In the sun-dappled Murcia region of southeastern Spain, Cartagena -- a naturally deep and sheltered Mediterranean port surrounded by five hills -- has long been coveted as a trading center and seafarers’ game-changer.
Dating to 227 B.C., when Carthaginians first set foot on its shore, this strategically located harbor has unfurled a culturally rich and historically tumultuous tapestry. Cartagena has been governed by Romans (Hannibal, with his army and elephants, stopped there on their military march across the Alps to Rome), ruled by Arabs and re-conquered in the 13th century by Ferdinand III for his Kingdom of Castile. Each new wave of distinct leadership carved indelible marks on this port's art, architecture, law, finances and industry.
And yet this city of awesome ancient treasures is one of Spain's lesser-known tourist havens. Today, you will discover a pedestrian-friendly and pleasant metropolis of approximately 220,000 people that both exuberantly celebrates its past and exudes a forward-thinking spirit. Cartagena's wealth of archaeological sites draws you to explore its notable yesteryear -- many Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Moorish ruins remain, making it one of Spain's most fascinating age-old jewels. Its universities, filling restaurants, bars and parks with young people, are signs of a lively future.
Cartagena has two cruise ship docks, with most vessels mooring at Pier Alfonso XII Cruise Terminal. A quick 1,000 feet or so from city center, the port makes an ideal entry point. The water is deep and can accommodate megaships. If your vessel docks on the south side of the harbor, Muelle de la Curra, you will ride a shuttle bus.
Cartagena is a safe, friendly, low-cost city. The caveat is in your pre-cruise preparation. In many travel forums, people often confuse it with Cartagena, Colombia, sharing incorrect info and debating where the cruise ship terminal is, for example. During our recent stay in Cartagena, several North American travelers told me that they had downloaded maps, read up about restaurants and historic sites, only to embarrassingly realize once they arrived in this Spanish port that they had had the two cities confused in their research.
Spain uses the euro. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
While credit cards, such as MasterCard and Visa, are accepted in some stores and restaurants (American Express far less so), it greatly helps if your cards are the embedded-chip-and-pin versions that work with the European point-of-sale systems. Some Cartagena stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards at all.
To obtain euros, go to banks in the historic district, such as Deutsche Bank (7 Plaza de San Francisco), to use ATMs.
Most people in this Spanish port who interact with tourists -- in their jobs at restaurants, bars, museums and other sightseeing venues -- speak basic English. Friendly and welcoming to visitors, they may also know French or Italian, so if you also understand a bit of one of those languages, there are no communication barriers.
Ceramics and leather goods are popular buys in Cartagena, but look beyond stores stacked with mass-produced factory wares. Instead, hone in on artisanal boutiques and galleries with hand-made items that feel more authentic and personal. At Centro Regional de Artesania (10 Calle Honda) you'll ooh and aah over hand-crafted ceramics, one-of-a-kind leatherwork and glasswork, rugs, hand-sewn clothing and jewelry -- all created by local artists.