Photo © Mark Stocks

Cartagena is a vibrant modern city with a long history and to be accurate it is not on the Costa Blanca but does attract many visitors from that coast. There is more here. It’s just as lively in winter because most of its wealth is not based on tourism. It is important for a great many other things beside inbound tourism. The local shipyard, Navantia, has the contract to build submarines for the navy for many years to come. Many other ships from all over the world visit there also for refits and repairs. The main port also has a healthy import and export trade. Laden ships pass out every day heading for ports in Europe, America or Asia. There is also a thriving fishing industry.

Cartagena’s success as a port has made it a vital part of European history. The mineral reserves in the nearby Sierra Minera also brought traders there from the Greeks and Phoenicians onwards. The money that flowed into the city made many interesting buildings possible. Mine-owners commissioned palaces and large houses. These are mostly owned by the banks these days and many are in a good state of preservation. While Cartagena is better-known for its ancient history and monuments it is actually a very good place to admire architecture of all periods. Those who run the city seem to have a remarkable aptitude for raising grants to cover restoration of interesting historic buildings. There’s an unusual and imaginative fusing of old and modern in these projects. An eighteenth or nineteenth century facade might cover a high-tech modern interior. The Roman Theatre Museum – newly-opened – has skilfully combined the facade of a nineteenth century palace and a modern museum with carefully controlled humidity and masses of glass. From there you can reach the restored Roman Theatre via a passage through the old Byzantine Cathedral.

Future restoration and building projects include the Roman amphitheatre, the stocking of the Underwater Archaeology Museum, a Modern Arts Museum, a conference centre, the excavation of the Molinete hill and its Roman remains…The department of the environment has also been given a variety of fortified buildings by the army, some of which date back to the seventeenth century. They have mostly been no-go areas for the public for centuries. The Fuerte de Navidad with its cannons has been beautifully restored and can be visited via road or by the tourist boat. Others restorations are to follow. Details here

Cartagena has a thriving festival scene. The Mar de Musicas is promoted internationally but many other festivals are a well-kept local secret. Every year we find our way to dozens of concerts and plays, most of which are free or very cheap. My favourite festivals are the Teatro del Mar – a week of comedy theatre – the Flamenco concerts in Santa Lucia and “Cartagena en Clave”. The latter festival had the inspired idea of siting different concerts in a variety of historic buildings. Seeing new interiors that you might not get to otherwise is as much a plus as the music. What’s On

Cartagena also has its attractions for lovers of the sea. Cala Cortina is wonderful for diving or snorkelling. Local diving firms like Hesperides take divers out and run a variety of courses – everything from PADI to wreck and archaeological diving. They have some English-speakers amongst their staff. The city is also attracting the Medcup this year. The Marina always has an interesting array of boats moored there, including the odd tall ship. The front is well-lit at night and a pleasant place to walk.

There are lots of mini-festivals too. Some of these are directed at various age groups and show off the clubs and amenities available. My son loved trying a variety of circus equipment at one recently. A tapas festival was recently introduced. This exists in several other Spanish cities and is a great way to discover new restaurants cheaply. Fine EatingThe city’s most famous festival is that of the Romans and Carthaginians in the last two weeks of September. There are a variety of theatrical presentations in different locations, a Roman market and a huge procession that goes on for many hours. Several thousands inhabitants dress up as Carthanginians or Romans. When you go into a bar you might see a whole family (including a baby) in togas or dress armour. A great deal of effort is put into the costumes with not a plastic sword in sight.

The Town-Hall site contains much information, much of it is viewable in English by clicking the Union Jack. The tourist offices and museums speak good English as do some staff in restaurants along the front and in Calle Mayor. Elsewhere you might have to practice your Spanish. Cartagena is still a very Spanish city at heart.

© Fiona Pitt-Kethley 2008
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