Por­tals to past in sto­ried Carta­gena

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ROD­ER­ICK EIME

Carta­gena, Colom­bia’s UNESCO World Her­itage walled city and fortress, is a maze of nar­row, cob­bled streets and mys­te­ri­ous door­ways. Be­hind each of the 16th-cen­tury fa­cades, with their nar­row over­hang­ing bal­conies, lies many a story.

Be­hind one par­tic­u­larly im­pe­ri­ous por­tal, em­bla­zoned with brass amulets, hides the for­mer home of English pi­rate-ex­plorer Fran­cis Drake, who resided there briefly af­ter cap­tur­ing this Caribbean port in 1586. Other door­ways sit flush with the white­washed walls, in­trigu­ing the ob­server with their own par­tic­u­lar tales.

Such is the en­trance to Al­fiz Ho­tel Bou­tique. The solid tim­ber door creaks eerily to ad­mit me, re­veal­ing a sun­lit, ver­dant court­yard com­pletely iso­lated from the bus­tle of the street. In the op­pres­sive April hu­mid­ity, I find the sanc­tu­ary within is im­me­di­ately cooler and calm­ing.

The decor is rem­i­nis­cent of Span­ish Re­vival homes and manors found through­out Latin Amer­ica, yet with re­straint, plus many fea­tures of the orig­i­nal 300-year-old struc­ture, such as ex­posed brick­work and an en­closed, Is­lamic-style arch­way known as an al­fiz. This ar­chi­tec­tural nugget was dis­cov­ered dur­ing the painstak­ing ren­o­va­tions and gave rise to the ho­tel’s name. In restor­ing the build­ing, Colom­bian her­itage ar­chi­tect Pe­dro Ibarra made gen­er­ous use of lo­cally sourced cara­coli and guay­a­can tim­bers that, pol­ished to a high sheen, en­hance the ex­posed ceil­ing beams and ban­nis­ters.

To what de­gree the build­ing now re­sem­bles its pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions as a lair for the French mer­chantcum-smug­gler Juan d’Anglade or 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish con­sul Ge­orge Burghalt Watts is left to the imag­i­na­tion. With just eight in­di­vid­u­ally themed rooms, Al­fiz Ho­tel can right­fully claim to be bou­tique and each cham­ber is dec­o­rated to re­flect a chap­ter of Carta­gena’s colour­ful his­tory and its con­nec­tion to the house. The names set the tone, with themes such as Con­quest, the grand and spa­cious Repub­lica suite, the or­nate Viceroy and the nau­ti­cal Pi­rate.

I’m ap­par­ently taken for a pi­ous sort of fel­low and am al­lo­cated a ju­nior suite known as St Peter Claver. This quasi-chapel re­lates the saga of the self­less pa­tron saint of slaves and comes com­plete with can­dlelit por­trait of the soul­ful mar­tyr, hung promi­nently so that I might ven­er­ate him while savour­ing a good Ar­gen­tinian mal­bec.

The suites in­clude Moor­ish ref­er­ences such as tas­selled vel­vet uphol­stery, brass hang­ing lamps and can­de­labras sit­ting atop del­i­cately in­laid faux an­tique fur­ni­ture, plus qual­ity re­pro­duc­tion art. Many of the items were re­cov­ered dur­ing the ren­o­va­tions while the in­tro­duced ones blend seam­lessly. The vo­lu­mi­nous gue­stroom bath­tubs look big enough to wel­come a bat­tle-weary foot­ball team.

In his­tor­i­cally rich Carta­gena de In­dias, the mul­ti­ple her­itage ref­er­ences in Al­fiz Ho­tel’s struc­ture and its em­bel­lish­ments help il­lu­mi­nate for this first-time vis­i­tor the sig­nif­i­cance of the 500-year-old citadel’s tu­mul­tuous past. Rich as­pects of that her­itage were re­vealed dur­ing the ho­tel’s restora­tion, de­scribed to me by man­ager Karl as “al­most arche­o­log­i­cal” in scale. Nu­mer­ous arte­facts were un­earthed as the “com­plete ruin” was slowly trans­formed to the com­pact stately home we see to­day. The haul in­cluded mun­dane house­hold objects such as cut­lery through to more dra­matic dis­cov­er­ies like spent can­non­balls and even a skele­ton. I won­der if the soul of the de­parted still wan­ders the cor­ri­dors of Al­fiz Ho­tel and my in­quiries to that ef­fect are met with a non-com­mit­tal twitch by Karl.

I’m as­sured, how­ever, that de­spite the oc­ca­sional in­stance of ghostly foot­steps and items shift­ing ap­par­ently of their own ac­cord, no one has re­ported waft­ing ap­pari­tions or any malev­o­lent pres­ence.

The li­brary cum sit­ting room is some­thing of a shrine to the late Colom­bian-born No­bel prize-win­ning au­thor and nov­el­ist Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, renowned for his po­lit­i­cally crit­i­cal works and mag­i­cal re­al­ism nov­els. In the an­tique book­case I thumb sev­eral well-read vol­umes, which guests are en­cour­aged to bor­row. Modern in­tru­sions are not over­looked and all rooms have satel­lite TV, Wi-Fi, mini­bar and air-con­di­tion­ing. The rooftop ter­race con­tains an open-air Jacuzzi tub that guests can re­serve for pri­vate use.

While there is no restau­rant, a minimalist break­fast is served in the airy court­yard. Sliced cit­rus fruits and melon, fresh juices, toasted ce­re­als, proper Colom­bian coffee and eggs any­how are all that’s needed to sus­tain me in this trop­i­cal at­mos­phere. Al­fiz Ho­tel, in its nu­mer­ous in­car­na­tions, has shel­tered many res­i­dents and been wit­ness to myr­iad sto­ries over the cen­turies. Gar­cia Mar­quez once wrote, “All hu­man be­ings have three lives: pub­lic, pri­vate, and se­cret.” He might well have been re­fer­ring to Al­fiz Ho­tel.

Rod­er­ick Eime was a guest of Al­fiz Ho­tel Bou­tique and Movi­das Jour­neys.

Al­fiz Ho­tel Bou­tique in Carta­gena, left; the pool, top; court­yard, above; and com­fort­able gue­stroom, be­low left

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