Cartagena is a town with a long naval history and linked to this, have been numerous defensive installations through the ages. One example which we would thoroughly recommend as worth visiting is the Fuerte de Navidad (or ‘Christmas Fort’) which is situated a few miles out of Cartagena on the southern side of the harbour bay.
The best way to get to the fort is by the Tourist Boat which departs from the Cartagena seafront almost opposite the Town Hall. You will see a small ticket kiosk where the boat ties up and where you can book your trip. When we went (June 2013) the cost of a ticket to go to the fort, disembark there and visit it, and then return via a very pleasant trip out into the bay before turning back, was 8€ (concessions available). The fort’s opening times were somewhat complicated depending on the time of year, with only pre-arranged group visits from mid-December to mid-March. It may be as well to check before going but, for the rest of the year, it was open 11am-3pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, except July to mid-September, when it shuts at 2pm, but reopens for an afternoon session from 4pm-8pm except on Sundays! Of course, if you go by the Tourist Boat, you will have to co-ordinate with its sailing times which again are very variable (though mainly departing on the hour) according to the time of year. You can usually count on departures every hour from 11am-2pm with sailings continuing into the later afternoon in the main tourist season. Remember that, if you disembark to look at the fort, you will have to catch the next boat from Cartagena to return! The total round trip to include a visit to the fort will be around two hours.
Christmas Fort was built in the mid-19th Century (1860) as additional defence for protection of the bay and therefore Cartagena and its naval facilities. However, it was not the first building on its site being built over the remains of the old Bateria de Navidad of the 17th Century. The ‘new’ Christmas Fort, together with the Santa Ana Battery could mount a telling crossfire at the harbour mouth. Once its usefulness was past, Christmas Fort progressively fell into ruins, before a process of restoration began in 2005. Today it not only acts as a reminder of the nature of such forts in the second half of the 19th Century, but it has also been turned into a more general Interpretation Centre for the Defensive Architecture of Cartagena throughout the ages.
The restored rooms in the fort have their own distinct themes. The first room you will enter is devoted to displays of how the fort was restored. The second room contains a model of the Bay of Cartagena and of the defensive structures which were progressively built through the ages to defend the harbour. This theme is continued in the following room where a display case shows artillery pieces used at various times through the centuries, as well as explaining the need for new defensive batteries along the coastline right up to the massive Vickers’ guns which were installed in the 20th Century.
While all the rooms so far have been extensively restored, the next one, the gunpowder magazine (“polvorin”) has been left so you can see how the fort originally looked. It used to have 17 cannons and although the next room contains one, this is not from the fort. It is, in fact, rather older, dating from 1812 and having come from the great Carlos III defensive wall in Cartagena itself. The displays here also show you how a cannon was fired, with various items of equipment hung on the wall. You can also see how the cannon moved laterally on the curved iron rails and how vertical elevation was altered by using the iron loop in the ceiling. Note also at the back of the room an air vent above the door which was to allow gases to vent. Each cannon would be attended by four soldiers and one officer. The last two rooms on the ground floor cover the casement style of construction of the fort, with nine rooms below and eight on the first floor. The final room contains a number of relics from the 19th Century.
From here you can go up the steps to an intermediate level which houses one of the fort’s novel features – toilets! Believe it or not, the Fuerte de Navidad has the distinction of being the first Spanish fort to have purpose-built toilets, even if they appear very rudimentary to the modern eye with their direct outlet to the sea.
You now have the choice of ascending a steep spiral staircase to the first floor, or returning to the ground level to go around and up by some easier steps. Once on top, you can fully appreciate the command which the fort offered over the harbour with its two levels of cannon. Also at this top level are the fort’s kitchens, although naturally these are on the opposite side from the harbour itself, where defensive purposes took priority and sleeping quarters. It is said that the Spanish Army in the second half of the 19th Century suffered from a lack of food, with the traditional fare being broth with some meat, to which potatoes and pulses were added. This was served with bread which was often hard and old. The soldiers would eat from pewter plates wherever they were able to do so. The kitchen at the Fuerte de Navidad had two wood-fuelled heaters for food and marble preparation surfaces which would be easier to clean than wood.
When you return back to the quayside to await the next Tourist Boat from Cartagena, look back across the entrance to the harbour and you will be able to see the corresponding fort to the Fuerte de Navidad on the other side. The quay has a breakwater protruding into the harbour entrance to give some protection against the elements and there is a red lighthouse at the end. This breakwater, together with another, was designed in the 1860s, following a major storm in 1862 and was designed to defend the bay against such storms.
The journey back to Cartagena in the Tourist Boat is longer than the outward journey as it first continues out into the wider bay. One of the features which will be pointed out is the naval station which has the dubious distinction of being the point from which the Spanish gold reserves were loaded on to ships to be taken to Russia during the Civil War!
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer, who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at, and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. Clive and Rosie’s book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books including the follow-up “Exploring Murcia, More Days Out”), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.