27 July 2007 | New Carthage
Cartagena means New Carthage, the name given to the town when they conquered it from the Phonecians. People have been fighting over this natural harbour, its defensible hills and fertile hinterland for 3000 years. It's in a great strategic position too, on the trade routes along the coast and a good landfall from the Balearics, Italy and (as for us) North Africa.
We're a bit touristed out after Grenada, but we have visited the Castillo de la Concepcion and the Civil War air-raid shelters, as well as taking the tourist bus. The latter is just right; not too long nor too short and a good bite of information.
The Castillo is very well presented, and must be the most disabled accessible ancient monument we've ever seen. It has a good interactive exhibition, showing how the town grew and shrunk over the centuries. It got a big boost when the fervid swamp of an inland sea to the north was drained, which stopped lots of diseases and allowed expansion. There was another big boost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due both to being fleet HQ and lots of mining. Today it is recovering from major economic collapse in the 1980's, and relying heavily on tourism, the large commercial port and the Navy to do it.
In between, of course, lies the rarely-mentioned 'extreme agitations' of the later 1930's, aka the Spanish Civil War. Cartagena was the HQ of the Republican fleet, used both for the navy effort and to keep Madrid supplied. As a result it was very heavily bombed, even by the standards of that war which saw the first aerial bombardments. The council organised a committee for passive defence, which built a big system of air-raid shelters. Some of these were in the hills that characterise Cartagena, and the ones under the Castillo, in the highest hill, are open to the public.
They are very moving, with recorded interviews with survivors, contemporary films and posters and the like. The first time a bomb was dropped, they had never heard of such a thing, and were all out in the streets watching.
The Civil War is hardly mentioned in Spain, and you rarely see mention of Franco. Giles Tremlett, in his excellent Ghosts of Spain, talks of the deliberate policy of oblivio, forgetting, which followed Franco's death. It was essential to help the country to heal. But now, as people are growing up for whom it is history, not memory, and as they dig up mass graves all over the countryside, now it needs more discussion. The shelters seemed a very good place to start.
The picture is one of the four great water cisterns underneath the castle, a spooky place.