Carta­gena in­side out

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

WHEN I was 10, I wor­shipped Fran­cis Drake. He seemed to have it all: buc­ca­neer, ex­plorer, scourge of the Span­ish Ar­mada, a man who could dance the pa­vane in a ruff col­lar and a cod­piece with­out blush­ing.

In the taxi in Carta­gena, on the way to the great­est Span­ish fortress in the New World, I make the mis­take of men­tion­ing Drake to the driver. We al­most drive into a ditch. Ac­cord­ing to Pe­dro, El Draque was a man of du­bi­ous parent­age whose true call­ing was some­thing in the sep­tic tank line.

‘‘I will show you a hero,’’ Pe­dro de­clares. ‘‘I will show you Blas de Lezo. Drake wasn’t wor­thy to be his cabin boy.’’

The fortress, the 17th-cen­tury Castillo de San Felipe de Bara­jas, was the pride of the Span­ish Main. It was said to be im­preg­nable. It sits above the old walled city of Carta­gena like a turtle shell, its slopes of­fer­ing lit­tle to the can­non sights of ap­proach­ing ships.

Pe­dro is breath­less about the cost: ‘‘254 tons of gold’’, he keeps re­peat­ing, swiv­el­ling in his seat to check I’m tak­ing this in as two chil­dren skip out of dan­ger a few me­tres ahead of us.

I wan­der through the labyrinth of tun­nels that were its ar­ter­ies. Their acous­tics were such that de­fend­ers could pass mes­sages for hun­dreds of me­tres in a whis­per. I can’t help but won­der if the mil­i­tary ar­chi­tects had thought of the down­side of this sen­si­tive au­ral plan: that an af­ter­noon’s can­non prac­tice kept the night clean­ers busy scrap­ing the de­fend­ers’ ear drums off the walls.

The city it de­fends, perched on Colom­bia’s Caribbean coast, is a trea­sury of Span­ish colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, all pas­tel-coloured walls, over­hang­ing bal­conies framed by bougainvil­lea, and colos­sal stud­ded doors de­signed to keep out English­men with eye patches, wooden legs and West Coun­try ac­cents.

Read­ers of Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, and those who have seen the 2007 film adap­ta­tion of his Love in the Time of Cholera, will be fa­mil­iar with Carta­gena’s at­mos­phere: the crum­bling colo­nial man­sions, the rat­tle of car­riage wheels on cob­ble­stones, the im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful women, the lives com­pli­cated by in­ap­pro­pri­ate pas­sions, the fam­ily his­to­ries that make the Old Tes­ta­ment seem like a model of brevity.

I am staying in a man­sion that has stopped crum­bling. A French film­maker and his Colom­bian wife have trans­formed La Pas­sion into an el­e­gant bou­tique ho­tel. There is a court­yard of palms and di­vans. Long bal­conies over- look the street, al­low­ing you to be­come part of the town gos­sip. The sur­prise is on the roof: a gor­geous swim­ming pool with a view of the cathe­dral.

Gold made Carta­gena a city of man­sions. The Span­ish ar­rived on this coast about 1500 and within months dec­i­mated or en­slaved most of the in­dige­nous peo­ples. Thought­fully, they had brought along priests to read them the last rites and prom­ise them a happy par­adise should they em­brace Chris­tian­ity on their deathbeds.

Not con­tent with the liv­ing, the Span­ish set about plun­der­ing the dead, ran­sack­ing the an­ces­tral tombs for the ex­quis­ite gold pieces they con­tained. Vast for­tunes were made overnight by the men in shiny breast­plates, and Carta­gena be­came the store­house for the shiploads of gold dis­patched to Spain, and a honey-pot for English pri­va­teers.

They be­sieged Carta­gena no less than five times in the 16th cen­tury be­fore the com­ple­tion of the city’s great fortress. Prom­i­nent among the in­vaders was Drake, who sacked the town in 1586. In our day, his as­sault on Carta­gena would have landed him in The Hague with a pair of head­phones and a bench of

PIC­TURES: PHOTOLIBRARY

Perched on Colom­bia’s Caribbean coast, the walled city of Carta­gena is a trea­sury of Span­ish colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture

Colom­bian dances siz­zle with rhyth­mic eroti­cism

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