The Amazing Cartagena de Indias described and imagined by Gabriel García MárquezOctober 29, 2018
Many years ago I was haunted when I read the novel by Gabriel García Márquez Love and Other Demons. And immediately I proposed that I had to go to see the extraordinary city where amazing and incredible things happened.
But that was in 1994, when the novel was published. I immediately wrote a review in which I called the author an exorcist, because “Demonic possession is not so much reflected in the supposed demoniac as in that of its worshipers,” I said. That is what seemed to come from his narrative text.
The author combined his experience living and working in Cartagena, Colombia, and his knowledge of the history of the West Indies with his ability to tell it as if it were fantastic. It was like a Byzantine novel, heir to the novel of chivalry, like that of the four volumes of Amadís de Gaula, which he cites in this novel as a forbidden book, but also admired. Since it is a style of excesses in the anecdote, with a restraint and appearance of realism when making the story. It is a plot with nooks and crannies, in the style of the eighteenth-century picaresque novel, as Manon Lescaut or Tom Jones.
But it took many years for me to travel to Cartagena de Indias and when I arrived, I dedicated myself to searching the city for everything that I imagined when reading its narrations. In fact, there is a pedestrian tour of foods and places that is related to the novels of the author, especially Love in the times of cholera, which is one of my favorites and which also develops in this ancient city.
Love and Other Demons
But in Love and demons The main and very special point of view is in the old Convent of Santa Clara, which is what gives the name to the hotel that now occupies that site, because we saw the crypt where the woman was buried, who -asupposedly- continued to grow the hair after death. It is below what is now a bar in the hotel.
The real discovery that was made when they were demolishing the convent to manufacture the hotel, inspired García Márquez to write about a girl imagined in a legend, named Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles, daughter of the Marqués de Casalduero, who, like the Rapunzel of the children’s stories, her hair grew until they crawled on the floor, and that like her, she wore in braids of several turns. Like Rapunzel, Sierva María is locked in a tower of the convent of Santa Clara. And in the same way a strange man appears to him, who comes to save it, the priest Cayetano de Laura, sponsored by the Bishop and to whom a destiny of librarian in the Vatican is predicted to him.
Sierva Maria is believed to be demonized, after being bitten by a rabid dog, but the girl’s demon enters her savior who falls in love with her like a slave. This does not save her from cutting her beautiful coppery braids in an exorcizing ceremony that the narrator imitates when telling the story.
This is supposedly a journalist, García Márquez himself, who becomes a narrator when signing in Cartagena de Indias, and with his name, the prologue to the novel. All this happened in 1949, when his boss in the newspaper where he worked sent him to see what “journalistic color” there was in the demolition of the convent.
In the excavations of the crypts of the convent he saw what he believed were the remains of the exorcised Servant Mary. After 200 years, it was just a pile of bones with long coppery hair. So long, it had grown 22 meters and 11 centimeters. Actually it was a story, a legend that he remembered from his grandmother’s stories. A marquesita with hair as long as a bride’s tail, had died from the bite of a rabid dog and was “venerated in the Caribbean towns” for her many miracles.
This is how we feel transported to the magic story behind the beautiful decorative details of the Hotel Santa Clara, and its fabulous tropical patio.
García Márquez, illustrious inhabitant of Cartagena de Indias, has answered in an interview that journalism helped him to keep his feet on the ground, and then go back to literature. “It’s the raw material I work with,” he said then.
An undefined something, a rare mulatez in the description, is what stands out, nevertheless in the novel, as a mixture of leathers and sounds and strange verbs, of postmodernist imitations, that can be seen in: “Indian stalls”; “Drawbridge of the suburb”; “sea the leva”; “Solferine coloration”; “Bedouin djellaba”; “Checkered marbles”; “Oppressive relent of laziness and darkness.” It is something that resembles the racial concoction, the Yoruba, Mandinga, Congo, Abyssinian, Jewish and Christian world that gives life to the characters and that one is in Cartagena de Indias.
Hence the validity of reading it before going to that city. Because there we find folklore in the dancers in the parks, in front of the churches, with the fruit vendors in vivid colorful costumes.
It is all a kind of paradisiacal tropical environment, painted in full color, a great lush scenography for the delight of the senses, which begins with a sale of slaves in the square that still has its place there. The slave trade invaded the center of people’s houses with their masks and beliefs.
Precisely there was a very special space for the sick in the church and the convent that we went to see in one of our excursions around the city, the San Pedro Claver. It is an 18th century temple of the Jesuit order, which houses the remains of the saint.
San Pedro Claver (deceased in 1654) was a priest who tried to redeem the black slaves of New Granada, which was what Colombia was called at the time of the colony. After the church, the old convent that was part of the religious group, is now converted into a museum of art collections of the Afro-Caribbean culture. And it is that when Pedro Claver arrives at Cartagena in 1610, of the 6,000 inhabitants that the city had 5,000 were black.
Love in the times of cholera
In Cartagena there is still a square where the market used to meet formerly, and even today for tourists. It is appreciated just by crossing the famous Clock Tower, and is surrounded by old mansions of the sixteenth century with balconies of vivid colors in wood, and arch arches, where they sell many jars of preserves and sweets, true delicacies of the Caribbean coast in the Portal of the Sweets, With its aromas of jams, guava and almonds that portal is the famous Portal of the Scribes in the novel, Love in the times of cholera, and that is where the Cartagena de García Márquez route begins. Because that’s where the waiting for love between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza begins, which lasts 51 years, nine months and four days.
The square opposite was also a parking lot for horse-drawn carriages, and still has picturesque floats waiting for passengers, when no festival is being held. At the center stands the statue of Pedro de Heredia, founder of the city in 1533.
Also in front of the Tower is the old port from where the ships of the business of Florentino Ariza, the eternal lover of Fermina Daza, and improvised Don Juan upside down, because the man is besieged by women. The Fluvial Company of the Caribbean Company is where your path to riches begins.
The shipping is revealed from the beginning of history when he is operator of the telegraph, and the postal agency depends on the ships that arrive at the port, the Liverpool, the United States, or the French. Even today Cartagena is the fluvial and maritime port with the greatest movement. At its docks, about 100 ships dock per month. And there moves 50 percent of the total load of the country. It is a bay that connects Colombia with 140 countries in the world and generates more than 30,000 jobs.
Under the Torre del Reloj the books of García Márquez are sold, called Gabo by their friends and they announce it in the well-stocked bookshop. The first paragraph of Love in the times of cholera already alludes to chess, which is the formula that must be followed to read the novel and walk the streets of the walled city, a plot a bit convoluted in different ways. And he names Capablanca, the famous Cuban international chess player of that time.
In its descriptions the smell of the city is perceived: of almonds, mangoes, water of colony, lemonade. He speaks of the neighborhood of Los Virreyes, because the Viceroys of Nueva Granada lived there, and it is the area where the patients of the doctor Juvenal Urbino lived, the husband of Fermina Daza. But they had their residence in the traditional residential neighborhood of La Manga, on the other side of the bay. And it also describes the old slave quarter, where Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s mistress was, and where the doctor had to go, despite being disturbed by “the heaviness of the swamps” of a certain pestilence that was evident in its streets muddy.
Describe the entire city before it became tourist and it is a delight to read it. And above all, he comments on the operatic events in the old theater of comedy, which we saw very close to our hotel.
Pirates, buccaneers and religious
Upon landing, we realize that there are two wings of this city, full of military history and the romantic and adventurous memory of pirates, corsairs, filibusters and buccaneers. Boca Grande is in front of the beaches with its tall buildings. And the walled city around the Bay. From the airport on the road that took us to the hotel, we saw the beaches on our right and the modern buildings of Boca Grande on our left.
We stayed at the Monterrey hotel that is being completely restored and has the advantage of being in front of the parks that divide it from the arcade with the Clock Tower, the main entrance to the old walled city. That night we had dinner at the hotel restaurant, exquisite fish, which is what abounds in Cartagena.
It is a coastal city that enclosed the treasures of the Empire to be taken into the fleet on its return to Spain. That’s why she was constantly attacked. And it became walled and with one of the most impregnable forts in the Caribbean, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
Our guide Joyce takes us there from the first day. Originally built in 1536, the castle was rebuilt in 1657, and considered the most outstanding work of Spanish military engineering in America, which, like the historic center of the city of Cartagena de Indias and its set of fortifications, has been declared a World Heritage Site. of Humanity by UNESCO.
We climbed the hills where it stands, 135 feet (45 meters) above sea level and under a hot sun that inspired me to buy right there at the entrance a wide-brimmed hat with the colors of the Colombian flag. The fort is a monumental set of walls with wide bases that are then fine-tuned as they reach height. From there the panoramic view of the bay is sensational. There is also a rather austere apartment for the one who was the captain of the installation, the house of Castilian. The history that endorses it is that the English could never beat it. Its complex system of tunnels was another attractive escape from the sun and filled us with admiration for its advantages to hide from adversaries. The castle is a kind of pyramid surrounded by batteries, the Santa Bárbara, San Carlos, Los Apóstoles, Del Hornabeque, the Cross, the Redemption and San Lázaro, which was the original name of the castle. The siege of Cartagena began when it was only 13 years old. The French corsair Roberto Baal assaulted her with a thousand men in 1546. And he continued with the French pirates Pointis and Ducasse, and Englishmen like Drake and Vernon.
On the same excursion we arrive at Cerro de la Popa (because it looks like the stern of a galley), which admits that there was another important pillar in the colonization of America: the prayers to free them from the pirates and buccaneers. On top of it there is a colonial church and convent, those of the Order of Augustinian Recollects built between 1609 and 1611. The cloister of the convent is a beautiful building, and the Church has important relics of its devotees. This was a center of pre-Christian worship.
In the years of the Colony there was a clandestine shrine where African Indians and slaves worshiped a deity called “Buziriaco” or “Cabro Urí” who had the appearance of a goat. Legend has it that Fra Alonso de la Cruz Paredes, a religious of this order, received in a dream the order of the Virgin Mary to erect a monastery in the highest place of a coastal city. This is how the monk traveled to Cartagena and chose this hill. Upon his arrival in the city he threw the Busiraco goat downhill. His cult was then replaced by that of the venerated image of the Virgen de la Candelaria, a painting of colonial origin that represents the black virgin and is now the patron saint of the city of Cartagena de Indias. In the celebrations of this Virgin came the rhythm of the cumbia. There, Pope John Paul II canonically crowned the Virgin on Sunday, July 6, 1986, during his apostolic visit to Cartagena.
At dusk, a walk through the streets and parks, perhaps by horse-drawn carriage, and later dinner in one of the fabulous restaurants of varied culinary offerings, ends our search for the magic of this city that inspired García Márquez to be his best historian and chronicler.
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