Cartagena . . . in the footsteps of Gabriel García Márquez

The Colombian city is making the most of its long association with the Nobel prize-winning author

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 01:00

It is pronounced Cartahena and this lovely 16th century coastal city in Colombia is as closely associated with Nobel prizewinning author Gabriel García Márquez as Joyce is with Dublin. Marquez memorably portrayed it as a place of “amethyst afternoons and nights of antic breezes”, though arriving on a delayed flight from Bogota in a violent thunderstorm, it seemed more like a place of downpours and antic floods, never mind jewelled afternoons.

Known locally as Gabo or Gabito, the writer once said that all of his books have “loose threads” of Cartagena in them. Unlike Dublin, however, where Joyce is part of the tight warp and weft of the city, there are few public connections to Gabo in Cartagena and it was astonishing to discover that neither Of Love and Other Demons nor Love in the Time of Cholera, two of his great literary achievements informed by this city, were to be found in local bookshops.

All that may be changing as this Caribbean city with its narrow, meandering streets enjoys a renaissance as a global tourist destination and is waking up to the potential of Márquez as a visitor draw.

Building restoration of colourful colonial houses with their carved wooden balconies is continuing apace, with new hotels, boutiques and restaurants opening almost weekly within its old stone ramparts.

Thanks to the efforts of local historians a new audio tour called La Cartagena de García Márquez has just been launched, which, for the first time takes the visitor through the city with stories that identify places and people behind his works and his experience living there.

I took the tour – they give you a headset and a headstart, but you’re on your own – which has 35 stops, mine beginning at his house facing the sea.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, the novel based on the love affair of Márquez’s parents, it is the fictional home of Fermina Diaz with whom Florentino is besotted.

In reality it is where the 85-year-old writer who lives in Mexico often stays in winter, occasionally dropping in to the El Coro bar next door in the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel for a drink. The hotel, a converted 17th century convent, houses a crypt below the bar where in the 1940s, Marquez, then working as a journalist, was sent to investigate a report that the remains of a 12-year-old girl with 70 feet of copper hair had been found there.

That incident formed the basis of his novella Of Love and Other Demons. Free copies are now left in the bedrooms of the hotel which attracts high profile guests and upmarket weddings, but in another life housed nuns who said goodbye to the outside world once they crossed the threshold.

As chaste postulants, apart from their religious duties, they were known to enjoy smoking, “inhaling thick cigars and introducing the part that was lit into their mouths” according to a local history.

Today the hotel’s residents include a toucan called Mateo and tiny musical frogs whose surrealist serenades can be heard at night in the courtyard’s lush vegetation.

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