I have a feeling I’m probably a bit too oblivious for most travel. I’m reasonably alert, given coffee or an amphetamine-flavoured substitute; I have a grounding in a number of romance languages, I can put on a surprising burst of speed if menaced by thugs, and I’m reasonably sure I can hide things in my anal cavity, given 5 minutes and two condoms. So I’m likely to make it through an airport terminal relatively unscathed – but I do worry about what I’d actually gain from the trip. It’s a vicious circle, in fact – I’m worried that I’d be so concerned to make the most of it that I’d cram too much “important stuff” in, and miss getting the feel of the place, or meeting the locals. Or that I’d avoid doing anything at all to preclude that problem, and wind up sitting in a blisteringly hot hotel room, waiting daytime soaps on peseta-per-view.
So it’d have to be somewhere that doesn’t have too much “stuff”, but not none, either. Because, really, wilderness is just another word for “no-one could be arsed to tidy”, isn’t it? So Rome’s out. The Grand Canyon’s out. No Beijing – too busy, no Kenya – not busy enough. Unless you’re in the private security sector. What I’m really looking for is an area that never really “made it”, world-dominationally speaking, but at least had a bit of a crack. Looked like it was going somewhere at one point, before sputtering to an ignominiousstop. The kind of regime Harry Turtledove might pit against aliens.
So, given those restrictions, I have two excellent alternatives.
But wait, Spain was like, the biggest empire on earth for a couple of hundred years – that’s a heavyweight champ, not a near-miss! No, further back than that. Cartagena’s name is a distorted clue to its actual origins – originally Carthago Novo (in Phoenician, of course), it was founded by Hamilcar Barca in 228 B.C. to solidify off Carthage’s claim to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, less than 30 years later, his son, Hannibal, found out that it’s not safe to drive elephants on Italian roads, and the gig was up.
In Cartagena, you can see the remnants of this brief window when the scales of world history were so precariously balanced – before the centre of Western civilisation was cemented with finality, and a dash of mythical salt, on the unlikely Italian peninsula.
But there’s another important way in which the city came off second best. In the 1930’s, Cartagena was on the wrong side of history again, during the Spanish Civil War. The deep water port that had attracted the sea-faring Cathaginians centuries before had made Cartagena the home of Spain’s Mediterranean navy; and it remained loyal to the Republican cause until the bitter end. Cartagena was the last Republican stronghold to surrender to Franco, and suffered some of the most brutal experiments in urban aerial bombardment carried out in the entire war. Thanks to the superbly named Condor Legion for those shennanigans.
Oh, and there’s other cool stuff, too.
Again, Spanish-speaking, but that’s not the connection. During the 19th Century, Latin America was t
he Next Big Thing. After finally clearing up the debris of San Martin’s revolutionaries, having won their freedom, looked to be on the same trajectory as the North Americans – a robust economic balance between urban industrialism and rural slave-run plantations. Agressive expansion into untrammelled wilderness, clever protectionism and open immigration turbocharged their ascent into the ranks of first world economies. But it all went horribly wrong in the 1930’s. Unlike the US, who renewed the social contract with the New Deal, Argentina turned to oligarchism and protectionism, and spent the bulk of the 20th Century at war with its own citizens under a variety of military and civilian regimes.
But so close! From the 1880s to the 1920’s, Argentina considered itself one of the emerging powers of the new world order, and built its capital city on that scale; and in a style both European and American deco. Here’s a few of the best: