For me, that's perfect. Even better was the apartment where I'd be staying for ten days had an impressively well placed balcony. Due to the angle and height, it became a sun trap. That meant while I was sat on the balcony in my shorts, looking very summery, confused Spaniards were staring up, bundled in their winter coats. They probably thought I looked a right prat, but I didn't care: summer time! :D
The apartment was in a town a short distance from Murcia Airport, Lo Pagan. Be aware that the taxis appear to be rather expensive: we paid €25 for a 10-15 minute journey. He initially claimed it was no more than €20, then alleged our flat was further than he'd expected and tacked on the extra. That's to be expected with airport taxis though, they are almost always more expensive than normal.
If you're looking for WiFi (I'm always looking for WiFi), it's available at plenty of cafes, bars and hotels, such as Hotel Traina. On the waterfront, there is a large flag advertising free WiFi: that seems to work quite well. It also appears to be genuinely free, surprisingly, without even the usual sign-up page trying to harvest your email.
Lo Pagan is famous for its salt pools, filled with mineral rich mud. I had a brief paddle through the chilly waters, but the mud feels fantastic on your feet. There is also a large shallow lagoon, which would be perfect for swimming if it was slightly later in the year. As it was, the water was freezing cold. I went in anyway and forced myself (slowly) for a rather bracing swim.
In my many trips to Spain, I have never gone as early as this in the year, meaning I had my first experience of the Spanish 'Fiesta de los Reyes' (Holiday of the Kings). I had not realised what a huge deal it was in Spain. Lo Pagan is a small place, but the parade was comparatively huge. It began with several cars lugging huge sound systems, preceded by an assortment of lavishly costumed figures. The first few were Disney characters, then what appeared to be the entire primary and secondary school intake of Lo Pagan performing choreographed dance routines to cheesy seasonal music.
Bringing up the rear were the kings themselves, each with their own continental flavour. First up was the Asian king, sat in a pagoda with a tiger. Next was Melchor (or Gazpar? Can't remember which is which), representing Europe, then finally Balthasar for Africa, who appeared to be in blackface, somewhat disturbingly. Each king was flanked by several women in leotards and sparkly tops, along with an assortment of large cardboard boxes. As floats ambled down the streets, the king and their attendants were reaching into those boxes and flinging sweets at the streets lined with children and their parents.
I was in the first row or two, so I got repeatedly hit in the face with some of those sweets. You also need to watch your footing, as the floor swarms with children scrabbling for bonbons, many of whom were carrying large bags to maximise later sugar-guzzling. It was an odd experience, to say the least. Still, as somebody who loves christmas, I like that in Spain it extends through to early January. ;)
Lo Pagan is very flat, meaning it's perfect for bikes. There are plenty of places to rent a bike for one or more days. I paid €12 for a day (10am through to 5:30pm), which was plenty of time to fit in everything I wanted to see. Cycling up around the salty lagoons is perfect if you want a slow, relaxed amble around some beautiful scenery. You can head all the way up, bu if you want a circular route, the way back is trickier. If your bike wheels are thick enough, you can return via the beach, but there are a few sections heavy with seaweed and/or thicker sand that make that tougher going. It is doable though, and cycling past the sea is cool. I've never cycled down a beach before, probably because I've never been on a bike with super thick tyres before.
Should you wonder what those windmills (molinos) are doing, they were built in the early 1900s. Their role was to fill the salt marshes with water, according to the leaflet. It mentions two of these by name, Molino de Quintin and Molino de la Calcetera, though I don't know if that means there are only two of them. Either way, they certainly add to the scenery, putting me in mind of Dutch landscape painting. On the one hand that's random, as I don't see much similarlity between South European Spain and North European Netherlands, but then again, both Lo Pagan and Holland are flat and full of bikes.
This area is all part of a nature reserve, the Salinas de San Pedro, declared a national park in 1985. It's full of specially designed cycle routes, or you can also hike if you prefer. Along those routes are a range of different birds, from black-headed gulls to kentish plovers and avocets. The big draw are the flamingoes, normally white (IIRC my Attenborough documentaries correctly, the pink comes from the algae they eat elsewhere), but you do see pink ones during migrations.
As it is so calm and shallow, that also makes the area perfect for water sports. Or at least, my introduction to water sports. I'm not a big fan of the sea, but I like swimming pools and lakes, particularly when they are clean and flat like the Mar Menor. There's a large watersports centre a short walk from where we were staying, SeaWorld Pinatar, which was offering windsurfing lessons.
The centre has only been around since May 2016, so is still building up its profile. That's probably why we were able to get a 2 hour windsurfing lesson quite cheap, at only €30 each. After running through the terminology, our instructor (Fran, I'm guessing short for Francisco?) set us loose on the water.
You want to make sure your back is always to the wind. When initially getting onto the board, there should be a little white wedge sticking up. That has a 70cm bit underneath that tells you when you're too close to the lakebed. Push the white thing down with your back foot (the one nearer the blue bit on the board that doesn't rise up), keeping your front foot (nearer the nose, which is white and tilts upwards) in line. Make sure your front foot doesn't go beyond the white line, or move out of line.
Bend at the knees to keep your balance, adusting your feet if necessary, but always returning to that in-line position. To lift up the sail, grab the elastic bright thing (I can't remember the name) and yank it upright. You're then going to grab the boom (the bar that circles all the way around the sail) with your hand nearest the nose, reaching across your body. Your other hand grabs the boom lower down on the same side, alternately pulling it in towards you and letting go (like opening and closing a door).
The hardest part was getting the board to turn around. You can either tack (turning behind you) or jibe (turning in front). I didn't quite get the technique for this, but managed to get something workable. I dropped the sail down a little and jerkily moved around the sail until I had my feet aligned the other way. It worked, but I don't think I was doing it right. I do know you're meant to keep your arms straight, though, that helped.
I'm not sure if I'll windsurf again, but I'm glad I tried it. If I ever try more watersports, this is the best place for me. When you fall off the board, you can easily land on your feet in the shallow waters, so I only rarely got a faceful of cold seawater. Good teaching by Fran too, I can recommend him if you're in the area. ;)
If you know your ancient history, then you might think the name Cartagena sounds a bit like Carthage. That's no accident, as the city can boast of a Carthaginian founder, Hasdrubal, back in the 3rd century BCE. It was later conquered by Scipio during the second Punic War, renamed New Carthage. There would be an Islamic period some further centuries down the line, part of the great Moorish history of Southern Spain, before Cartagena gained its current name.
Fortunately for posterity, much of that history has remained relatively intact. After arriving into Cartagena on the bus (it took us a little under an hour from Lo Pagan), the Punic Wall (Muralla Punica) is a short walk from the station. In there you can buy a combined ticket for €12 which gets you access to three sites run by Cartagena Puerto de Culturas: the Punic Wall, the Roman Theatre (Museo Teatro Romano) and the Roman Forum (Barrio Foro Molinete).
All three of those have been beautifully presented, partly because they have only recently been pushed as tourist sights. The wall has a large, well appointed centre around it, so although the actual wall isn't all that extensive, there is loads of info about it. The introductory video is really good and packed with useful knowledge, unlike many others I've seen. You also get entry into a much later crypt, within the same building.
There was also a special treat perfectly calibrated for my tastes, as it heavily appealed to my nostalgia: a historical diorama made of Playmobil. This appears to be a city-wide project as it popped up elsewhere, too. At the Punic Wall centre, the Playmobil figures were re-enacting Hannibal crossing the Alps, along with a typical scene from ancient Cartagena, showing the wall in action.
Another short walk gets you to the Roman Forum, parts of which are still being uncovered and restored. Again, there is plenty of information to read with several interactive videos. The forum is split into three main sections, starting with the baths at the far left after you enter. The peristyle is in the middle, then finally the atrium building at the far right.
A raised walkway provides a view over the whole forum, then tucked away near the entrance is a set of stairs, matched by another slightly further down. These both lead into the forum itself, one to the baths, the other to the atrium. Once again, you're also treated to a Playmobil diorama, this time celebrating the nativity. Whoever made these (the label on the front reads 'SuresClick': I'm not sure if that's a person, a group or a company) has an entertaining sense of humour, as they dotted anachronistic figures throughout, turning it into a kind of Playmobil 'Where's Wally'.
The last option on our combined ticket was the best, rightly regarded as the highlight in Cartagena: the Roman Theatre. Not only is it magnificently preserved and restored, with a commanding view of the city, it also has an intriguing backstory. Up until the late 1980s, the theatre had been buried under successive centuries of urban sprawl. There were houses up the steps, then even a church built out of the side.
For over a thousand years, it had been forgotten there was even a theatre here, until it was uncovered just a few decades ago. Since then, it has been transformed into an excellent giant museum piece. There is extensive information about the various stages the theatre has been through, its excavation, plus a number of artefacts retrieved by archaeologists (such as a fine set of vases depicting Juno/Hera, Jupiter/Zeus and I think Minerva/Athena).
It was especially cool to get all three of these sites initially to ourselves, as we got there early. It is also off-season at the moment, though as far as I'm aware, even in peak season Cartagena isn't a major tourist mecca when compared to the Costa del Sol. Hopefully it stays that way, but the attractions as so good I am sure numbers will continue to rise.
Our last stop in Cartagena was the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, which as it isn't run by that company does not feature on the combined ticket. It's only €3, though it is also quite small: if you want to get in free, go on a weekend. This is very much an educational museum, where almost all the content is geared towards teaching you just what underwater archaeology involves.
Everything is one massive room, with the description of underwater archaeology taking up one side as you walk down a long ramp, then moving into descriptions of the ancient Punic, Greek and Phoenician civilisations that impacted Cartagena. That includes interactive videos describing naval terminology, trade routes, shipbuilding and the like, along with cross-sections of ships along the far wall.
You'll also learn how to tie knots (that Hercules Knot looks handy, I'll try that next time I have two bits of string to tie together), smell different trade goods (like vanilla, chocolate and cinnamon) and learn about amphora. I had wondered what the pointy section at the bottom was for, which the museum explains meant they could be stacked efficiently in a boat (with a lifesize example to demonstrate).