April 17: Cartagena.
Late this morning we docked in Cartegena, on the southern coast of Spain. The harbor is enclosed by rugged mountains with impressive ancient military fortifications both at the water level and on top of the peaks. We could see military ships, commercial activity, and pleasure boats, so it must be a thriving port. The city has a long history, beginning at least in the third century B.C.E., and has been under Roman, Muslim, and Arab rule, as well as Spanish, of course. For us today, however, we wanted a relaxing, no-hassle day, and didn’t want to do any sightseeing, so we just walked up and down the main street, looking at the shops, sitting in a café for lunch, and doing a lot of people watching. We were so impressed with this city. The port area is fully paved, with frequent benches and inviting sidewalk cafes. Every street in the pedestrian area was paved with marble or other tile across the entire width of the street, i.e., between the buildings, so that no sidewalks were necessary. Even the gutter was nicely designed. It was a slight indentation down the middle of the street, and it was covered with the same tile as the rest of the street. So the streets were beautifully paved, but they were also perfectly clean – no litter, no garbage anywhere. Shops and stores were on the first floor of the buildings, and apartments were above them. Each building was unique in design, many with decorative iron railings, others with a more sleek and modern aspect. We found a small grocery store at the end of the pedestrian street, bought some typical (supposedly) Cartagenan pastries at a small bakery, and had wifi access and lunch of panini and paella at Il Caffe di Roma. As expected, we kept running into friends from the ship who were also enjoying the beautiful weather and easy walking. Another Holland America Line ship, the Eurodam, was also in Cartagena today, but the additional shipload of people didn’t make the crowds too oppressive, as has happened in many of the ports we’ve visited. The city actually seems very well equipped for giving cruise passengers a good shore experience, so I hope we bring in enough money for them to maintain their high standard of hospitality. This is a port we would be happy to return to.
April 18: Malaga.
Our port this morning was Malaga, one of the major cities of Andalusia, Spain. As in many of the other sites we have visited, the history of the area has been dominated by one major power after another. Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, and Spanish peoples, and probably others as well, have left their mark on this city, and our bus and walking tour today brought us to some of them. After a bus tour which gave us a flavor of the downtown area (wide and clean streets, parks, trees, fountains, 10-12 story buildings but no skyscrapers), we took a narrow and winding road up through residential areas to Gibralfaro Castle, which is a 14th century Moorish fortress located on the summit of a mount where a Phoenician lighthouse once stood. This structure has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Today, I found it a moving and peaceful place with stone walls and steps, ramparts, terraced planting beds, unusual plants, and expansive views of the harbor and the surrounding countryside. It reminded me a little bit of the grounds of the Alhambra. Our guide took us through a small museum about the history of the area. We needed his explanations because all descriptive text was in Spanish.
The Moorish influence on the architecture of Malaga appears in many of the public buildings but in the residential areas as well. Some of the characteristics that I noticed are widespread use of colored ceramic tiles, both ornamental iron and shaped wooden railings, orange roof tiles, and ornately patterned ornamental bars over windows.
Next, we drove back down into the city and began our walking tour among the narrow lanes (all fully paved with stone and perfectly clean) near the cathedral. First, we had to see the house where Picasso was born. He lived in Malaga with his family until he was nine, and Malaga has not forgotten its favorite son because his name is all over the place. [I wonder if I recall correctly from my reading that he didn’t like it here and couldn’t wait to get away?] We walked past a Roman theater in the process of restoration, with the bustle of city life going on all around it. The guide next conducted an in-depth tour of the interior of the cathedral, to which we were not attentive. But it was a good place to sit for a while. We next had a half hour or so to explore on our own, but the guide made a point of directing us to the main pedestrian shopping street, so off we went. As we found in Cartagena yesterday, this street is beautifully maintained and full of happy people. Malaga is a much larger metropolis however. On the way back to the ship, we drove past an 11th century Moorish fortress (Alcazaba), 140 year old ficus street trees, and a two-story carousel ride.
April 19: Cadiz.
During the night, we sailed from Malaga to Cadiz, Spain, through the straits of Gibraltar. We were near Gibraltar about 2am, so we didn’t even think about trying to see the Rock again. Besides that, we had a stop in Gibraltar on our Barcelona-to-London cruise a couple of years ago. As we were sailing into Cadiz this morning, we got to see a beautiful sunrise, since we were up early to meet our excursion bus. During breakfast, we looked out the windows of the ship to try to understand the nature of the harbor we had entered. It did not seem to be a natural harbor like the one in Malaga, but it had a breakwater and several piers to which different kinds of ships were docked, such as freighters, container ships, and even another cruise ship.
Our tour today was to be a walking tour of Cadiz ending with a flamenco dance performance, and our guide Dori was very helpful in orienting us to the city, to the history, and to the culture of the area. We started with a bus ride around the city, during which she gave us a few facts: this area was first settled by the Phoenicians in the 11th century B.C.E. (guides from other cities have said this as well); it was also ruled by the Carthaginians, Visigoths, and Muslims, and probably other peoples that I don’t remember; a cigar factory built in 1741 was recently closed and is being renovated for other uses; the mayor is a woman, the first in the 3000 year history of the city; the botanical garden was opened in 1892 and contains many plants brought from both North and South America; people from elsewhere in Spain regard Cadiz as different from other Spanish cities (I believe this is because the architecture has no Moorish influence, as we have seen in Cartagena and Malaga). Our bus tour brought us to a lovely beach area with a promenade along the waterfront, and we had a photo stop here. The morning was chilly, so there weren’t many people on the beach, but given the number of apartment houses nearby, I’m sure this area gets crowded during warmer weather.
We disembarked from the bus in the old city at Plaza de Espana. This is a lovely park which features a monument to the first Spanish constitution, which was instituted in 1812. The park is conveniently located just across the street from the cruise terminal and was to be a helpful landmark for us when we walked out on our own later in the day. During the walking tour, Dori took us past historical buildings and churches, and then gave us some free time at the flower market, which is found at the center of the city. This being Sunday, most stores were closed, but a flea market was underway. Curiously enough, the stuff being sold looked just like the flea market stuff that’s available in the U.S. We continued our walk, learning about historical figures who have passed through Cadiz, such as Christopher Columbus and Miguel Cervantes, and about more general types of visitors, such as shipping magnates and hotel speculators. At 11 o’clock we had an appointment for a special performance of a flamenco dance troupe in a “taberna flamenco” named La Cava. This was amazing. There were five performers: a guitarist, a singer, and three dancers (two men and a woman). Wow! The guitar playing, the unique singing style, and the moves of the dancers blew us all away. And the ambience of the restaurant contributed significantly to the whole experience. We were in a small, windowless space shaped like a T, with the stage placed at the intersection of the two parts of the T. We sat just a few feet away from the performers at wooden tables on wooden chairs. We were served tapas (ham, cheese, frittata, crackers) and drinks (sangria, wine, sherry, soft drinks). The intensity of the performance was riveting, and the whole experience was just like what I’ve read about in books (except no one was smoking). As we left the restaurant, the performers had formed a receiving line, and we bought their CD.
Our walking tour route then brought us back to our starting point, La Plaza de Espana, where a few people returned to the ship, but we decided to continue walking. The narrow streets of the old city would be a perfect place to wander for days because every street seems to have something interesting to look at: shops, old building facades, plaques marking some event or circumstance, entryways decorated with all different patterns of ceramic tile, etc., etc. And then when a few streets come together, there’s a plaza, which becomes a gathering point for families and children and passersby. We found a café with seating on the plaza before it and sat there for a while with hot chocolate and internet. Some ship friends came by and chatted for a while, so we felt like we were participating in the local life in an entirely appropriate way. We eventually left our table, continued walking a few more blocks, and then returned to the ship.
We have been so surprised and pleased by our ports in Spain. Each city is unique and full of the kinds of sights and experiences which we value as travelers.