City under stress: Cartagena in wartime

Before continuing about Mario Vargas Llosa and Euclides da Cunha and Brazilian history, I have to say something about Cartagena, Spain. I made my first visit last week and it made a powerful impression.

First, there's the spectacular setting, built on the peaks and dips of mountains around a bay ground out by millenia of waves pounding on the rock — the east coast of the Iberian peninsula — that forms the western wall of the Mediterranean sea. And then there are layer upon layer of human history, preserved in the fragments of ancient and newer streets and buildings and waterworks since Hasdrubal (Hannibal's younger brother) renamed it Carthago Nova ("New Carthage") in 228 BC. (See Cartagena Spain - Google Maps. Carthage was based in what is now the Gulf of Tunis.) A Roman theater has been partially restored, and a separate Roman circus, and the Vandals and Visigoths and Byzantines and Moors were also here.

Susana and I went with two friends, artist Ernesto Pedalino and publicist Dora Revinski to see the art installations in Manifesta 8, scattered in various structures around town. Some of the art responded very effectively to its setting, especially the creations in the former prison of San Antón, where we had the added advantage of an actual convict, formerly a prisoner in San Antón and full of stories of what life was like there, as guide. But what most impressed me was the giant Refugio or air raid shelter dug out of the Cerro de Concepción by pick-and-shovel miners during the civil war. Cartagena, the Second Republic's main naval base,was bombed heavily and repeatedly by German aircraft, 1936-1939. To protect as many people as possible, refugios were dug or built in many places in the city and outlying areas. This was the largest, with a capacity for 5,500 people. A very knowledgeable guide led us through the galleries, showing us how families tried to survive in the dark, compact spaces and explained the terrible problems of health care, food rationing and, of course, hoarding and hunger. Though suffering near starvation and massive destruction, Cartagena hung on until March 30, 1939, being the last Spanish city to fall to the forces of Francisco Franco.

You can see images of the war in Cartagena here: La Guerra Civil Española en Cartagena. I won't soon forget them.

Manifesta 8
Cartagena, Spain - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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