Murcia, in Spain, offers a host of colourful festivals and rich culture – just beware of bolting horses, writes Paul Suart.

The sight of stallions running wild and at full pelt would probably unnerve the most hardened of equine enthusiasts.

So for those like me, who have enjoyed few close-up encounters with horses, the experience was genuinely terrifying.

But I was far from alone in this apprehension.

Because, for tens of thousands of people who lined the Spanish streets of Caravaca de la Cruz for the annual madness that is the Wine Horses Fiesta, the feeling was mutual.

It’s an ancient custom like no other, and one that has great historic and spiritual importance for residents of the fifth Holy city of Catholic Christianity.

Up to 60 stallions, each dressed in spectacularly embroidered mantels, are individually introduced by a compere.

They are then paraded through the city by four handlers, the vast majority sporting white shirts, red neckerchiefs and red waistbands, whose practice it is to gee up their horses into a frenzied state.

This frequently results in the horses bolting in unpredictable directions and quite often into the crowds of spectators.

Many, myself included, opt for Dutch courage in the form of Sangria which flows merrily from pouches sold on every street corner.

Needless to say, ambulances and stewards are on standby in case of emergency.

Once the horse is brought under control (not every equine gets loose I might add) it is led through the charming alleyways that meander through Caravaca, located in the Murcia region in south-east Spain.

They are led to the foot of a steep slope which climbs up to the imposing Basilica de la Vera Cruz, a renaissance-inspired fortress home to the famous Cross of Caravaca.

This sacred fragment of wood is said to have been part of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified and has protected the city since the 13th century.

It is for this reason that Caravaca was ordained by the then Pope John Paul II as a Holy City in 1998 alongside only Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Camaleño. And it’s here, at the bottom of the hill, that the real fun begins.

The horses take it in turns to race up the path with their four fearless chaperones hanging onto the reins for dear life.

It’s a symbolic recreation of the medieval legend in which the Knights Templar braved the Moorish armies besieging the castle to bring wine to the thirsty inhabitants barricaded within.

Like earlier in the procession, the whole affair is viewed keenly by hordes of spectators at dangerously-close proximity to the racing stallions.

While steeped in ancient tradition the race has, over the years, been influenced by modern technology. For each run is electronically timed with the result displayed on a scoreboard above the finish line.

Only the horses who make it to the finish with all four of their handlers in tow qualify with a valid time.

To see ‘nulo’ - Spanish for disqualified - flash up on the board is every handler’s worst nightmare given that they spend 12 months preparing their horses. The fiesta might not be as famous as the Pamplona Bull Run in San Fermin or the Tomatina Tomato Fight in Buñol, near Valencia, but it certainly should be.

And it’s for that precise reason that the Tourist Board of Murcia is actively promoting this proud parade that excites and exhilarates as much as it frightens and bewilders.

The actual fiesta is always staged on May 2 but is traditionally preceded and followed by a series of age-old customs and practices.

And while a trip to Murcia would certainly be lifted by taking in this scintillating spectacle, there’s so much more to the region.

We left Caravaca for the resplendence and refinery of the world famous La Manga Club, about 10 miles east of Cartagena on the south-easterly tip of Murcia.

In the UK at least, this five-star resort is probably best known as a mid-season retreat for over-paid British-based footballers.

And when you see its majesty in person – underpinned by breathtaking balcony views out over the golf courses, the Mar Menor lagoon and Mediterranean – you start to understand why.

It’s serene in the extreme and the perfect way to unwind and escape the pressures of Premier League exposure or any other demanding profession for that matter.

Our whistle-stop tour of the city-sized complex involved a winding drive through the arid mountains of Calblanque Natural Park, which borders La Manga, to a secluded beach front beneath the foothills.

Sadly, we had only one night to indulge in La Manga’s splendour before setting off the next morning for a short catamaran voyage out across the Bay of Cartagena guarded by the Fuerte de Navidad.

Christmas Fort, as it translates, is now an interpretation centre which allows visitors to discover how the coast was historically protected against attacks from the sea.

Back on shore we explored the cultural delights of Cartagena, one of Spain’s oldest city’s, including the recently-restored open-air Roman Theatre and adjoining museum.

From the very back of the auditorium, which dates to between 5 and 1BC, awe-inspiring vistas are afforded of the stage below, which sits atop a buried Roman market, and the sprawling city in the background.

It’s to the city that we venture to learn of its ancient beginnings with a detailed tour of the Roman Forum of Moliente, an archaeological wonder which offers a fascinating insight into how the Romans lived 2,000 years ago.

For anyone with an avid interest in history, and shopping for that matter, Cartagena is simply a must.

High winds at sea put paid to our scuba diving on the marine reserve of Cabo de Palos, at the foot of the Mar Menor.

This did, however, give us the opportunity to learn more about the history, wildlife, geography and attractions of the marina and Murcia as a whole with a talk from one of Spain’s most experienced divers.

At the height of summer, La Manga strip, a 300-metre wide 21km-long slither of land flanked by the Mar Menor to the west and the Mediterranean to the east, is a bustling haven of hotels and beach side bars.

But in off-season, as we found, it can represent somewhat of a ghost town.

The same criticism could not be levelled against the busy environment boasted by InterContinental’s five-star La Torre golf resort – the venue for our fourth and final night’s stay. Just a short drive from Murcia, La Torre is part of a celebrated circuit of three golf courses designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus.

After a tour of the first-class facilities, including its many restaurants, pools and ‘wellness zone’ complete with sauna, steam room and even an ice fountain, we head to Murcia.

Beautiful gothic architecture emerges at every turn in Murcia, most notably in the form of its 14th Century cathedral, and charming open plazas each littered with outdoor eateries serving the freshest tapas.

Paradoxically, given its quaint old town feel, the city plays host to the contemporary arts festival SOS 4.8 held every May Bank Holiday weekend.

This year’s musical line-up saw Pulp, The Gossip, Friendly Fires and The Kills take to the main stage on the opening night of the two-day extravaganza.

A thought-provoking arts exhibition, exploring the emotions evoked by modern TV shows, conferences and a series of lectures and workshops led by faith leaders added extra dimensions to the showpiece.

It’s a far cry from a British festival.

Not because of its diverse cultural appeal, but its city centre location (with the stages and stalls laid out across a car park) and late-night scheduling to avoid the midday heat.

While May might be the ideal month to visit Murcia, its fascinating history, upmarket resorts, coastal attractions and outdoor pursuits, make it a universally-appealing tourist destination that offers plenty to see and do all year round.

Travel Facts

* Monarch operates direct flights to Alicante, 45 miles northeast of Murcia, from Birmingham Airport.

* Flights start at £38.99 one way or £69.50 return.

* For further information, visit Paul Suart travelled courtesy of Monarch Airlines.