Hay Festival in Cartagena

Read Eleanor's description of her time in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia....

Read Eleanor's description of her time in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia.

The fabled beauty of Cartagena lives up to its reputation.  The old walled city on the Caribbean, dating from the mid-16th century, has been beautifully restored, with brightly- coloured colonial houses, shady courtyards and bougainvillea spilling over carved wooden balconies.  Not surprisingly, it's been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.  And almost as famously, it's where Colin Firth met his Italian wife, declaring both to be "staggeringly beautiful."

For almost a decade now, Cartagena has been home to the Hay Festival of international writers under the rubric "IMAGINA EL MUNDO," an expression that needs no translation.  The city's own literary credentials are solid since Colombia's Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez spent part of his career here, using it as the setting for Love in the Time of Cholera, among other work.  As he once said, "All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them."  And he used part of his Nobel winnings to build a modernist house overlooking the sea.  It's just around the corner from the Hotel Santa Clara, a former convent, that's the epicentre of the festival.
As a guest of Hay Festival Cartagena, I was invited to a fiesta on the fortified city walls hosted by the Fundacion Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  (Now 86, he attended the festival a few years ago and there was a tribute to him at this year's event.)   There was also a reception hosted by the British Ambassador in the Palacio de la Inquisicion, a rather macabre venue with its instruments of torture en route to the well-lit garden, and signage declaring that no one tried for heresy was ever found innocent.  There's even a window at the side of the building especially for denunciations.

But the major onstage events are held in the jewel-box Adolfo Mejia Theatre, built as an opera house in 1911.  When I interviewed Scotland's Irvine Welsh there, he said he felt like he was inside a wedding cake.

For me, one of the great treats of Hay Festival Cartagena was not only the incredible variety of ceviche and exotic fruit ice cream, but the opportunity to meet extraordinary Colombian writers.  I had already spoken to the innovative, complex novelist, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, winner of the $175,000 Alfaguara Fiction prize for The Sound of Things Falling (translated into English by Toronto's Anne McLean), but this was a chance to talk informally face to face on his home turf.  True, his real home turf most recently is the legacy of Colombia's drug trade and the narco-terrorism of the cartels.  That was centred in Colombia's second largest city, Medellin, home of another exceptional writer, Hector Abad.  The author of a dozen books, his tender, touching and tragic memoir of his family and his country, Oblivion, became a bestseller when it was first published in Spanish, in the top ten for more than two years.  In a country where for many years, the death rate was as high as a war zone, an account of one man's murder by right wing paramilitaries captured the hearts of readers.


I had heard about Hector Abad, who's also a columnist with the country's oldest newspaper, El Espectador, but I had the pleasure of interviewing him in Cartagena.  After the festival, I spent a couple of days in Medellin, a city now renowned for its transformative urban programs, such as cable cars linking impoverished neighbourhoods with the city centre, and new libraries that act as community hubs.  The crime rate has dropped dramatically and the inventive mayor has gone on to become governor.  But there are still traces of its past.  A friend told me that even now, when she puts foreigners in a cab, she memorizes the license plate and calls to make sure they arrived.  When she showed me around the downtown, she pointed out a skyscraper in the shape of a needle, "because of Medellin's history," she said -yes, I nodded, thinking drug trade, "as a textile city."  And sure enough, the city's major museum has tapestries glorifying the textile industry.

Medellin is also home to perhaps Colombia's greatest living artist, Fernando Botero - famous for all those over-size figures, though he insists his people aren't fat; they're voluminous.  Surfaces for his art.  Good to keep in mind as I knock back all the great cuisine.

 Speaking of which, Hector Abad kindly invited me to lunch at his finca or ranch, an hour in the hills above Medellin.  He's made pizza for an interesting assortment of guests: an Argentinian-Parisian photographer, a producer interested in making an animated film of one of his novels, a TV actress, a young writer, his daughter who's making a documentary inspired by Oblivion, and others gathered around a large table in the sun - Hector distributes panama hats --  so that I feel like I'm already in a movie. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?