Cartagena inside out
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
Perched on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the walled city of Cartagena is a treasury of Spanish colonial architecture
Colombian dances sizzle with rhythmic eroticism