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Monday January 13, 2014: Cartegena, Columbia
We had decided on the 3-hour walking tour of Cartegena as we thought that was the best way to get to know the old section of the city, and we ended up seeing many really nice, old buildings with their second-floor balconies hanging over the streets, often overgrown with bougainvillia in bloom. Our first stop, however, was one of the old Spanish forts protecting the approaches to Cartegena, which during the Spanish Conquest era had been a storage depot for gold and silver looted from the Native Americans.
Several key sites were included in our tour, including an art museum and Pedro's Church. The art museum apparently allowed pictures, and it held an interesting and occasionally amusing collection of paintings, sketches, and very weird types of modern sculpture. The paintings were mostly along the realistic or impressionistic style, so I had no trouble appreciating them.
The sculptures, however, had me scratching my head. One was a line of cast metal heads, without any rhyme or reason that I could see. Another was a cabinet with a metal bust of a man and woman in it, but a full-scale sculpture of the cat. I thought the cat was getting top billing there, but again was not sure why. Another sculpture looked like a huge, store-front ad for an old-fashioned Maidenform girdle, but why so ginormous? Modern art and I really do have a problem communicating, I guess.
In contrast to the art museum, Pedro Claver's Church was of course far more serious. I thought it was quite a pretty church, beautiful stained glass, nice whitewashed walls with archways in them, and so forth. I found a bronze statue of Pedro which I thought was just fine, but having his dead body in a glass case underneath the altar put me off a bit.
In the plaza outside the church we found a series of charming metal sculptures of everyday events. I could identify a couple playing a chess game, but Monika figured out a pair of people playing a game of Dominoes, and I think a third one was of a woman using a sewing machine. Somehow I found these sculptures to be both engaging and humorous, and they represented a nice, almost whimsical side of modern art.
We continued past the central square that contained a small, wooded park with a statue of Simon Bolivar in the center, the liberator of Columbia as well as Peru, Equador, and a couple other South American countries. The square was ringed by government buildings on several sides, including a bank. The oddest thing was an Inquisition Museum in what looked like the original building, which was something we definitely did NOT want to see.
The balconies on many of the old buildings had plants, mainly bougainvilla plants, climbing up to the second and even third floor. When the vines were wound all around the balcony railings and in full bloom, the effect was very impressive.
We ended our perambulation at a building with a long colonnade that had once housed the dungeons of the fort. Nowadays, however, each of the cells had been converted into a separate tourist shop. Although all the shops were basically oriented at the tourist trade, they each had several unique types of art or craft wares that were not in the others. There were about 20 such shops in the dungeons, but we were only given 30 minutes for shopping and could only get through about 10 of them in that time.
I found unframed canvass paintings in one shop, and we picked up a nice Impressionist-style painting of the narrow side street in the old quarter near the basilica. Charming! At another shop they had elegant ladies' sandals, and Monika selected a very pretty multi-strap, ankle-high type of sandal with straps made of a black-and-white basket fronds woven into a geometric pattern. It was unique and fit her size, although she had to wear it a bit to make the straps soft enough that they would not rub on her Achilles tendon.
I really did wonder what we would have found in the remaining 10 shops at the Dungeon, so this was the first time that I have ever wished for more "shopping" time during a shore excursion! That was particularly irksome as our tour returned us to the ship a good hour or so before it sailed at 1:30 p.m. With that limited amount of time at our disposal, we returned to our room to drop things off, had a lightning-quick lunch in the Horizon Court buffet, and then ran back outside to see the small park and zoo (plus gift shop, of course!) at the far end of the dock.
The gift shop was a bust, but the zoo turned out to be more fun than we had expected. About 10 brilliantly colored parrots were screeching, waddling around, and giving us the beady eye, which made for a lively scene. We also ran into some peacocks along the raised boardwalk that zig-zagged through the zoo grounds, and a couple of small monkeys in some wire-mesh cages near the rear exit onto the street. Amazing how human-like the monkeys were, although no bigger than a child's doll, but we didn't try to pet them or anything as monkeys have a strong tendency to bite if they get upset.
We finally rolled back up the gangplank just before the "all aboard" signal and, possibly ennervated by the heat during our morning walk, kind of collapsed for the afternoon. Our overall impression of Cartegena was positive and both of us mentally compared our experience there to our experience in Casablanca, Morocco, during Wanderung 27. In both locales we had expected a somewhat picturesque and romantic "Old Town" section of the city. In Casablanca, the Old Town section was tiny and kind of scattered in several disconnected areas, and as a result we felt that the new, industrial city of Casablanca overwhelmed the experience of the Old Town.
In Cartegena, in contrast, the historic section of the city was largely intact, at least insofar as the authentic facades of the old buildings went, and the experience of walking through it was unalloyed by the hustle and bustle of the modern city of Cartegena with its high rise skyscrapers and modern buildings. We also felt relatively safe in Cartegena as Americans, whereas in Casablanca we definitely felt like outsiders tolerated only for our potential sales value. In a nutshell, we both agreed we would not mind coming back to Cartegena but we would probably skip going back to Casablanca given our druthers.
We watched the domes of old Cartegena as the Coral Princess slowly wound its way out of Cartagena's harbor, and I was surprised to see a submarine plus a couple small warships in the harbor along with the container ships fishermen, and small pleasure craft. Being in a harbor with a submarine that you know could sink you with a single torpedo felt like having dinner with somebody who wears a loaded gun on his hip, a vaguely unsettling experience. Once out of the harbor, the Coral Princess disembarked the local pilot and steamed westward toward the Panama Canal, our next destination, while we had dinner and read a bit before bedtime.
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