Below the waves, above the clouds, or on terra firma, this fascinating city dating back three millennia begs to be explored…
Sharing its name with the arguably more famous resort town on the Colombian coast, Cartagena is usually unjustly ignored by daytrippers and guidebooks. Yet, as a massive Naval base and one of the earliest settlements in the country, its territory having been crossed by Romans, Carthaginians and Phoenicians, as well as being home to Spain’s best-known aerobatic team, Cartagena deserves more than a passing glance on the way to the sweeping golden sands of the Mar Menor.
Few traces of these ancient civilisations, however, remain in modern Cartagena. Hannibal crossing the Alps on his elephant may never have set foot in the town for all the evidence that remains of his passage – in fact, even the amphitheatre was knocked down and replaced by a bullring in the mid-19th century.
Yet this cultural sacrilege is not the end of the story. A multitude of churches, palaces and stately homes have been carefully restored, much of Cartagena’s more portable heritage is on display in its vast array of museums and its maritime history is alive and well.
One of Spain’s largest commercial ports and a prominent naval base, Cartagena is responsible for much of the country’s floating history. Hardly surprising, given that both the town and the harbour were built by the Phoenicians in 227 BC, and the Spanish Navy was heavily concentrated there in the 18th century. Less famous now, the maritime tradition has nonetheless left its stamp and turned into a major tourist attraction, with sailing fanatics and those with an interest in seafaring history making a beeline for the old midshipman school, the Naval and artillery headquarters and the Naval museum as well as admiring the ornate dockyard gate.
Get closer to the seabed at Cartagena’s national underwater archaeology centre. Unfortunately for diving fans, the museum is very much on dry land but its findings and artefacts have all been dredged up from below the waves, and its opening 25 years ago put the town on tourist map. The centre’s impossible-to-remember title is the MNAM-CNIAS, but it is unlikely you will have to ask directions and risk sounding like you are chewing gum as you cannot miss it when strolling along the waterfront.
Once inside, amongst the lead ingots from the nearby Sierra Minera quarry and stone anchors dating back to the Romans, an awesome real-size replica of an old trading ship, complete with amphorae or wine and oil bottles, takes centre stage. The collection is by no means complete, however, as expert archaeological divers continue to plumb the depths seeking submerged treasure.
Not all of Cartagena’s military history exists on and under the water, however – much of it is airborne. Starting with balloon exhibitions just over a hundred years ago, the Murcia Region and Cartagena in particular has a strong aviation tradition. The Spanish Air Force used to run ‘flying boats’ in nearby Los Alcázares from 1915 and the region is also highly proud of being the home of the late, much-celebrated aeronautical engineer Juan de la Cierva. Whilst his name may not ring many bells for the uninitiated, De la Cierva is credited with designing a craft known as an autogiro, which would later become the blueprint for the first-ever helicopter.
Visitors to Cartagena who have a fascination for aviation should take a trip to nearby San Javier, home of the Murcia Region’s airport and military academy which houses a complex, fascinating exhibition of photographs, memorabilia and crafts that continue in use. In fact, if you have ever been to a county show and witnessed an air display in the UK – or, indeed, anywhere in Europe, North America or the Middle East – there is a good chance the Cartagena air force was among the big, scary machines circling the airspace above.
Born in 1985, the Patrulla Águila (eagle patrol’) has clocked up more than 18,000 flying hours and its aerobatics never fail to delight spectators from Finland to Israel, Turkey to Canada. The helicopter version, the Patrulla Ascua – initially comprising F-86 Sabres – performed a show at Expo 92 in Sevilla, using coloured smoke to paint the Spanish flag in the sky. Since then, creating rainbows has been a regular feature of Cartagena’s seven aerobats amongst victory rolls, loops and other daredevil, travel-sickness-inducing stunts.
To gain a greater insight into what goes on behind the scenes and how the Patrulla Águila came into being, the photo exhibition at the aviation academy includes pictures of Squadron badges, the runway, the barracks, the operations room, the hangar, the patrol in action, uniforms, and historic aircraft, telling the story of the internationally-renowned patrol from birth to the present day, covering its major achievements and highlights.
Quite contrary to visitors’ expectations, most of the historic monuments Cartagena boasts were built in the 18th and 19th centuries rather than by Romans, Carthaginians or Phoenicians. What is left of the Roman amphitheatre is worth exploring, and it has been partially reformed in an attempt to recapture the long history of the town that was wiped out in one fell swoop in the 1870s when centralists sacked it and destroyed all bar about twenty of Cartagena’s original buildings. The naval town’s price for declaring independence was that it had to pick up the pieces and rebuild itself, but this gave way to the wild imaginations of architects, commissioned by wealthy mine owners and tradesman whose extravagant tastes were deliberate propaganda.
As a result, Art Deco and Neoclassical styles predominate and can be seen in the decorative town hall, underground walls, picturesque Plazas and the main street, the C/ Mayor.
Parts of the old city walls, built in the 18th century, remain – particularly on the seafront where they served to keep enemy forces out. In fact, during this turbulent time for the city, most of the inhabitants wanted to live within the defence walls which meant Cartagena resembled a Benidorm beach in high season – not enough room to go round. The aristocracy did not live in palatial buildings with wide, sweeping lawns because, quite simply, there was insufficient space. As a result, they showed off their upper class status via the ornate, decorative façades of their houses.
At the other end of the class scale, the poorer residents of Cartagena lived in tiny, narrow alleyways that nowadays hold a similar charm to the Lanes in Brighton, with their quaint cafes and exclusive handicraft shops.
Although little apparently remains of Cartagena’s rich and varied past, old methods of building and decorating die hard here, like many other parts of Spain that were invaded, reconditioned and ultimately brainwashed by Islamic culture in the Middle Ages. Although the bullring was built in the mid-19th century and restored in 1911, its architectural style reflects that left behind by the Moorish settlers during their 500-year reign in Spain.
Seemingly abandoned and unloved on a stretch of scrubland, it was built on what used to be the gladiators’ arena – a mini Colisseum, in effect – in which latter-day entertainment was equally as gruesome as in Roman times.
Despite its grisly purpose, the bullring is a gem to behold with its Islamic windows, doors, columns and adornments. Archaeological excavations continue in the arena, which has not been used in a hundred years as it was condemned as unsafe.
Sadly, however, what is left of this relatively modern tribute to the Muslim era is falling into rack and ruin and, rather than restoring it a second time, it is likely that it will be left to turn to dust and replaced with a brand, spanking new modern one. Like its predecessor, though, it will be one of the largest, most important and most-visited in the country.
After strolling around the streets admiring Arabic bullrings, stately homes and aeroplane and seafaring memorabilia, head coastwards from Cartagena where you can dip your toes in the warm waters of the Mar Menor or chill out and pamper yourself in one of the many spas to be found dotting the shoreline.
Renowned nationwide, this ‘inland sea’ between La Manga and mainland Murcia boasts a high salt content and warm temperatures all year round, much venerated by the older generation who claim bathing in the Mar Menor soothes their arthritis.
Nowadays, the Mar Menor is a highly-developed residential area comprising a conglomeration of luxury tourist resorts, many of which have top-quality spas that take advantage of the thermal waters and marine minerals they have to hand to offer a sophisticated range of pomping, preening and relaxation treatments in expert hands.
A short distance from both San Javier airport and Cartagena itself, there can be few better ways of rewarding yourself for broadening your cultural horizons trekking round the town and taking in its fascinating sights.
It is no surprise that some 300,000 Brits are predicted to have made their home on the shores of the Mar Menor within the next decade, and that the Murcia Region’s inhabitants were recently found to be amongst the happiest folk in Spain. With all that at your fingertips, and less than a day’s drive from anywhere in the Comunitat Valenciana, put Cartagena near the top of your list of unlikely corners of Spain to explore.