Over eight days in January, the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena in Colombia, stages its annual music festival with stunning performances by international artists such as the Labèque Sisters and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
There's something magical about this city where Gabriel García Márquez set his famous novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Its immaculately restored colonial buildings, nestling inside the 16th century walls and linked by narrow bustling streets, mean that this a music festival like no other. Ironically the first event I attend is in a church in one of the poorer suburbs, outside the historical centre, in the sprawling modern city. Entrance is free and I notice school kids packed in the front pews enjoying music from the Colombian Cuarteto de Cuerdas Q-Arte and the Quinteto Amarcord playing Nina Rota. This is one of a number of concerts designed to bring music to the least privileged neighbourhoods of the city, where most inhabitants have no access to the main events.
The inaugural concert is in the Teatro Adolfo Mejia, a magnificently restored colonial venue, made all the more special by the attendance of the president himself. People dress up here, the men in pressed white shirts and the women with immaculate hairdos and long slinky dresses. It really does seem like a time warp and it's easy to imagine that I'm in a bygone era.
A spirited rendition of Ravel's Spanish Rhapsody by the Labèque Sisters is followed by Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra joining the keyboards. Acoustics are excellent and the evening ends with their perfect interpretation of Stravinsky's Pulcinella.
The Labèques and the Orpheus's are in the city for a few days and, as well as the Teatro, perform open air in the Plaza San Pedro and in the former convent which is now the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. Katia Labèque tells me that Cartagena sets her imagination going and her playing benefits from the change of atmosphere. It certainly shows in the performances and there's a marvellously camp rendition of Carnival of the Animals a few days later, as well as an inspiring rendition of West Side Story, specially arranged by Leonard Bernstein for two pianos.
It's not just sisters as two brothers also make their mark. The Assads are guitarists from Brazil who perform music from Latin America. The Argentinian Astor Piazzolla wrote pieces for them and their concert also includes work from Egberto Gismonti plus classics from Villa-Lobos. Later in the week they stage a Spanish night which climaxes with Manuel de Falla's Seven Spanish Songs with mezzosoprano Cristina Zavalloni.
Usually there are three concerts daily and most last no longer than 90 minutes so there's plenty of time for sightseeing and eating. And it's not all classical - Colombian folk music comes from Ensamble Agile, a trio of bass, Colombian harp and cuatro, a four string guitar that really does punch above its weight.
There's also the Argentinian bandoneon player, Rodolfo Mederos, whose group provides musical accompaniment to a recital of poems of Juan Manuel Roca. I'm afraid my Spanish isn't good enough to do it justice but I'm told there was a lot of talk of heaving breasts and unrequited love.
Perhaps the most striking event is a tribute to Nino Rota, staged in the docs with Banda Radar and Cuarteto Q-Arte. It's pitch dark as we're bussed in past huge container ships, cranes loading them with cargo, to a venue at the water's edge with the towers of Cartagena providing a scenic backdrop. Huge screens project images from the films of Fellini as the musicians play the scores. Behind us, fireships spray water in the air, lit by their spotlights, and there's the low rumble of cranes and containers providing a percussive accompaniment. It's not the end of the festival, which will culminate in a performance of Rossini operas, but my time is up so it's an appropriate farewell.
Before I travelled to Colombia, many people worried about my safety, concerned about the activities of drug cartels and the FARC guerrillas. Indeed the festival has had difficulties in the past attracting top international musicians because of the bad press the country has received. Ironically, even in times of struggle, Cartagena has always been an outpost of tranquillity and security has never been a problem.
Today the country is recovering from the dark days and tourists are returning. After leaving Cartagena I travel to Bogota and the surrounding region and encounter no problems whatsoever. Even better, the Colombians I meet are gentle, helpful people and I never hear a voice raised. At the moment the country is one of the best kept secrets and is a remarkable place to visit - my advice is to get there quick or, at least, attend next year's festival in January - you won't regret it.
Cartagena Music Festival has information about the festival.
Colombia Travel has information about the county.
The Movich is a small boutique hotel in the centre of the old city.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.