Saturday, April 28, 2012

Cartagena


I live in Cartagena. As often as not when I mention this to acquaintances in Alicante the driver of the family says "We went there once, we couldn't find the centre, it all seemed a bit scruffy." In fact, once you know where to go, Cartagena is a lively, interesting and multi faceted city.

The name of the city is linked to Carthage, the North African home of Hannibal, the elephants across the Alps man. Cartagena has had its ups and downs from the splendour of the Roman occupation through to the reduction of the town to little more than a village in Mediaeval times. The last big up was when the money poured in from lead and tin mines out at La Unión. The money built impressive Modernist houses, the style we call Art Nouveau, at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The buildings are all over the place, just look up a little from street level to see the intricate facades. The crash in the 1920s meant that by the time poor immigrants started to arrive in Cartagena nobody cared much that they squatted the once magnificent buildings or rented them cheaply. They're still there but modern money means that the halal butchers and scruffy locutorios rub shoulders with up market bric-a-brac shops only tens of metres from the strolling cruise ship passengers in the commercial heart of the town. It's among those Morrocan barbers that so many of our acquaintances have become lost and disillusioned with the city.

A good place to start is the non commercial port. Set the Sat Nav to Alfonso XII and follow your nose. There are 28 ships in the Spanish Navy, easy to spot because they are painted grey. It's not unusual to find half the fleet tied up here. Cartagena has a proud naval history, a bit like Portsmouth or Chatham. It's the base for the submarine fleet, all four of them, because Cartagena is where the modern submarine was invented. For a closer look board the tourist boat which takes you around the bay to a 19th century fort as well as giving you a glimpse of the supertanker terminal at Escombreras.

Just up from the port, heading towards Calle Mayor, is the old Town Hall, Modernist in style. Pop into the tourist office on the corner of the building first to get yourself a map then ask in the Town Hall about the free tours. An interesting half an hour.

You could just turn left out of the Town Hall and wander up Calle Mayor to stare into the chain shop windows and keep going through Puertas de Murcia and Calle del Carmen till you get to the roundabout at the Plaza de España or you could turn left off Calle Mayor somewhere past the Casino through the Plaza del Rey where the entrance to the Naval Dockyards are. Turn right instead for the scruffier parts. When you stop for lunch michirones (a brown broad bean stew), pelotas en cocido (meatballs in broth) and paella are the typical local fare.

More or less opposite the Town Hall is the entrance to the Roman Museum and Theatre. The building, all white marble and glass, leads you under streets and up escalators to pass beneath the old Cathedral and out into the impressive Roman Theatre. Nobody knew it was there until 1984 because it had been buried under newer buildings. It has the big advantage of staying open through the traditional lunch period. Say hello to the straight backed security guard. He enjoys a few words in English and he'll tell you how to get out because, in true Spanish style, the exit isn't marked!

I'm only allowed so many words in these articles so I''m running out of space. There are lots more interesting places including Concepción Castle on the hill behind the theatre, the Civil War Air Raid shelters in Calle Gisbert, and the Underwater Archaelogical Museum on Alfonso XII through to the dusty and haphazard Artillery (Plaza General Lopez Pinto) and Naval Museums.(Calle Menéndez Pelayo) or the gleaming Modern Art Gallery built alongside the Aguirre Palace in Plaza de la Merced. Bars and restaurants everywhere, plenty of festivals and events. Cartagena is definitely worth a visit..

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