Love and Cartagena
Robert Caplin for The New York Times
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
Published: April 29, 2010
The New York Times
IN the deep recesses of the Basurto market, a man is shaving the face of a pig. A razor in his hand, he glides across its face to remove the fuzz. The pig will soon be dinner. Not far away, cow hearts are on sale, and beside them cow eyes, staring out ominously, bound for a hearty potage. A shopping cart full of limes whizzes past. Alcatraz birds loom on the corrugated-tin roofs. “My Sweet Lord” is playing in one corner; in another, Caribbean songs pour from a bar lined with drinkers. It is not yet noon.
Truth can be stranger than fiction in Cartagena, the Colombian city whose real-life blend of seediness and charm has been an important inspiration for one of the most imaginative writers of the modern era, Gabriel García Márquez. It is a city so pregnant with the near magical that, when Mr. García Márquez took a visiting Spaniard on a tour one day that included a Creole lunch and a stroll through the old city, it lowered his opinion of Mr. García Márquez’s talents. The Spaniard told Mr. García Márquez, as he would later record in an essay, “You’re just a notary without imagination.”
Imagine a city that could make Mr. García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning giant of magical realism, seem like a notary.
The world speaks of Dickens’s London, Balzac’s Paris and Rushdie’s Bombay, but the association between Mr. García Márquez and Cartagena is less well known. And yet Cartagena has been an important if brief chapter in Mr. García Márquez’s own story. It is the city — throbbing with the varied cultures whose mixing he chronicled — that propelled his writing career; the city of the surreal, where toucans land on a table at its finest hotel; the city where Mr. García Márquez arrived with nothing and learned to spin local tales into literature; the city awash in myths; the city that, in furnishing the reality for his magic, made him a writer.
“I would say that I completed my education as a writer in Cartagena,” he once told an interviewer for a local documentary about Cartagena by the actor and filmmaker Salvatore Basile.
But for all of Mr. García Márquez’s popularity, Cartagena has drawn few García Márquez-seeking pilgrims, because it has never assertively claimed the writer who cut his teeth here but who has since been only a fleeting presence. Mr. García Márquez arrived in Cartagena in 1948 as a penniless student from Bogotá and left the next year, never to live in the city full time again. But his parents and siblings moved to Cartagena two years after he left, so he continued to visit after settling down in Mexico City.
Now 83, he still maintains a house in Cartagena, where he often stays for a time in winter. But despite that connection and despite his fame, there is no García Márquez museum in the city and no straightforward way to retrace the path of his youth.
In the last several years, a group of historians and scholars has sought to change that, laboring to document the city’s García Márquez connection. Seeking to identify the places and people behind his works, they have interviewed the author’s friends and relatives, examined his public statements over the years and cross-referenced passages in his books with real estate records and other documents. They are working the findings into a García Márquez-themed audio tour, to be released later this year. Meanwhile, one of the scholars, Iliana Restrepo Hernández, of the local Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar, generously shared some of their research with me.
These findings come at a moment when Cartagena is waking from a long slumber, recovering some of the vitality that Mr. García Márquez’s novels richly depict.
Situated on the Caribbean, on Colombia’s northern coast, once among the most important trading ports in the colonized Americas, the walled old city of Cartagena fell into shambles in more recent decades. The wealthy old families that Mr. García Márquez wrote about began to move out to the Miami-like suburb of Bocagrande, while the poor moved in. A result was that many of the centuries-old colonial houses that define the old city were reduced to empty shells, with proud doors and high, pastel-hued walls masking the ruins and tall grass within. It would have been a dispiriting time to arrive with Mr. García Márquez’s books, only to discover a city with few traces of its former grandeur — though with less of the drug-tinged violence that prevailed in other parts of the country.
But in the last many years, as part of a broader Colombian reawakening, the city is resurfacing with boutique hotels, fusion-seeking restaurants and new fashion labels that turn sleepy towns into global destinations. Tourists are descending on its galleries, strolling idly down its byways, reveling with locals at New Year’s Eve parties in public plazas. Travelers now call it Latin America’s hippest secret.
It is a renaissance of which Mr. García Márquez might be skeptical, having shown some hostility to the city’s modernization campaigns, like the time when the sprawling downtown market was removed from the walled city and planted a short drive away. Yet it is a renaissance that, combined with the recent scholarly work, makes a García Márquez pilgrimage accessible for the first time.
A hypothetical tour for such a pilgrimage might begin at Plaza Fernández de Madrid. Cartagena, dangling into the Caribbean, its lanes lined with flower-filled balconies, is a city for lovers; and it was the setting for Mr. García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” regarded by critics as one of the 20th century’s great love stories in literature.
It is the story of a young man of humble means, Florentino Ariza, who falls instantly in love with a girl named Fermina Daza, the daughter of a merchant. He courts her by letter, only to be rejected. Aspiring to move up in society, she marries and enters the elite Cartagena of her husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. For 50 years, Florentino pines for her, consoling himself with meaningless, frantic copulation — until, upon Dr. Urbino’s death, he gets a chance to assert his undying love once again.
What may come as a surprise even to the novel’s most ardent fans is that Mr. García Márquez, famous for his wild imagination, drew heavily on the reality of Cartagena for “Cholera” and other works.
In the Plaza Fernández de Madrid, which Mr. García Márquez recast in his love story as the Park of the Evangels, a traveler can sit precisely where the hopeless young man would have sat, “on the most hidden bench in the little park, pretending to read a book of verse in the shade of the almond trees.” A horse-drawn carriage today may clip-clop past, in which case you can imagine Fermina passing by.
AND even the house where Fermina grew up was not wholly fictional. According to scholars, you can see it on the plaza today — the white house with a second-floor balcony on the eastern side of the square, covered with vines, garnished by a parrot-shaped door knocker.
Another spot where Mr. García Márquez found inspiration was the Plaza Bolívar, which is situated within the old city. On one side of the square is a colonnaded arcade, known in “Cholera” as the Arcade of Scribes: “an arcaded gallery across from a little plaza where carriages and freight carts drawn by donkeys were for hire, where popular commerce became noisier and more dense.”
Under the arcade, Florentino, rejected by Fermina and tormented within, found a way to redeploy the surplus love that he could not use: “he offered it to unlettered lovers free of charge, writing their love missives for them in the Arcade of Scribes.” On one occasion, he realized that he was writing letters for both parties in a budding courtship, his words slowly coaxing them together.
The passage of time cannot change fiction, but it can play fast and loose with reality. Today the arcade has been turned over to a new obsession: the Colombian devotion to beauty pageants. The national beauty pageant organization has its headquarters there, and the ground on which Florentino would have written his letters is now embossed, Hollywood style, with images of recent beauty queens.
According to the scholars, Mr. García Márquez feels an especially strong connection to the square because Simón Bolívar, the Latin American revolutionary, is one of his heroes. The writer is said to have come to Plaza Bolívar from time to time simply to sit and think.
One afternoon last January, the plaza’s benches were full of people: chatting with friends, taking breaks from work, sneaking in romance, writing letters over the free Wi-Fi. A small contingent of soldiers, mission unknown, stood to one side, guarding something or someone. Sellers of food and trinkets mingled with potential patrons.
A García Márquez tour must go beyond his writings to seek hints of the real-life García Márquez. For that, one might start with the author’s home in the city.
It stands on the edge of the old city, in the San Diego quarter, facing the sea; with its outward gaze and high walls, it has an aloofness suggestive of Mr. García Márquez’s relationship to the city. It is a rare act of architectural subversion in a city of architectural conformity: not a colonial house in the Spanish style, but a modernist dwelling that Mr. García Márquez ordered built. It looks like a straight-edged castle, with orange-red walls, a ring of holes running around the property, a swimming pool and a sprawling lawn. Mr. García Márquez is said to live in the house for only several weeks each year, although he has spent a much longer time there this year, said Ms. Restrepo, the scholar.
Opposite the García Márquez house is the venerable Sofitel Santa Clara hotel, where the writer is said to stop sometimes for a drink. The hotel was a hospital before it was a hotel, and a convent before it was a hospital, and it shares the city’s mildly haunted air.
Working as a reporter in the late 1940s, before he owned a home nearby, Mr. García Márquez was reputedly sent to the hospital to investigate a tip that a skeleton had been found, belonging to a girl with 22 meters, or 72 feet, of hair. That real life episode induced the García Márquez novel “Of Love and Other Demons,” and became yet another illustration of the strange dance of myth and reality, fiction and truth, in Cartagena.
Today, what remains of that era is a small crypt below El Coro, the hotel bar, that any guest can enter by descending a few stairs. But the atmosphere is incongruous: on many nights, a live Afro-Cuban band is playing, with Colombian couples shuffling gracefully on the dance floor, the men in untucked short-sleeved shirts and white shoes, the women in elegant dresses.
The Cuban connection offers yet another way into Mr. García Márquez’s life. The writer has long raised eyebrows for his friendship with Fidel Castro, and is even said to maintain a home in Havana not far from Mr. Castro’s. Whenever he is in Cartagena, Mr. García Márquez has been known to dine at La Vitrola, among the finest restaurants in town, which evokes Old World Havana with its gently swirling ceiling fans, dishes like spiced shredded beef over fried plantains and live Cuban son music, with its guitar-and-percussion-driven songs. And while Colombia has lately turned rightward in its politics,Cuba is in many ways a patron saint of Cartagena’s after-dark culture. Among the city’s most authentic and coolest nightspots is Café Havana in the Getsemaní district, where photos of legendary Cuban singers line the walls and the raw rhythms fill the room and spill out the open grated windows into the dim streets.
Indeed, it is in Getsemaní, a vaguely seedy, working-class neighborhood just beyond the walls of the walled city, where the gritty, rum-soaked Cartagena that Mr. García Márquez first fell in love with can most easily be seen. It has resisted thus far the gentrification that has come to the walled city. And in these parts it is not hard to imagine the roadside restaurants and bars where the young Mr. García Márquez made friends, chased rumors and began to find his voice.
He arrived in the city in 1948 from Bogotá, after political riots started a fire that burned down his hostel. It took with it all of his possessions, including his typewriter. He went to Cartagena and began again, finding work within days at El Universal, a newspaper that became a kind of journalism school for him. He has written of having submitted articles and then watching as the editor crossed out virtually every word, writing a new article between the lines of the old. It was the journalism of an earlier age, when writers and editors sat along the pier relishing steak with onion rings and green banana at dives, mingling with poets and prostitutes, telling tales and, in turn, converting anecdotes heard into articles for the next day’s paper.
“All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them,” Mr. García Márquez said in the documentary. “And, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena.”
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
Several airlines fly to Cartegena from New York, usually with at least one stop. A recent Web search found a Copa Airlines flight from Kennedy Airport, with a layover in Panama City, from about $500 round trip, for travel in May. For additional flights, seenytimes.com/travel/cartagena.
WHERE TO STAY
The Sofitel Santa Clara (Calle Del Torno No. 39-29; 57-5-664-6070;hotelsantaclara.com) feels like the offspring of a luxurious hotel and a haunted house. The bar, El Coro, has Cuban music on many nights. Mr. García Márquez lives across the street and has been known to sip a drink at El Coro. A recent search found rooms starting at about 475,751 pesos, or $250 at 1,900 pesos to the dollar.
For a less rarefied experience, the Hotel Monterrey (Carrera 8B, No. 25-103; 57-5-664-8560; hotelmonterrey.com.co), just
beyond the old city walls at the edge of Getsemaní, has well-appointed rooms starting at 247,390 pesos. It is not far from where the old market stood and where Mr. García Márquez, as a young man, made his start as a journalist. Ask for a room in the back, away from the loud salsa club next door.
The Basurto market is a short taxi ride from the walled city. It has a reputation for housing thieves and pickpockets, as such markets invariably do, but cautious and prudent travelers should have no troubles.
In the Plaza Fernández de Madrid, Florentino Ariza longed for Fermina Daza while sitting on a park bench under almond trees. The white house with the large overhanging balcony, near the corner where Calle de la Tablada meets the eastern side of the plaza, is the one on which Fermina’s house is said to be modeled.
In the Plaza Bolívar, Portal de los Escribanos (Arcade of Scribes) is where real and fictional characters once wrote letters for the unlettered and where Florentino found a use for his irrepressible love. Today, the street vending that Mr. García Márquez described persists, but Galéria Cano, a stylish boutique on the square, has mined Colombian culture to offer a selection of artifacts of interest to travelers (Plaza Bolivar No. 33-20; 57-5-664-7078; galeriacano.com.co). The plaza is also a good place to start a tour of the city by horse carriage.
Mr. García Márquez’s home stands at the corner of Calle Zerrezuela and Calle del Curato in the San Diego district, overlooking the sea. The Santa Clara hotel is across the street.
La Vitrola (Calle de Baloco No. 2-01; 57-5-660-0711) serves Cuban-inspired fare, washed down with Cuban music and dancing between the tables. The seafood is fresh, the meats are tender, and everything comes with plantains. Dinner is about 190,300 pesos for two, with wine.
Café Havana (at the corner of Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero, in Getsemaní; 57-310-610-2324; cafehavanacartagena.com) is a direct flight to another world. Beyond the walled city, far from the fancy new restaurants, the bar throbs with drinkers, dancers and singers-along. The Cuban mojito (12,000 pesos) is excellent.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 16, 2010
The cover article on May 2 about Cartagena, Colombia, referred incorrectly to the writer Gabriel García Márquez, whose fiction has been inspired by the city. As is customary in Latin America and in Spain, where a person carries both the paternal surname and maternal maiden name, the writer is Mr. García Márquez, not Mr. Márquez.