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WHY GO NOW?
This Spanish port city is enjoying an exuberant resurgence, thanks to the Madrid government's determination to turn its major naval port into a vibrant tourist attraction. The new Museo Nacional de Arqueología (1) is about to open on Paseo de Alfonso XII (00 34 968 50 84 15; museoarqua.mcu.es), and will soon be followed by the Roman Theatre Museum (2) on Plaza del Ayuntamiento (00 34 968 50 82 07; www.teatroromanocartagena.org). The Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Rafael Moneo, has been brought in to work wonders with a dazzling new visitor centre. And Cartagena is also the ideal destination for train enthusiasts; having not one train station but two: one serving the national network on the Línea ferrea Cartagena-Madrid (3), the other catering for local trains (4) to the nearby Mar Menor, or "inland sea".
By rail, the most direct route from London St Pancras is via Paris, Barcelona and Valencia, involving several changes. By air, the gateway is Murcia's San Javier airport, which is actually closer to Cartagena - only 30km - than it is to Murcia itself. It is served by a wide range of airlines from the UK, including Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) and EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com).
There are no direct buses to Cartagena; many hire a car at the airport and drive themselves the 20 minutes into town. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers 48 hours of fully inclusive hire from £26. A taxi costs around €40 (£31); you can book ahead with Radio Taxis (00 34 968 311 515) or Tele Taxi (00 34 968 531 313).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Everyone from Hasdrubal to the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors used Cartagena for its natural deep-water harbour. The entrance from the Mediterranean is protected by rocky fortified headlands that act like claws, pincering enemy ships. Inside this perfect sea port, a walled city was built. The city walls remained intact until the beginning of the 20th century, creating a dense historic centre.
The modern harbour promenade, Paseo de Alfonso XII, is a great place to start your orientation. Behind you rises the unbreachable wall (1776-1788). This tree-lined boulevard runs all the way round its southern and eastern perimeter. To the west it butts up against the naval complex. To the north of the city the walls have gone, demolished to create Paseo de Alfonso XIII (two major thoroughfares are named after the 12th and 13th Kings Alfonso, which can be confusing); this is the main route into Cartagena from the airports.
The main tourist office (5) is at Puertas de San Jose (00 34 968 506 483; www.cartagena.es); it opens 10am-2pm and 4-6pm from Monday to Friday and 10am-1pm on Saturdays. Another bureau, the Port Tourist Information Office (6) on Paseo de Alfonso XIII opens 10am-2pm and 4-6pm daily (Sundays 10.30am-1.30pm). Both sell the Cartagena Card; price €18 (£14), which is valid for two weeks and covers admission to eight cultural sites as well as free travel around the city on the tourist bus and the harbour ferry.
The city lacks a destination hotel. What should be a grand hotel to rival those on the Corniche in Cannes, turns out to be the old naval HQ. The first hotel you come to on arrival from the airport is the four-star Best Western Hotel Alfonso XIII (7) at 40 Paseo Alfonso XIII (00 34 968 52 00 00; www.bestwesternalfonsoxiii.com) which offers double rooms with breakfast from €98 (£76). From here it is a 15-minute walk to the city centre, so you may want to consider the compact but trendy new NH Cartagena (8) at 2 Plaza Heroes de Cavite (00 34 968 1209 08; www.nh-hotels.com), which is right next to the town hall and only a two-mi nute stroll from the harbour-front. Double rooms cost from €145,(£112) including breakfast.
Basic but friendly is the Los Habaneros Hotel (9) by the oldPuertas de San Jose (00 34 968 50 52 50; www.hotelhabaneros.com). Rooms from €74 (£57) include breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
The barco turístico leaves on the half of every hour, between 1.30pm and 3.30pm from the quayside near La Patatacha floating restaurant (10), costing €5 (£3.85) (free to holders of the Cartagena Card). It goes to the Fuerte de la Navidad (11), contact via Puerto de Culturas (00 34 968 50 00 93; www.cartagenapuertodeculturas.com), which opens 10am-2.30pm and 4pm-7pm daily except Mondays, admission costs €3.50 (£2.70) but is free with the Cartagena Card.
Built in the 18th century, la Navidad was intended to guard the entrance to the port of Cartagena by laying down crossfire with the battery of Trincabotijas, opposite. It was restored in 2006 as part of the ongoing project to make Cartagena more tourist-friendly. For a different perspective, climb the hill above the castle and look back over one of nature's great harbours and its city.
TAKE A HIKE
Save yourself a euro and don't bother with the lift up to La Concepció Castle (11). Instead walk up from Calle Gisbert opposite the old 18th century Autopsy Pavilion (12) which was built outside the hospital so that it did not upset the patients. It's a stiff climb but it takes in great views of the old bull ring, built on top of a Roman gladiatorial arena, the 18th-century autopsy theatre and the interior of the old cathedral. Follow signs to the mirador (panoramic point) for great photos of the harbour. At the top you can pay €3.50 (£2.70), which is also free with Cartagena card, to visit the castle interpretive centre which opens 10am-7pm daily except Mondays. It tells the story of Cartagena from its settlement by Hasdrubal in 227 BC. Alternatively, if you do not fancy all that climbing there is a very pleasant amble to be had along the city walls if you get on at the Puertas de San Jose tourist office (5) and follow Muralla del Mar south to Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
The name of La Mejillonera (13) at Calle Mayor (00 34 968 52 1179) means "mussel". It is a basic, noisy tapas bar with furiously fast service and a nautical theme. A trough runs around the bar to collect shells and discarded bills. Expect to pay around €18 (£14) for two people (including wine). At 13 Calle Mayor, Cafetería Casino (14) (00 34 968 506 268) is situated in part of the old 18th century casino and offers a set lunch for €10 (£7.70).
The main drag (built narrow to maximise the shade) is Calle Mayor, which is home to two independent bookshops and an array of clothing outlets, including Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Tintoretto, Alain Manoukian and Bershka.
There are a number of museums relating to the city's long and complex history under the Carthaginians, Romans and Moors. All are free if you have the Cartagena card. The Augusteum (15) on Calle Caballero was a meeting place for the cult of Emperor Augustus. It only opens each evening between 4pm-7pm, and is closed on Monday. Admission costs €2.50 (£2). Nearby the House of Fortune (16) at Plaza Risueño are the ruins of an ordinary Roman home from the first century BC. It opens Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 2.30pm, admission €2.50 (£2).
The Punic Interpretative Centre (17) on Calle San Diego preserves the one remaining section of wall built by Hasdrubal who founded this city in 227BC. It opens 10am-2.30pm and 4pm-7pm (until 8.30pm July-September) daily except Monday, admission is €3.50 (£2.70). All three museums can be contacted via Puerto de Culturas (00 34 968 50 00 93; www.cartagenapuertodeculturas.com).
There are a number of tourist cafe bars along the harbour front (some may say there are too many). The good thing is that you will not be overcharged for a beer or glass of wine and the view of the marina and the harbour forts beyond are magnificent. As you approach from the city, the first cafe you will come to is La Biblioteca; if this place is not to your liking, simply work your way along the harbour front until you find somewhere that suits you.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Principal (18) at 2 Calle Príncipe de Vergara (00 34 968 12 30 31) is modern and functional with large glass windows. By day it is a businessman's diner but in the evening the management light candles and it gets busy. Expect to pay €40 (£31) with wine. Barrio de San Roque (19), located in a former soap shop at 30 Calle Jabonerías (00 34 968 500 600) is more self-consciously stylish. The restaurant's interior is stripped back to bare brick. The seafood menu degustació is excellent. The price of a meal with wine is €35 (£28).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The 13th century Cathedral of Santa María de Gracia (20) (00 34 968 501 242) on the castle mount was bombed out during the Nationalist siege of Cartagena (it was one of the four last cities to hold out against Franco). You can inspect the ruins and spot the parts that were pillaged from the Roman amphitheatre below. For an actual Mass, try instead the noon service at the circular Iglesia de la Caridad (21) in Sereta Caridad (www.iglesiacaridadcartagena.org). In March 1939 a Communist mob torched most of the city's churches but la Caridad was saved by militants from the red-light Molinete area. Their mothers and grandmothers were the prostitutes used by the painter Usell de Guimbarda as models for la Caridad's Madonna.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Mare Nostrum (22) (00 34 968 52 21 31; www.marenostrum.es) at the eastern end of the harbour has a first-floor restaurant with views over the marina. Expect to pay €25 (£19) for a meal of caldero murciano (fish stew with tomatoes, garlic, ñoras, scorpion fish and saffron) plus wine. Afterwards stroll round the Peral submarine (23), considered to be the first torpedo-firing sub. It was designed in 1884 by a Cartagenero, Lieutenant Isaac Peral.
TAKE A RIDE
The tourist board operates an excellent free bike loan service which can be accessed from five different lockup sites round the city. Take your passport or driver's licence to any of the tourist offices as identification, so that your identity can be authenticated and a BiCity card issued in your name. You will then be given a key to unlock one of the bikes parked outside. When you finish, you return the key to one of the tourist offices or any of the other loan points around the city. The centre of Cartagena is mainly flat (except for the castle and the old red light district of Cerro del Molinete) so you will have no difficulty exploring it on two wheels.
A WALK BY THE WATER
Take the narrow-gauge train from the station (4) in Cartagena to Los Nietos, overlooking the "inland sea".
WRITE A POSTCARD
Take a moment to sit in peaceful Plaza San Francisco under the giant ficus trees brought from South America and marvel at the Gaudí-influenced Maestre House (24).
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
You may have thought the hero of Trafalgar was Nelson, but in Cartagena they honour the Spanish commander. Do not miss a plaque at Calle Medeiras (25) marking the house where Rear Admiral Don Antonio de Escaño was born.