Tour Of The Caribbean – The City Of Cartagena

The sea-environed city, the city of unforgotten centuries, is a place of surprising charm. The sun and the wind have bleached it, the rain has dappled the sheltered wall with tints of madder and grey, but it remains yet a fine memorial of the gorgeous days of Spain. It is, indeed, an older-looking Spanish town than any in Castile, for there is so little within its compass that is really new. It is like a piece of sumptuous tapestry which the bungling of the irreverent needle has failed to spoil.

An immense wall, which is especially formidable along the sea-front, surrounds the city on all sides. This wall, where it has escaped the sun, is almost black. Curious weeds have crept over it, while plants in flower and even bushes grow here and there in the gaps between the stones. It is made strong by bastions and outworks, is dignified by high battlements and sentry towers of stone, is overshadowed by many palms, and presents within its girth steep stairs and echoing passages. The main entrance to the city is through a handsome gateway of yellow stone, surmounted by a steeple, and flanked by pillars. It presents three openings—a central arch for the mule teams, and two small side entries for folk who walk. These lead into the principal square, the Plaza de los Coches, where the houses are built over a shady colonnade of many arches and of no mean age. In the shadows of this passage are incongruous shops, gay with the tints of bright shawls and silks, or of tropical fruits. It is a place too for the hot, drowsy bodega, with its casks, its tables and benches, as well as for the lolling cigarette-smoker whom one would not be surprised to find clad as a toreador.

The narrow streets when in shade are as dark as a way in a wood, but when the sun pours along them they are dazzling to discomfort. The roads are for the most part ruinous and full of ruts and holes. They are muffled as to sound, however, owing to the custom of throwing odd garbage into the street, as well as to the fact that not a few are as thick in sand and dust as a dry beach. This dust is apt to be converted into mud by the copious slop-water which the housewife empties into the road. A few carts creak and groan through the town, but most of those who ride ride on donkeys or mules, and on the mule pack much of the merchandise of the place is carried. There is little, therefore, to break the silence of the road but the patter of hoofs, the laughter of handsome Spanish women who lean from verandahs, the clatter of a cracked church bell, or the twang of a guitar.

The houses are mostly of two stories, with white or yellow walls, or walls of a dubious colour that would be called ” faded.” They are in various stages of decay, so that it would seem as if the dust in the street might be due to fallen plaster and crumbling stone. The buildings, large or small, are very lavish in balconies, which are often of bright tints, showing, it may be, a green roof, a lilac wall, and white railings. Some are most beautifully carved ; while the many which are of stone or ancient iron-work are remarkably picturesque. In certain of the narrower lanes the balconies on opposite sides of the way project so far as almost to meet overhead. Curious bow windows supported on white stone corbels are common, as also are window gratings or grilles of metal or elaborate wood-work. Stone gateways closed by heavy doors knobbed with brass are come upon, as well as lofty buildings which would have been palaces when the city was in its glory. Here and there is a peep into a courtyard with green bushes in it, a shaded well, and a little balcony looking down upon the quiet of it all. An unexpected tower will be met with, or a fort which has been turned into a dwelling-house, or an arcade of fine pillars with no apparent reason for its existence.

High above all, against the hard sky, are the ample roofs of a tropical city, brown roofs and red roofs, whose covering of tiles is as deeply ridged as is a newly ploughed field, and whose colour is enhanced in many spots by the green crest of a palm tree. There are several ancient churches in the city, certain of which are remarkably beautiful. The old cathedral is worth a long journey to see. It contains a hundred features of interest, from the great studded door to the magnificent altar-piece. It affords, better than any other building in Cartagena, some conception of the hauteur and wealth of Spain when she was the mistress of the New World.

The Fort San Lazar, which resisted the attack of Admiral Vernon in 1741, is outside the walls, on the level ground between the city and La Popa Hill. It is placed on the crown of an isolated, rocky hill 125 feet in height. The sides are heavily scarped and show two tiers of stone works. The place was described in Vernon’s time as a square fort, having three demi-bastions, two guns on each face, one on each flank, and three in each curtain. It is now a deserted, crumbling and picturesque ruin. The ramparts, reached by a steep rock road, are built of narrow red bricks, covered with plaster or faced with stone. The platform on the summit is almost filled with bushes and weeds. Here is a solid guard-room, a glum, black mass, with an immensely thick roof. At the corners of the square are sentry towers, each surmounted by a cupola. Brick stairs lead down to a tunnel cut in the rock, which passage opens upon the lower platform of the fortress.

The view from the parapets is most fascinating. To the south are the harbour with the water battery, Fort Pastelillo, at the mouth of its inner basin, Drake’s Spit and the narrows near the Boca Grande. To the east are La Popa and its convent. To the west lies, at one’s feet, the whole of the walled city of Cartagena, a marvellous spectacle to contemplate. Beyond and far to the north is the sea.

It would have been good to have stood on this hill when Drake sailed by in 1573, on his way to Plymouth after his successful foray. In the harbour at that time were lying the great Plate ships and their convoy of men-of-war on the eve of departing for Spain. Drake, out of sheer devilment and buoyancy of spirits, must needs stand close in, and “then run by before the whole fleet with the flag of St. George waving defiance at his masthead, and his silken pennants and ensigns floating down to the water to bid them a mocking farewell.”