A Day in Sunny, Walkable Cartagena (Cartagena, Spain)

Written by Mark McElroy

This shot, taken from our balcony on the Prinsendam, shows just how close the port is to all the sights you want to see in Cartagena.

We’re in Cartagena, Spain. (Say “Car-ta-HAY-na”) An overnight squall has moved out to sea, and that golden sunlight found only in southeastern Spain is streaming down through the last of the ragged clouds. The entire city looks as though it’s been pressure washed on our behalf.

As Clyde and I disembark the Prinsendam, we’re happy to see that Cartagena is a pedestrian-friendly port. In some cities, cruise ships dock in industrial areas, forcing passengers to dodge forklifts and take expensive shuttle rides into town. Here, though, a broad walkway, lined by swaying palm trees, leads us right into the heart of town, and a flat, well-marked 1.5-mile loop guides visitors past all the sites of interest before leading them back to the port.

In my notebook, I jot: “Very walkable. Please don’t buy expensive ship’s excursions here.” (And this is true — if your cruise ship is small enough or lucky enough to dock, as we have, at the main dock. If your ship docks at the alternate dock, you’ll have to choose between a long hike into town or an expensive shuttle bus ticket.)

But then I put my notebook away, because there’s no way to carry it while snapping photos like crazy. Before we’re even out of the harbor, we’re a little stunned by Cartagena’s good looks:


And that, in a nutshell, is our Cartagena experience: every step we take brings us closer to something ancient, or beautiful, or both. It’s a little sobering to walk the streets of a city that’s been around since 300 B.C.

The recently-restored Roman Theatre first opened its doors to eager visitors more than 2,100 years ago. Unfortunately, because today is a local holiday, those theatre doors are locked up tight. But even though we can’t access the stage or the museum, a few stairs and a walkway make it easy to see the ruin … and appreciate how well it blends into the city around it:


Following the same steps down, we reach a spot where we can see the theatre from stage level:


We are not so lucky, though, at Cartagena’s other archeological sites. Due to the local holiday, the Barrio del Foro Romano (an active site, uncovering a 3rd Century BC wall, road, and bath), the Augusteum (a museum exploring a temple and the headquarters of its priests), and the House of Fortune (a 1st Century BC Roman merchant’s home) are all closed up tight. The Barrio del Foro Romano is particularly disappointing, as the ugly green fencing around it seems deliberately designed to prevent pedestrians from catching a glimpse of the site without paying to enter.

Our stroll continues around town to Conception Castle, a 13th century fortress built on the site of an 11th century Muslim fort built on the site of a pre-Christian Roman temple to Asklepio, the god of good health. And while it walking up the long, steep path up the city’s highest hill to the castle might be good for your health, we choose to take the Panoramic Lift:


And it’s a good choice. From one end of the platform at the top, we have an unobstructed view of the old Roman amphitheater (too fragile for visits, just now):


At the other end of the platform, we encounter the first of the castle’s colorful guards, who blocks our path, screeches at us in a high voice, and tries to distract us with an intricate dance:


The peacocks are everywhere — walking the paths, roosting in the trees, lurking overhead on the wooden trellises that line the walkway up to the castle:


The castle itself — particularly the interior — is underwhelming, but the views from the ramparts are well worth the hike. One woman there surprises us by allowing her young son to run along the top of the rampart wall, with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet just a stumble away:


What are people like this thinking?

On the way back to the ship, we stop in at the highly-recommended Confiteria-Pasteleria Davo, known for its fried pies and chocolate-dipped cookies:


The cookie I buy makes a nice snack, but the experience — standing in line, soaking up the cavernous ambience of the place, and chatting in broken Spanish with the locals — is the real prize.

On the way back to the ship, we pause on the broad, pedestrianized main drag of the old town, and I find myself wishing Atlanta would do the very same thing with Peachtree Street:


We get back only an hour before the ship departs; meantime, as we leave town, we see that locals — finally noticing that a huge cruise ship is in port? — are rushing to open the Roman Forum, the House of Fortune, and several restaurants and cafes. Alas, for us (and for them!) it’s too late.

When planing your own trip to Cartagena, plan to give this jewel of a city a minimum of two days; if the attractions are open, you’ll need at least that much time to take in the archeological sites alone. You’ll also want to snag a copy of Tom Sheridan’s “Tom’s Port Guides” for Cartagena. Tom puts a lot of time and effort into his guides, which provide exactly the kind of detail a cruise ship passenger needs, from the location of the port (and whether transportation is needed to get from the port to the city) to detailed walking routes with photos).

His Cartagena port guide helped us make the best use of our short time there. Tom’s guide to Cartagena is the best available … and it’s free.

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Mark McElroy

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