July 27, 2015
Cartagena is quite a bit different from our previous experiences of Spanish cities on this trip. It seems lighter, somehow, a little less buried in pomp and ceremony, despite being one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula.
It was founded by the Phoenicians, passed to Carthage in North Africa, was the staging ground for Hannibal’s famous elephant-assisted, over-the-Alps, assault on Italy, was then taken and held by the Romans (after they destroyed Carthage), then ruled by Vandals and then Visigoths until the Moorish conquest of Al-Andalus in the 700s.
It’s a wonderful natural harbor – the best in the western Mediterranean – and has been fortified and re-fortified by successive waves of conquerors, drawn by its strategic position and also by the very productive silver mines in the immediate area. In the 1200s the town was taken by King Alphonse X (known, for whatever reason, as “The Wise”). Alphonse, a Christian, drove out the Moorish Spaniards, almost completely depopulating the city. It fell into hundreds of years of hard times, with the population bottoming out around 800 people.
Things picked up when trade with (or plunder of) the New World developed, and by the late 1700s it was a prosperous port city again.
But in the 1930s its history diverged from the other large cities we’ve been in – Cartagena was one of the principle strongholds of the Spanish Republicans in their struggle against the fascist coup led by General Francisco Franco. It was also the only port city held by the Republicans, and thus the only potential point of entry for aid to the elected government of Spain, aid which was late, and paltry, but not entirely non-existent.
As a result, Cartagena, like Guernica in the north, became one of the laboratories in which new methods of warfare were tested out by the German Nazi and Italian fascist air forces. The method, later also adopted by the British and Americans (think Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…) was to terrorize and destroy civilian centers as a means of demoralizing the enemy.
Cartagena was ruthlessly bombed, and bombed again and again. We were surprised and pleased to see a museum devoted to the Civil War, consisting of a series of displays in one of the large underground bomb shelters the Republicans dug into the hills in the city. The museum is very new (obviously, post-Franco) and appears to have been something of an afterthought – but it details the destruction and privation and hunger visited upon this city, which was the very last city in Spain to surrender to the fascist forces. There are loops of video of interviews with older Cartagenians who were children during the bombings. Mostly they express touching, but very passive stories of hardship and fear. Then, one bright-eyed older guy begins to use the word “we.” “We” dug these shelters to survive the bombing, and “our” antiaircraft guns seemed so slow. He had a gleam in his eye, and a clear sense of which side he was on. It was nice to see.
Maybe I’m reading things into the atmosphere, but some of that spirit of independence, pride and defiance seems to persist here. At least there is not the heavy, triumphalist ecclesiastical monumentalism that we saw so much of in Cadiz, and especially in Cordoba.
Just as a side note, there is a wonderful “Museum of Sub-Aquatic Archeology” here by the docks, with many exhibits from historic sunken vessels, great displays on the evolution of naval architecture, and careful explanation of how the science relating to these finds is done. Perhaps more typical of Spanish historical museums, this one stops about 1900…
It’s hot here (like we’re hearing it is in other places) , and humid. We’re looking forward to getting further north. Our next major stop will most likely be Barcelona, hopefully with a couple anchorages and some swimming between here and there.