One of the real joys of Spain, for me, is discovering its banquet of exciting cities that are not Barcelona and Madrid.
Far from the big two, Seville is another urban pleasure that appeals to tourists, but a 90-minute drive (or two-hour train ride) south of here is arguably Spain’s most exotic city of all.
I’m talking about Cadiz. It’s in a sensational setting, wedged on a thin peninsula plunging into the Atlantic Ocean and bordered by sprawling salt marshes tickled by the wind.
Its story is suitably dramatic. Dating back over 3,000 years to the Phoenician era, Cadiz claims to be the oldest permanently inhabited city in Western Europe and has seen its fortunes fluctuate like the waves of the Atlantic crashing into its sturdy stone fortifications.
Whatever season you visit Cadiz in the future, you will (probably) be greeted by a radiant blue sky, under which unwind a knot of atmospheric and narrow streets teeming with fabulous architecture and Andalusian culture. perennial.
Come in February and you can witness one of the most exuberant carnivals east of Rio de Janeiro, with 10 days of song, dance, drink, feast and costume wearing bringing together the 120,000 inhabitants of town (Gaditanos) as winter draws to a close. Cadiz is said to have adopted this carnival tradition in the 16th century, drawing inspiration from Venice, a port with which it traded heavily during the Renaissance.
Cadiz’s glory years passed somewhat later after capturing the lion’s share of affairs with the American colonies from Spain (Christopher Columbus had left Cadiz on some of his travels to the New World).
A symbol of colonial-era prosperity is the 18th-century Baroque-Neoclassical Cathedral, a yellow-domed gem that sparkles near the seafront promenade. You can climb one of the cathedral’s spiers for tours. choppy and airy views, or, for what many Gaditanos consider their town’s best view, the Torre Tavira ladder – one of the more than 100 watchtowers that line Cadiz.
Merchants added these viewing portals to their properties so they could monitor who was trying to enter the Gulf of Cadiz. Their paranoia was understandable. The blue-green waters once buzzed with pirates and corsairs eager for the booty sailors brought to Cadiz by boat.
The English sailor, Sir Francis Drake, was one of them. He attacked and burned Cadiz in 1587, and devastated dozens of Spanish warships, in an attack dubbed the “Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard”. The damage caused by Drake and his cronies helped delay the invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, which failed the following year.
Given its intoxicating past, it’s no surprise that Cadiz has been the scene of historical fictional novels.
While sipping a café con leche and watching the world go by from one of the terraces overlooking the squares and alleys of Cadiz’s old town, I leaf through an English translation of The Siege – a novel by the Spanish author. Arturo Perez-Reverte. Published in 2010, it takes place two centuries before, when Cadiz is under siege by Napoleon’s forces and a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer lurks the streets. His intricate plot and superb sense of time and space earned him the 2014 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award (you can find a copy in one of the excellent independent bookstores that dot Cadiz).
I would definitely recommend staying in Cadiz for at least two nights.
Strolling and getting lost in the labyrinthine historic heart of the city is a pleasure. You’ll stop to browse pretty churches, antique display cases, and colorful tiled walls, and can visit galleries, museums, and ancient archaeological sites (a voucher is the Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir, which, using a mix of ruins and multimedia exhibits, transports you back to Phoenician Gades and Roman Gadir, the first settlements of Cadiz).
Have a bite to eat at one of the many outdoor tapas bars and seafood restaurants or frolic around the bustling, semi-open central market, where you can mingle with the locals and sample everything from fresh fried fish and Argentinian oysters – empanadas and churros style.
Fancy some time at the beach? The Cadiz peninsula is bordered by pretty strips of sand, including Playa de la Victoria, at the gateway to the modern part of Cadiz. Another beach, and a beautiful place to watch the sunset, is La Caleta. Squeezing the western limits of the Old Town, he starred when Cadiz doubled as Havana in the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day (clutching a cigar and feeding a mojito, Pierce Brosnan’s 007 spies, Jinx de Halle Berry emerging from the water in her sleek orange bikini and greets her by saying, “Gorgeous view”). Cadiz, in this case, is “twin” with the Cuban capital – although you’re more likely to hear the sounds of flamenco, rather than salsa, throb through its scorching streets.
I would definitely recommend staying in Cadiz for at least two nights – perhaps in the elegant Parador de Cadiz, which featured in the Bond movie and nestles between La Caleta and the charming botanical gardens of Genoves Park, in the shade of the Palm trees.
After you’ve had your fill of exploring the city, you might want to take a detour or two. The charming seaside towns that stretch along the neighboring Costa de la Luz, the bird-adorned Donana National Park and the mighty Rock of Gibraltar are just a few of the options. Then there are the quaint bodegas (wineries) of Jerez de la Frontera, the hub of Spain’s alluring Sherry Triangle.
For more information on visiting Cadiz and Spain, see andalucia.org and spain.info.