Episode 265 – The Original Cartagena

May 1, 2022. 70°F/21°C


When I hear Cartagena, I used to think Colombia, but not any more. Now that we’ve spent time in Cartagena Spain, originally founded by the Carthaginians, I’ll always think of this city first.

Cartagena, about which I knew nothing before today, was a very pleasant surprise. This is another ancient city, founded by the Carthaginians around 220BC, but very quickly conquered by the Romans.

We had only a half day stop here, and opted for the included tour, which took us through an interesting countryside to Portman, Murcia and the scenic vantage point of its lighthouse, and then back into the centre of Cartagena to its recently discovered Roman ruins.

En route to the lighthouse, we passed through colourful landscape that has been mining territory all the way back to Roman times. The earth here is shades of gold, red, purple, black and brown, reflecting a geology rich in manganese, iron, lead, tin, quartz, and silver, all of which were mined underground in ancient times, and in strip mines in the most recent era.

The area was dotted with abandoned dwellings, pitheads, shafts, and ventilation chimneys. I was particularly interested in those chimneys that were apparently designed to allow fresh air into the underground mines. They looked like tall brick industrial chimneys. Unfortunately, Ted couldn’t get a clear picture of one from our moving bus.

Opened in 1862 and rising 51 metres above sea level, the Cabo Palos lighthouse has a commanding view over the Mediterranean.

With views like this, it’s no wonder the town with the lighthouse is a popular beach house and resort location.

There is a second smaller lighthouse that sits on the little Punta de la Chapa headland 50 meters above sea level, left of the Portmán Bay.

On the way back to Cartagena we drove through rich agricultural lands. The region of Murcia, in which Cartagena is located, is known for melons, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes, olives, lemons, and more. We passed huge fields of plastic “bubbles”, which are used to create moist microclimates that encourage fast growth of watermelons.

Murcia has a particularly dry climate, but irrigation is possible due to canals bringing from the Tagus River, pumping of ground water, desalination plants, and a system of reservoirs.

Ground water was originally pumped using windmills; a few are still dotted around the region, although they are inoperative.

When we returned to Cartagena, our main goal was the Museum of the Roman Theatre, which incorporates – as its name suggests – a recently discovered 6000 seat Roman theatre built sometime before the first century BC.

Top: the theatre. It’s not a full-circle amphitheatre, which verifies that it was meant for dramas and not gladiator events. Bottom left: the reconstructed 2-story pillars framing the stage. The pillars were found cut into pieces, since portions were used for other things in the 3rd century AD. Bottom right: only the smooth central steps are reconstructions. The stone steps and pink marble areas are original.

About 70% of the theatre is original, which makes it one of the best preserved archeological sites in Europe.

I was fascinated by the fact that despite a huge church having been built here in the 1300s, and tunnels having been dug here during the Spanish Civil War, it was not until around 1988 that workers on the site of the Casa-Palacio de la Condesa Peralta, renovating the property in preparation for housing the Regional Craft Center in Cartagena unearthed part of a Corinthian capital. Once archeologists were contacted, it only took 20 years for the site to be excavated.

The red façade is what remains of the Countess’ home, showing just how close to the theatre it was located.
The 14th century church was destroyed by bombs during the Spanish Civil War. The theatre underneath was not noticed during building or destruction,

Column capitals in the visible theatre area were made of expensive Carrara marble; those is less visible areas were sandstone. The pink columns are Travertine marble.

Top: marble. Left: sandstone. Right: pink Travertine.

In one of the funny twists related to this site, we learned that the Romans chose it for their theatre because of the sloped landscape that would save on building costs. Before the theatre was discovered, the city of Cartagena built a very Roman-style modern theatre almost on top of the ancient one!

A view of downtown Cartagena from above. The grey theatre circled at the top right was built just 5 years before the Roman theatre (circled centre) was unearthed,

Archeologists know that the theatre was built between 5 and 1 BCE, because of inscribed dedications to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons of Augustus.

In an attempt to ensure that the public would vote for one of his two grandsons to succeed him as emperor, Augustus put up signs in the theatre:
L. CAESAR AUGUSTUS II F. DIVIN. and G. CAESAR AUGUSTUS II F. DIVIN. (“Lucius, son of Caesar Augustus, chosen” and the same for Gaius). It didn’t work. Legend has it that Augustus’ second wife killed both his grandsons to pave the way for her own son (Augustus’ stepson) Tiberius to become emperor.

In the 3rd century a market was built over the theatre, reusing its materials. Pieces of columns and capitals are visible in the walls of the market stalls.

It’s easy to see the pieces of pillar within the market’s walls.
Even beautiful Corinthian capitals were just used as building material for shop walls.

After leaving the theatre site, we had some free time to explore the city’s downtown core, which is absolutely beautiful.

The main square and entire main street are paved in marble!

The 1907 city hall is a combination of classical and modernist (art nouveau) styles.

It was Sunday afternoon, so members of the Modernist Society were gathered in the park to picnic, socialize, and play croquet – all in period costume. We saw several more walking around downtown.

I wish our visit had been longer, since the city had a lot more we’d have liked to explore.

We ended our day with dinner and conversation with new friends Judy and Bill. They are folks we really want to stay in touch with once this cruise is over. Thank goodness for technology that allows us to do that while we continue our travels.


  1. A horseback riding trip to Spain is on my bucket list. Not on Mike’s. LOL. I’d go with my riding friends.


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