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13 Sep 2017

BY Abra Dunsby


On Our Radar: Cartagena's cultural highlights

Roman relics meet Spanish sights in Cartagena. Abra Dunsby uncovers the city’s cultural charms


Roman relics meet Spanish sights: Discovering Cartagena's cultural charms

In 1987, workers in the Spanish city of Cartagena made an astonishing discovery.


While demolishing an old 19th-century building, they unearthed three finely carved Corinthian columns beneath the rubble. Further excavation revealed an entire Roman theatre, one of the most significant Roman relics in Spain.


I am able to see it for myself as part of a fam to Cartagena, a port town on Spain’s south-east coast that welcomes 230,000 tourists from cruise ships each year.


Architect Rafael Moneo was tasked with showcasing the theatre in all its glory, and the Roman Theatre Museum he created certainly delivers.


We are led through the museum’s different levels, enjoying a journey through time to learn about the theatre’s beginnings via artefacts.


After walking through the visitor centre, we find ourselves outside, standing in the magnificent expanse of the theatre itself, dazzling us in the sunshine.


Our guide tells us that the theatre dates back to the end of the 1st century BC, and was built under the reign of Augustus, when Cartagena was a colony of the Roman Empire.


“It seated 6,000 people and was used for about 200 years, until it was abandoned as the Romans started to lose their power,” he explains.


Our Roman history lesson continues in the Forum district, a public park that opened in 2012. The site was hidden underground for more than 20 centuries, but has now been restored so that clients can walk through the complex of thermal pools and an atrium.


The Roman relics are reason enough for clients to visit, but there’s plenty of Spanish charm too. The former naval base has been revamped, with most of the attractive buildings located in the old walled part of the city near the harbour.


We stop to take snaps of the charcoal-domed city hall, an impressive example of Modernist architecture, which also acts as one of the city’s tourist offices.


The nearby pedestrianised, cobbled street of Calle Mayor is perfect for an afternoon stroll, and is packed with shops, restaurants and cafes.


If clients are hankering after a sundowner, suggest the city’s famous asiatico coffee, which is made with condensed milk, cognac, Spanish liquor Licor 43, and infused with cinnamon and lemon rind.


The tulip-like glasses the drink is served in are sold in many of the cafes and tourist shops, and make for a unique souvenir.


Then there’s the ship-like National Museum of Underwater Archaeology, where highlights include a collection of elephant’s tusks with Phoenician inscriptions, and a life-size model of a Roman merchant ship.


A walk up to the city’s castle, Castillo de la Conception, is also a treat with views to the sea.


Whether clients make Cartagena a pit stop on a cruise or decide to dwell a little longer, this is a Spanish city that continues to astonish those keen to discover more.

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