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June 13, 2012updated 28 Jan 2016 6:05pm

Cartagena’s Book Festival

By Clive Aslet

A La Cartagena

Clive Aslet turns over a new leaf and visits Cartagena, the historic but decidedly cool Colombian city that never sleeps, even during book festivals

GOING TO A book festival wouldn’t normally arouse fears about personal safety. Admittedly, literary types hold strong opinions about their reading matter, and in these times of change for the book industry, publishers are being forced to take increasingly desperate measures; but actual violence, no.

Cartagena, on the other hand, is in Colombia. ‘Really,’ gasped my sister-in-law, who is no ingénue as regards South America, being married to an economist who specialises in it. ‘It’s the kidnap capital of the world.’ My youngest son burst into tears.

So the experience of arriving at a 17th-century town, wholly enclosed by ramparts, was intense. Delight was given a keener edge by relief. (Memo to self: remember this technique for the next family holiday. Lower expectations by saying we’re about to visit a sewage-infested swamp and they’ll be overjoyed to find it’s Venice.) Cartagena is charming. The streets are painted in the sort of colours that would get you arrested if you tried them in a British conservation area: raspberry, ultramarine, mustard, lime green: thank goodness they fade over time.

Gabriel García Márquez, who studied at the university here, has one that’s orange. His is new. Most of the streets, though, are old, very old, overlooked by balconies carved from mahogany. From the outside, the balconies are about all you can see of the houses, the entrances to which are closed by impenetrable doors. They like their door furniture over here: brass knockers come in the shape of geckos, pairs of cupids, two fish meeting in a ring, some reproduction but some old. Georgian London was plagued by a form of criminal known as a knocker-wrencher, who specialised in prising elegant handles and knockers from doors. Today, lead is stolen from church roofs and copper from railway signals; but Cartagena can put on a display of ironmongery without having it pinched. Remarkable.

Often there will be a builder’s cart or tricycle — the streets are too narrow to park cars — outside one of the houses, the door will be open and you can peer in. There will be a courtyard, surrounded by round-headed arches — roughly carved because the stone used by the Spanish who founded this town was coral. The shells are still plainly visible in it, sometimes spectacularly so.

If you came to Cartagena for shabby destitution, you’d be twenty years too late. One by one, the properties, which change hands for millions, are being done up. Because the process of transformation has been taking place in the design-conscious 21st century, the results are breathtakingly cool. I stayed in a house, now a boutique hotel, where the courtyard is a pool. The painted decoration on the walls of the rooms had been preserved, although the fittings were modern. The view from the roof terrace (another pool) was one of the most romantic in the world.

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The Spanish didn’t build just houses but also Baroque churches, monasteries, squares, arcades. You look out over pantiled roofs and belfries to the sea. There’s a port and — this is where Cartagena has been clever — a new city of high-rise blocks along the bay. Historic Cartagena has been preserved.

I daresay it isn’t perfect. You probably wouldn’t want to visit the new city unless you had specific and possibly unsavoury tastes (or so rumour has it). I stayed in the old city, which is now a highly civilised resort for the ultra-rich. Heavens, the Hay-on-Wye people have laid on a literary festival. Who would want anything more than that?

Like Hay, Cartagena is in need of a lift. It isn’t only HNWs; it would be dull if it were. There are still colourfully dressed women selling fruit, street vendors slice open coconuts with machetes or offer trays of avocados. The area around the Parque Centenario, its peeling yellow gateway proclaiming that it was created in 1911 after a century of independence, might still be described as up-and-coming. Graffiti threaten to visit vivid punishments on those who piss in the streets. Christmas was celebrated, in one alleyway, by erecting home-made bunting, hung with hundreds of white plastic carrier bags. When there’s a breeze, they gracefully fill with air.

THIS BEING THE Caribbean, a lot goes on in the street. Huge loudspeakers are rigged up in squares so the population can share in the local dance music of champeta. Two young men couldn’t help moving rhythmically while concentrating on a chess game. It’s not a place for early nights or anyone sensitive to noise.

As I strolled back towards the old city from the port, some time after midnight, I saw a trumpeter playing as he walked to a bar. For him the night was just beginning. I had arranged to cycle around the ramparts with friends before leaving for home. We’ll get up early, they said, before it gets hot. I duly awoke at 7am and found them up; only they hadn’t been to bed. Cartagena is that sort of place. Catch it now. Money is rolling in. The bohemianism won’t last for ever. Is it safe? Much like anywhere else. One man was shot the weekend I was there, but, darling, nobody one knew.

Read more by Clive Aslet

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