When they do, I’ll remember Francisco and Manuel and the challenges they face in bringing peaches to the world’s tables.

Mountains provide a backdrop to the flowering trees (Photo: Juan Maria Coy Vergara/Getty)
Mountains provide a backdrop to the flowering trees (Photo: Juan Maria Coy Vergara/Getty)

Getting there
Cieza is around an hour’s drive from Murcia and Alicante airports.
By rail, direct trains from Madrid take around three hours and cost from £45.

Where to Stay
Casa de la Campana, just outside Cieza with views of the fruit fields, has doubles from €79.

More Information
Tours of the Floración de Cieza are available from €8, with English-speaking guides available.