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2013 and earlier

Beauty and the Books in Cartagena

A private security guard of middle age and ample gut sat on a doorstep thumbing the buttons of his mobile phone.

Hardly the most inspiring subject for my camera. But the frame around him was irresistible. The door against which he leant in his sky-blue shirt was an imposing studded structure in matt green. The architrave was of creamy honeycombed stone. Either side were peeling, pitted walls of a glorious ochre. Colombia’s Caribbean port of Cartagena makes a transformative backdrop.

It was this alluring setting that fuelled the imaginative powers of Gabriel García Márquez. The Nobel Prize winner, who served his apprenticeship as a journalist in the Spanish-colonial city, has returned to it in both fact and fiction, building a house there, establishing a foundation to school reporters in the skills and ethics of their trade, and, most famously, drawing on it for magical-realist novels such as Love in the Time of Cholera.

Could there be a better venue for a Telegraph Hay Festival? Only if you're a bibliophile who hates to see a book wilt. Thanks to humidity of around 80 per cent, my copy of García Márquez's memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, began curling at the corners as soon as I flew in from the cool of Bogotá.

The locals were in a state of heated anticipation – not over the festival but over the Señorita Colombia contest. A British journalist who has lived for several years in the city told me that the contest (which has been running since 1934 with the declared aim of "integrating Colombia through the beauty of its women") was "less of a big deal than it used to be". What must it have been like before?

For days the papers were full of it: the parading through the streets of the girls, the awards for the contestant who cooked best and the one who was most punctual, the what-if-it's-not-all-right-on-the-night worries of the television producer and, finally, the crowning of Catalina Robayo, of the department of Valle, as Señorita Colombia 2010/2011.

Journalists got equally carried away. Rain – with brief respites – had been heavy in the city for a week. The day after the señoritas had paraded on their floats, a (female) journalist for El Tiempo reported that the grey skies had done nothing to dampen spirits. She went further: it was as if the euphoria of the people waiting for the contenders "had held off the rain that was about to fall on Cartagena". Even García Márquez might have drawn the line at that bit of magical realism.

Beauties give way to brains from January 27 until January 30, when the Hay Festival – the sixth in the city but the first with Telegraph support – takes place. Locals, weekenders from Bogotá and visitors from around the world will have a chance to hear writers including Germaine Greer, Owen Sheers and a sizeable Hispanic contingent. They will hear concerts from the Buena Vista Social Club and Philip Glass. They will have the chance, too, to explore the city that has had such a pull on García Márquez.

In his youth he lived there only for a year, between 1948 and 1949, but it was an influential time for his journalism and a fertile one for his fiction. "All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them," he has since said. "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."

Márquez still owns the terracotta-coloured house that he had built in the mid-nineties on a corner plot overlooking his beloved Caribbean Sea. If there have been mutterings over the seemliness of such a modern house in this colonial setting, there have been more over its owner's absences from the property. García Márquez spends most of his time in Mexico – where he has raised a family – and some say he has forgotten the country that gave him so much. My guide Iliana doesn't agree. "He's connected with Colombia in all sorts of ways," she said. "He helped get Cartagena recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, and it was here, not in Mexico, that he set up his foundation [the Ibero-American Foundation for New Journalism]."

Generous payback, one might think, given that on his first night in the city, having unwittingly broken a curfew, he was banged up in jail, his last cigarette butt seized by a soldier.

The offices of the foundation are in the Calle San Juan de Dios, a couple of doors down from the former premises of El Universal, where, as the writer records in Living to Tell the Tale, he had his copy red-pencilled by his mentor, Clemente Manuel Zabala, and then scrutinised by a government censor. We were discussing this school of journalistic hard knocks, in that very street, when there was one of those delicious coincidences that this city seems to throw up in abundance. Iliana tapped me on the shoulder. "The father of that man," she said, jabbing her finger at a passer-by, "he was the censor."

Cartagena is that sort of place. On an early-morning walk along its city walls it's easy to conjure on the horizon a galleon of the Spanish Main. This was a port that shipped out gold and shipped in slaves, and the stratifications of colonial society can still be read in its architecture: the three-storey properties of the slave traders; the smaller homes of public employees; and the simple, one-storey dwellings of blacksmiths, cobblers and other tradesmen.

Except from its city walls – the best preserved in the Americas – Cartagena offers no grand vistas; it's a flat city of narrow streets opening into pocket-handkerchief squares that encourage dawdling. I did a lot of it during my few days in the city, as I returned to sights I had visited with Iliana to take a few more notes and photographs. Passing again one morning through the Parque Fernández de Madrid, I spotted a pony-tailed young woman, feet tucked under her on one of the benches, scribbling notes of her own. Behind her a sign said: "Aguas de Cartagena da vida a este parque" – "Cartagena Waters gives life to this park". That may be true. But Gabriel García Márquez has given the place immortality.


By Michael Kerr, Telegraph Travel Editor.

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