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Sunday, July 17, 2011, in Cartagena, Spain

Hi all. We’re in Cartagena, working our way farther into the Mediterranean. Last week, we were in the harbor at Puerto Almerimar, just inside the Mediterranean from Gibraltar.

We left Gibraltar as soon as the harbormaster removed the boom that seals off the marina each night. The western wind was strong, between 25 and 30 knots all day, and we sailed into the Mediterranean under jib alone. A strong wind is fine when you’re sailing away from it; it’s not your friend inside the harbor. When we arrived at Benalmadena Marina in Spain in the afternoon, tying up at the fuel dock to check in was like taming a wild bronco. Waves poured in through the shallow entrance, and we banged against the well-fendered dock with our fenders. It was safe, but the jolting about was unsettling, and I had to clip on my cap to keep it from flying off of my head while I was standing still. On the plus side, since I happen to live in a place called “Las Olas” (the waves), I managed to work in a word that wouldn't normally be a part of my limited Spanish vocabulary.

Because harbors tend to be in places protected from waves and wind, they’re usually calmer than the conditions at sea. It does get a little bumpy even in harbor on a windy day at sea, but those are the days that most people actually want to be out sailing. For me, a really rousing day at sea can easily become a macrobiotic form of Ipecac. So I���d rather dock when we can hear each other, where I have more than seconds to fix a line to a cleat, and where the wind isn’t whipping the dinghy from my grasp and out to sea.

The marina provided good support to us when we docked at reception and again when we docked in our berth. We’d expected to moor stern-in, in the normal Mediterranean manner, but we couldn’t possibly manage moving the dinghy in those conditions. We adjusted the lines, set up the bow ladder, and hoped for the best.

Getting off of the boat was a gymnastic feat for me, and getting back on it reminded me of flying the trapeze, this time with a BlackBerry, camera and Kindle swinging from me and water below instead of a fluffy trampoline. But it was part of getting ashore, and once we did, we went to Benalmadena Pueblo, the commercial town up the mountain from the beach. There, we caught a train for Malaga, just to see it.

At about 2,700 years old, Malaga is one of the oldest cities in the world. More recently, the city produced Pablo Picasso and the actor Antonio Bandaras. The name of the city is of Phoenician origin, probably meaning salt, and is derived from the fact that fish was salted in the harbor. Today, tourists get salted on their own through generous sips from marguerita rims.

Most people go to Malaga for the pristine beaches, colorful foliage, and water sports. We were hunting the gigantic El Corte Ingles, our favorite Spanish shop, in the middle of town. Alas, we didn’t need to buy anything and barely could think of anything to look for, but we managed to traverse most of the floors of this shopping haven before we wore ourselves out and took ourselves home.

The next day’s weather was calm and surprisingly cool, and our motor took us along the coast to a small holiday town called Caleta de Velez. For us, it was an overnight stopping-point on our way to Cartagena, so we didn’t need much of a town to amuse us. The harbormaster told us that it was a very quiet place, except it wouldn’t be for the day we were there. Normally, the field next to the marina was empty, but once a year, it’s occupied by a traveling amusement park. This was the night, and he warned us that it would be noisy. He said that one boat he knew had specifically come to the marina to avoid the crowds and noise of the Costa del Sol everywhere else. Too bad for him. The harbormaster sighed, thinking about it. Because we generally sleep through everything, we weren’t worried, and in fact there was a little noise through the boat, but nothing serious.

We motored out in the morning. This was the Mediterranean sailing I remembered: fluky wind, flat seas, sailing straight lines from port to port. We sailed for some of it, and motored for some. Sometimes, we’d be sailing quite fast, and all of a sudden, the wind would drop off and we’d have to motor. When we’d be coursing along in a flat sea, hearing only the flap of a sail or the splash of water against the hull, I felt a little guilty that I’d ever want to motor. I tried to feel sorrier for Art that I don’t have the same fondness for wind that he does, but compassion isn’t my overriding quality. Apparently, it’s seasickness.

With all of the sailing and not sailing during the day, it was about 6:30 in the evening when we arrived at Puerto Almerimar. Spain’s Mediterranean marinas seem to want you to dock at a reception quay, even when you’ve talked to the harbormaster several times on the telephone, called in on the VHF upon arrival at the harbor, and are visible in the entrance to the marina. This was a real inconvenience in Benalmadena, when docking once was difficult in the weather, and docking twice just seemed like sadism. It was more pleasant at Puerto Almerimar, but it didn’t make up for the time we had to spend just to get assigned to a berth.

The marina is well-protected by a long breakwater, and the facilities are well-executed. We docked at the reception quay, and Art went inside. He had to wait for a French boat to finish registering. The harbormaster was fluent in French for them, English for us, and of course Spanish for the marineros who help us dock. It took about an hour for him to review our ship’s papers, write up a paper application for us, type the contents of the application into the PC, lend us an electrical adapter and entry keys, and assign us a spot. Someone met us at the berth and helped us dock.

After we were docked, we realized that they’d assigned us to a berth that was simply too short for us. The mooring line on the starboard cleat at our bow, the one that’s supposed to pull us forward and away from the dock, dove straight down to wherever it was attached below us. A call to the marina office dispatched our marinero to help us again; he retrieved a second, more distant mooring line, which we cleated on the port side of the bow. This was better. He then suggested that we add yet another mooring line, which we did, on top of the second line. The forecast was for mild winds, but we were rigged pretty cautiously at this point. By the time we were finished with registration and docking, about two hours had gone by. Nearby, I heard someone tune a guitar and then accompany his own singing of flamenco music. I couldn’t tell whether it was someone on a boat in the marina or a professional singing in the restaurant next door.

I looked around the huge marina. It wasn’t even half-filled with boats. Empty marinas have been a common sight this season, but I’ve been attributing this to the time of the season, first, that it hadn’t gotten warm yet, and then, that the kids were still in school.

The town surrounding the marina is no doubt a typical Costa del Sol development. Windswept, decades-old housing that really needs painting has been augmented by recent, unfinished buildings that were no doubt the casualty of the recent recession. Many of the units, new and old, appear to be empty. Some of the first-level retail spaces are offered for rent, or bricked-in, or bricked-in and offered for rent anyway. There’s nothing of historical significance, and the restaurants have a decidedly British sensibility, complete with English-language signs and specials tied to English sporting events. The best part of the town is the enormous supermarket. Still, I had the uneasy sense that Almerimar is an Epcot version of travel to Spain, complete with institutional food translated for the tourist palate and with the obligatory gift shop placed between you and the exit.

The next morning, we set off again along the Costa del Sol. Our next real destination would be Cartagena, but the trip was simply too long to make in one day. Yes, we could probably leave early and arrive late, but we’d have to motor, even when we’d have enough wind to sail just shy of fast enough. So we picked out two stops along the way. One was about twenty miles short of Cartagena; by afternoon, we knew we wouldn’t get there. The other was the marina in a town called Garrucha. We’d called ahead and read the cruising guide, and it appeared to be a place that anchoring was possible, but frowned upon, and that we could tie up at the fuel dock overnight. When we got there, it didn’t look like anchoring was an option, and the dockmaster was there to help us tie up. We were both a little disappointed that we couldn’t anchor, which is easy in, easy out in places where you don’t need to go ashore. But the marina was fine, we thought.

Garrucha’s harbor didn’t resemble the rendering in the cruising guide, and we could see from various online posts – and our own eyes – that the harbor had been expanded significantly in the last few years. It isn’t necessarily the most photogenic option, but I liked that the side against the land was for pleasure boats, and the side against the breakwater was lined with cargo vessels. Though Garrucha was once a trade capital, it now spends most of its commercial energy on exporting locally-mined gypsum, mostly used as a finish for drywall.

Because we were in a marina, we did take a short walk along the streetside promenade after dinner. This was the first time we saw what locals call the paseo, the evening stroll along some agreed-upon paved surface in a town. This was also the first time we saw anything resembling a summer holiday crowd.

It’s always necessary to retain a perspective of where you are, where you need to be at the end of the season, and what stands between you and your destination. For us, we’re ahead of the itinerary, which means that we don’t have to take any risks at all to get to Barcelona when we need to be there. This makes for a good sailing relationship between us and the Mediterranean Sea.

We’ve already had some experience sailing on the Med, and on this boat, we’ve sailed most often in, let’s say, more challenging waters. The Med is simply an easy place to get on a boat and travel. It’s deep until you get to your harbor (and sometimes there as well.), There aren’t any buoys or areas of danger. Instead of crafting a snaky route to avoid one shallow spot or some other threat, you could simply leave a harbor, set a single waypoint, and go a straight line (if the wind lets you) to your next harbor. It’s rare that there’s a wave or even an annoying swell. Much of the time, it’s like sailing on a lake.

In exchange for all that comfort, the Med’s problem is that the wind can be light and fluky. Thus, if your goal is to sail as much as possible, and with European fuel costs, that’s always a smart idea, then you need to manage when you’re at sea. You need to pick days when the wind is forecast to be blowing from the right direction. With our constant Internet access, it’s never been easier to get great forecasts that cover exactly the route we’re planning to take.

You need to leave plenty of hours from departure to arrival, so that you aren’t stuck with two remaining hours of daylight and fifteen miles to go. You need to be patient, and be willing to sail at a low speed, knowing that the wind will probably kick up. In the meantime, you get to waft across a blue carpet. I confess that this makes me completely forget that I hate to sail. This is fabulous.

And the next day, we arrived in Cartagena. Art was ebullient from the beauty of the voyage, and I willingly admit that it was glorious. The coast alternated between flat, agricultural tidiness and mountains jutting into the sea.

It took all day to go forty miles, but in Spain, this means that our late-afternoon arrival occurred around lunchtime. We motored past protective fortifications built over the last two thousand years. Inside the marina, the harbormaster directed us to a concrete quay, where a marinero emerged from a golf cart to help us with our lines and presciently lend us an electrical adapter. Across the harbor, the breakwater was festooned with Navy ships. Cartagena is the Mediterranean base for Spain’s navy and the base for its submarines.

In the morning, we left the marina to get our first look at the town. We began our walk along the waterfront, where we saw the prototype of the first submarine, designed by local homeboy Isaac Peral in 1884. The city has invested in the boulevard between the water and the original town wall, and there are open spaces, marble figures in the park, a multitude of street lamps, and bronze sculptures of ordinary people permanently seated on benches or strolling across the town square. The entrance to the city from the marina is really lovely.

The Calle Mayor is the main shopping street in town, and it’s lined with circa-1900 buildings in the Modernist style. We didn’t really have any expectations, and we’d spent the last week or two in towns filled with concrete Spanish-style apartment blocks. So the architecture of Cartagena amazed us. The town was built during a period of great wealth, primarily from mining, and the buildings are stunning, with curved ironwork balconies, carvings, glasswork, and cupolas. The tourist information center is in a striking building that now houses the city hall. Many of the other modernist buildings are now owned by banks. The Casa Cervantes overlooks and nearly overpowers the walking street (although I’m pretty sure that the author Cervantes didn’t live in this town and was long gone centuries before this building was erected. I don’t care how many windmills he conquered; there’s no way he could have afforded this mansion.) We had lunch in a former casino.

Cartagena was founded in 227 BC by Hasdrubal, the brother-in-law of Hannibal, a general best known for crossing the Alps with tens of thousands of soldiers and a well-known cadre of elephants. In fact, Cartagena was settled during the Punic Wars, when Carthage was fighting Rome for control of the western Mediterranean. The city is apparently the first in the ancient world to have a sewage system, even before the Romans did, apparently stringing together amphorae that had retired from their oil-storage careers (let’s hope so, anyway.) The name originally was “New Carthage” as a western European base for the Carthaginians. Hannibal left his brother, also named Hasdrubal, in charge of Cartagena while he was off crossing mountains with his elephants. The name Hasdrubal was apparently the Jennifer of its time. Anyway, back on the Iberian Peninsula, things didn’t go well for them, and the Romans took over.

Apparently the Romans left behind a lot that went unnoticed for centuries. In 1987, someone realized that Cartagena sits on top of an entire Roman city. In 1988, they discovered the 1st-century-BC Roman amphitheater in the middle of the town. An enormous excavation and restoration project has only recently been opened to the public. There’s a modernist building on the main walking street, which has been transformed into a museum, complete with flat-screens that let you reconstruct what the place has looked like over the years, how it was built by the Romans, with pulleys and keystones and a contraption that lifts heavy objects when a man walks around the inside of a wheel like a hamster. Marble statues, capitals from columns, and miscellaneous objects are displayed with descriptions in Spanish and English. You’re shepherded up escalators and from room to room and finally you cross through the crypt of a ruined 13th century church. On the floor of the crypt are the remains of a Roman house.

You keep walking through the maze of museum, and you come out in a middle level of the amphitheater itself. It’s familiar at once: portions of reconstructed columns that were shown in an animation in the museum, a replicated lintel that looks just like the real one indoors, carved with the names of various Caesars honored, misshapen keystones that immediately bring to mind the innovative construction shown in the displays.

During most of July, Cartagena hosts the La Mer de Musicas (the Sea of Music) festival. Dozens of international acts of all genres perform in venues around the town. There are free concerts in the main square in front of City Hall, and ticketed concerts in parks, cathedrals, and castles. America will be represented sometime after our departure by Cyndi Lauper and Mavis Staples. We weren’t really candidates for the real concerts anyway. In accordance with the normal schedule in Spain, the first evening show would begin just after an early dinner, at 11 PM. The next show would be scheduled to start at 2:30 AM, on any night, not just on Saturday.

The show we managed to see was of a Yemeni/Israeli group called Yemen Blues. It’s a motley mix of men and women, a viola, a cello, someone on the guitar or the mandolin, a switch sometimes made mid-song. There’s a wind section of flute, trumpet and trombone (there’s something very cool about a woman playing the trombone.) There were two percussionists with anything but normal drums. Sometimes it was bongos, or cymbals. They hit what looked like a tortoise’s back with drumsticks, and later picked the thing up and shook it to release jingles from the bells that were draped all around it. One of them struck a large olive oil can with what looked to be a necklace made out of mussel shells. There were maracas – an amphora perhaps filled with beads. The energetic lead singer sometimes played a long thin guitar. They sang in Hebrew and Creole and undoubtedly other languages, and talked to the audience in English but never Spanish. The music wasn’t blues, despite the name, but it had a jazzy sort of ambiance and a definite Middle Eastern origin. Art said that they sounded like a Middle Eastern Chicago Transit Authority, that well-orchestrated group of the late 60s and early 70s. Actually, here in Spain, it’s probably appropriate to ask, “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?”

And now a diversion into one of our favorite parts of Spain, the menú del día. The menu of the day comes in a variety of permutations, but most often it’s a starter, main dish, and dessert or coffee (as if you’d ever get coffee instead of a nice flan.) The beverage and bread are included, as well as tax, and for practical purposes, the tip. So for eight to ten euros, you get a meal that is local and often substantial enough that you don’t eat much of a dinner later.

Normally, the dishes are, well, not lavish, maybe a small dish of paella for a starter followed by grilled meat or fish with fries as a main. But once in a while, someone knocks your socks off. We stopped at a restaurant in the shopping district (the real one, with the department store El Corte Ingles, not the tourist venues), and it was getting late for lunch, for us, anyway. The restaurant was vaguely Italian, and the menu was fifteen euros, something in the low twenty-dollar range per person, higher than we’re used to seeing in Spain. For the record, the place is called Tasca Tio Andres.

The meal started with a salad, best described as a sort of Niçoise salad (which doesn’t really exist in Nice, but that’s a story for another time). It had cooked eggs, tomatoes, dark tuna, corn, radicchio, carrots, and more, composed on a large plate for us to share. If it had been a main course salad in the US, I’d have considered it pretty big. After that, we had a soup course, fish broth with seafood, potatoes, and oddly, an artichoke heart. The main we chose was a grilled pork dish, which came with a potato, cooked red cabbage and a Spanish version of ratatouille. Dessert was our choice from the equivalent of a cart. Then we had coffee. Then the waiter suggested an after-dinner drink, but when we demurred, he pressed us. We relented and shared a Limoncello. He left the bottle on the table in case we wanted more. There were no extra charges.

Art sometimes wonders why we never seem to buy much food at the grocery store. This is why.

On the weekend, there was a sort of festival and religious observance. It’s called the Fiestas of the Virgen del Carmen. She’s the patron saint of fishermen. First, there’s a mass in the church near the port, traditionally the church serving fishermen. Then, the image of the Virgin is carried out of the church and down to the port, hoisted by about a dozen fishermen. It’s placed on a fishing boat that’s been decorated with flags (but not really spruced up otherwise, looking like a sort of cave man with a flower in his hair.) The boat leaves the dock and circles the harbor, followed by other boats similarly barely decorated. It was hard to see what they were doing out in the harbor, but it’s likely that they were tossing flowers into the water as a memorial to those lost at sea and in prayer for those who work at sea.

A four-part tourism ticket gave us access to our choice of sights, and we selected two museums co-located in some old fortifications. The first was the museum of the Spanish Civil War, the military coup that put Franco into power and which was fought hard in Cartagena. Because of the military’s experimentation with aerial bombardment (a pre-WWII first), the citizens of Cartagena who didn’t flee sought refuge inside shelters all over the city. The museum is housed in one of those refuges.

The other place to visit, accessible by an elevator up from the Civil War museum, is an old castle and the highest point of the city. It’s called Castillo de la Concepcion, serving as a Roman temple, becoming a Muslim fortification during their 500-year reign, and providing views of the city from every direction.

Every place we visited, we kept running into the people from the boat next to ours. As they’re Spanish, they’ve been providing us with great insight into history, harbors, and things to do in Cartagena. We walked with them from the Castillo de la Concepcion to the archaeological maritime museum that happens to be in the harbor overlooking our boats. Like the other places we’ve visited, the museum is beautifully outfitted, informative, and loaded with electronic support. We got there about an hour from closing, and joined our neighbors at the on-site restaurant.

They took the lead in ordering, with our unwavering support, and the lunch that resulted was spectacular. An amuse-bouche to start of a curried mussel in vegetables. Gazpacho served around a perfectly-grilled scallop. Fried boquerones (anchovies) with a red pesto that reminded me of hummus. Grilled sardines served over a tomato-balsamic salsa. Linguine-shaped ribbons of calamari in a salad that included fava beans. Mushroom risotto. We all declined dessert, so we got the check and a plate with madeleines, lace cookies, and chocolates for each of us. What would dessert have been?

That was our lunch today. We’re just lying here like snakes that just ingested some giant rodents. Hope everything’s going well for all of you, too.

Love, Karen (and Art)