Tahira Yaqoob visits Cartagena in Colombia, the fabled home of the author Gabriel García Márquez.
Life in Cartagena, the city of Gabo
When the late author Gabriel García Márquez took a Spanish guest on a tour of his beloved Cartagena, his visitor was left dismayed.
Illusions shattered, his guest and one-time fan turned to him and said: “You’re just a notary without imagination.”
Or so the story goes. Wandering the streets of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, one of the seats of the Spanish empire, gazing out over the Caribbean, where galleons loaded with gold and silver once plied the shores, it’s easy to see exactly what he meant.
With the appeal of a chocolate box that’s almost too twee, like gorging on too many sugared almonds, it needs little imagination to picture the city during the time of the great, monied viceroys of the 18th century, whose “marble palaces and golden altars” still stand proud, nor to imagine what pirates and invaders – including Sir Francis Drake – first saw as they scrambled ashore in repeat and often futile attacks on the city’s formidable defence walls and forts.
Colombia, with its history of political warfare, drug barons and stark divides between the uber-wealthy and the poverty-stricken, is not yet on the tourist trail and a still relatively undiscovered part of Latin America, even for the more adventurous. Cartagena has long been an exception, with a Unesco World Heritage site and tropical islands rivalling anything in the Maldives.
It might take less than half an hour to cross from one end of the ancient walled city to the other on foot, but winding through its twisting streets, bursting with colonial mansions complete with wooden overhanging balconies wreathed in bougainvillaea, stunning churches and horse-drawn carriages, takes infinitely longer and breathes life into the novels that made García Márquez a literary genius and national treasure.
It took me a while to fully appreciate “Gabo”, who died in April this year. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude as a student, then dawdled and repeatedly stopped and restarted Love in the Time of Cholera. One hundred pages in came Fermina Daza’s seemingly arbitrary rejection of Florentino Ariza, breathtaking in its cruelty – and I was hopelessly hooked.
Gabo had an ability to convey the full spectrum of emotion and the melancholy of the human condition. His mark is indelibly imprinted everywhere you turn in Cartagena, the grand stage upon which many of his extraordinary tales, blending magical realism, epic loves and the stealthy march of death and decay, were played out.
Here you will find the Arcade of the Scribes (Portal de los Dulces in reality), where Ariza penned love letters for the illiterate and was so roundly rejected; the Little Park of the Evangelists (Plaza Fernandez de Madrid), where he watched his love, and the white mansion and palace that inspired Daza’s fictional home and school; and Plaza de la Paz, the setting for The General in his Labyrinth.
Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth and Of Love and Other Demons tell the story of a city brimming with romantic promise, historical conquests and ruinous undertones.
An excellent, self-guided audio tour retraces the author’s steps, both real and imagined. García Márquez first arrived in Cartagena in 1948 with “only a shirt on his back, four pesos and a cigarette”, on the run from violence and political riots in the capital, Bogota. He collapsed in Bolivar Park – today, a tranquil, shaded spot surrounded by museums and prettily painted churches – and was thrown into a police cell.
García Márquez described his character Dr Juvenal Urbino as having an “almost maniacal love for the city and a knowledge of it superior to anyone’s,” but he could have been referring to himself.
Cartagena’s fortified old town brings history vividly to life. The former seat of the aristocracy and a wealthy shipping port for precious metals mined in Peru, first founded in 1533, was left to ruin in the past century, but canny investors from Bogota and Medellin bought the ramshackle houses for a song three decades ago, restored them and made the city a tourist magnet.
Today, those homes of old colonial viceroys are painted vivid, tropical colours from butter yellow, burnt sienna and ochre to azure and terracotta, giving the impression of a city perpetually bathed in sunlight.
Many have been converted into boutique hotels, including the charming Casa del Arzobispado, the former home of a 17th-century independence fighter. Behind wrought-iron gates, 10 lofty rooms with all mod cons, timber beams and high ceilings encircle an open central courtyard with a swimming pool.
Breakfast consists of arepas, little deep-fried puffed parcels filled with cheese and egg, washed down with delicious Colombian coffee, while there’s no menu for lunch – the chef presents me with a plate of exquisitely grilled fish with a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of olive oil.
The fruits of the sea are on every menu in town, from La Cevicheria, which offers a mouthwatering platter of three different ceviches for Dh55, to La Vitrola, one of Gabo’s favourite spots, with live music and a menu boasting octopus carpaccio (Dh40) and zarzuela de mariscos (seafood casserole in coconut milk; Dh112).
On hot afternoons, the walled city falls into a soporific lull. Wooden shutters close for the hours of siesta and the sleepy silence of García Márquez’s “amethyst afternoons” pervades, broken only by the clop-clop of horses and carts towing tourists on pricey US$50 (Dh184) tours.
It’s the perfect time to dawdle over a Juan Valdez brew in the Plaza Santo Domingo and admire the skewed bell tower of the Santo Domingo church, said to have been twisted by the devil and an inspiration for Gabo’s magical realism.
The fascinating Inquisition Palace is another way to while away a few hours. One of three seats of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas, the 1770s palace has been well preserved, complete with a 1317 bell inscribed in Arabic (thought to have been brought by Spanish Moors shipped to the new colonies), gruesome torture chambers and a detailed history of Cartagena’s role in the trade of slaves from Africa.
In a contrast that still exists to this day, Cartagena is a city of two parts, gentrified within the old walls and an urban sprawl without. Beyond the walls and the San Felipe de Barajas castle with its maze of tunnels, the Miami-like Bocagrande teems with hotels and high-rises, while La Manga is more residential, with a marina and seafood restaurants.
Step outside the ancient fortifications and the shock of gritty Colombian street life hits you. Street vendors ply their wares in the square where slaves were once traded, while the neighbouring Getsemani, where slaves lived, still has a seedy air, although it now boasts hip restaurants and nightclubs.
“Out of the sordid taverns came the thunder of riotous music,” wrote García Márquez, and, two years ago, Hillary Clinton was pictured dancing the night away in the district’s Cafe Havana, a heaving mass of bodies gyrating to “son” music in a club recreating the atmosphere of the Cuban golden age of the 1950s. But, like most South American cities, it’s unwise to walk the streets after dark.
García Márquez was not unaware of his city’s flaws and wrote of the “viceroys rotting with plague inside their armour” and “ruined palaces”.
But one magnificent building that has been returned to its former glory and evokes the author’s work perhaps more vividly than any other is the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, a 17th-century convent once run by Clarissa nuns.
Tropical foliage fills an open central courtyard and birds swoop down from palm trees to feast on leftovers from guests dining under the cloisters. At breakfast, the writer Ben Okri is deep in conversation at the next table with the British former newspaper editor Rosie Boycott. It’s that kind of place.
The rooms are starkly modern by contrast, with whitewashed walls and bougainvillaea-adorned balconies overlooking the Caribbean. Thrillingly, the corridor outside my room affords a peek into the grounds of García Márquez’s terracotta villa next door, where he spent winters away from his last home in Mexico City.
The hotel runs day trips to San Pedro de Majagua in the Rosario Islands, a 90-minute boat ride away, for about Dh320. Swinging from a hammock strung between palms and gazing out over the crystal clear Caribbean waters and white sands, it’s easy to picture why those first buccaneers were so keen to wash up on these shores.
Gabo was often seen in the Santa Clara’s El Coro bar, an atmospheric, low-lit venue with crumbling steps leading down to a crypt, where, as a reporter, he was once sent to investigate a tip that the skeleton of a girl with a 22-metre mane had been found. That episode inspired Of Love and Other Demons.
Every January, the hotel becomes a literary salon heaving with authors gathering for the Hay literature festival, a cousin of the British event of the same name and drawing the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Irvine Welsh, Joumana Haddad, the BBC screenplay writer Andrew Davies and the native writer Juan Carlos Botero.
Queues of culture-hungry Colombians snake around churches and along streets, thronging to venues across the city to hear authors that they have never heard of. The whole city exudes a rarefied atmosphere of arts, culture and learning, mariachi bands walk the streets and live cumbia music fills the air.
The great Gabo might have left this world, but the magic spell cast by his novels still lingers on.
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