This morning we are going to berth at Cartagena,the capital of the Bolivar department and the crown jewel of Columbia.
We are sailing through low heads on which have been built forts to offer some protection from the pirates of early times. Past the white statue of the Madonna, the patron of Cartagena, through the channel marked by the orange and blue tugs into the commercial section of the port city. Cartagena in addition to its raw beauty and historical significance, is a major port; obvious by the large cranes and mountains of shipping containers stacked on the wharf. The skies are still grey and the seas quieter than the night before. The sun is up there somewhere but the humidity is already up in the 80’s and about to rise even more; it is 10.30am.
We head for deck three and have to wait till the ship is cleared before we can go ashore. Off and running again with Gretchen and Arlen in tow. Lined up like cockroaches waiting for their dinner were 19 tour buses; most of the guests are too timid to hit the streets alone. At the gate outside of the terminal, some 30 taxi drivers in white shirts were waiting for us. The colour of their shirt significant. White shirts can speak english and act as guides, blue shirts can speak English but don’t guide,the red shirts no speak but drive recklessly. We didn’t want a guide just driver so did some of the usual hard bargaining and got to town for ten dollars a cab . He did hint at some of the attractions as we drove to the Old City. As we drove through the outer town, full of traffic, working class bells and whistles, and a chaotic nature that could leave you dazed and confused in mere minutes, is where the Cartagena of broken dreams lives on, a workhouse South American city like any other.
Without a doubt, Cartagena’s old city, a UNESCO world site, is it’s principal attraction. A fairy tale city of romance, legends and sheer beauty, immaculately preserved within the impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone-walls, where a maze of cobbled alleys slither below enormous balconies shrouded in bougainvillaea and massive churches cast their shadows across plazas, its difficult not to get lost in it’s charms. It is a real gem of colonial architecture, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their overhanging balconies and shady patios.
Our taxi dropped us at the start of Meulle Turistico de los Pegasos a beautiful wide expanse of walkway which bridges Getsemani, the outer walled town, with the old town. Lined with white marble busts of former leaders set upon pedestals, a large stature of a siren looking towards the sea graced the centre; two extremely large bronzes of winged horses proudly guarded the entrance to the marina, to our left.To our right a plaza bounded by concrete painted ochre decorated with white gateways.
Puerto del Reloj, originally called Boca del Puente was the main gateway to the inner walled town and was linked to Getsemani by a drawbridge over the moat. now filled in. The side arches of the gate, which are now open as walkways, were previously used as a chapel and armoury. The republican-style tower, complete with a four sided clock, was added in 1888.
Just behind Puerta del Relo, Plaza de los Coches or Plaza de la Yerba, a triangular plaza, was once used as a slave market. It is lined with old balconied houses with colonial arches at ground level. The arcaded walkway, known as El Portal de los Dulces, is today lined with confectionary stands selling colourful local sweets stored in glass jars. Flies welcomed us with open arms. The statue of the city’s founder, Pedro de Heredia is in the middle of the Plaza.
We headed through he town, down La Cartujita, to Las Murallas. Along the cobbled lane-ways,passing the brightly painted houses contrasted with the twisted vines of bougainvillaea and other green leaves. Under balconies with very intricate wood-work railings, past doorways closed with twisted heavy metal bars reminding us of slave imprisonment. Churches and monasteries now serving as fancy hotels, museums or art galleries, blend unobtrusively with those still serving.
The old town is surrounded by Las Murallas, the thick walls built to protect it against enemies. Construction began towards the end of the 16th century, after the attack by Francis Drake; until that time Cartagena was almost completely unprotected. The project took two centuries to complete due to storms and other attacks. Walked to the walls, sea weathered grey coral compacted into bricks regimentally aligned. Approximately every 500 metres was a half circle turret with small oblong slit, just enough to shoot a firearm through. Two vertical and one horizontal row of red bricks about half a meter wide topped the wall edge; behind this the flat platform was about 3 meters wide. What was probably coastline in ancient days was now a two lane bitumen road snaking along the waters edge; Waves crashed over the rock-wall onto the road. Interesting bronze sculpture of flying pelican graced the promenade. Further along the a series of arches were formed within the wall, today giving privacy to the couples canoodling as the sea breezes cooled their passion.
Across the road stood the Opera House an elegant building, where a film festival was being held.
Continued on to the yellow washed Iglesia de Santo Domingo the oldest church in the city. Four dollars entrance fee helped the restoration. Massive buttresses which had to be added to the walls to support the structure and prevent collapsing from the over-weight roof when the church was rebuilt in 1552 block the footpath. The bell tower also is distinctly crooked. The spacious and lofty interior, houses the figure of Christ carved in wood set in the baroque altar at the head of the right hand aisle. Old tombstones dating from the early19th century pave the floor in in front of the high altar and in the two aisles. An elderly nun sat in the back pew counselling an out of luck lady.
Outside, women in very colourful native dress, posed with baskets of plastic fruit. Great contrast against the yellow walls. Stopped for a sandwich and drink. The humidity was draining every drop of moisture from our bodies. Peddlers appeared from nowhere with their arms full of necklaces, leather belts, knick-knacks and cigars. On the street corner another posed selling the 20 or so Panama hats stacked on his head.
Moving on from the plaza to the Cathedral.The restored work has uncovered the lovely limestone on the buildings exterior. Apart from the tower’s top, the church has basically retained its original form. It has a fort-like appearance and a simply decorated interior with three naves and massive semi-circular archways supported on high stone columns. The gold work dates from 18th century.
Walking on to the Plaza de Bolivar, formally the Plaza de Inquisition. A shaded leafy plaza surrounded by some of the city’s most elegant balconied colonial buildings and offering a wonderful respite from the Caribbean heat. As expected a statue of Simon Bolivar stands in the middle of the plaza. The haunting Palace of the Inquisicion is one of the finest buildings in town, and is a good example of late-colonial architecture. A magnificent baroque stone gateway topped by the Spanish coat of arms, and the long balconies on the facade denote its importance. On the side wall, just around the corner from the entrance is a small window with a cross on top. Heretics were denounced here and the Holy Office would then instigate proceedings. The principal crimes were magic, blasphemy and witchcraft. When found guilty the culprits were sentenced to death in a public auto-da-fe. About 800 were condemned to death and executed. The inquisition, however, did not judge indigenous people.
Another turn, another plaza. Several metal sculptures of trades people working; sewing at a machine, men sitting at a table lit by hurricane lamp doing the accounts, a cobbler mending shoes. A large bronze of Dan Pedro Claver and a slave were joined by a couple of mime artists dressed in dark bronze outfits, posing with the real statue. Very effective.
The adjacent Convent of Iglesia de Dan Pedro Claver (formally San Ignacio de Loyola), founded by Jesuits in early 17th century was renamed to honour the Spanish born monk who lived and died in the convent. He spent all his life ministering to the slaves bought from Africa, and was, in 1888, the first person to be canonised in the New World. The convent is a three story building surrounding a tree filled courtyard. Part is a museum and includes the cell in which Pedro lived and died.
The church has an imposing stone facade and inside there are fine stained glass windows and a high altar made of Italian marble. The remains of San Pedro Claver are kept in a glass coffin in the altar. His skull is visible. A man of small stature who had a large heart and soul.
Around another corner, Plaza se la Aduana. The largest and oldest square in the old town, its paved quadrangle was used as a parade ground. In colonial times all the important governmental and administrative buildings were here. The old restored Royal Customs house is now the city hall. A statue of Christopher Columbus stands in the centre of the square. Our walking tour ended back at the gate. Drink vendors offered cold water. Another bargaining exercise then find a taxi, bargain again and get back to the ship ready for sailing to Fort Lauderdale.