Discovering the simple joys of Spain in Cadiz (away from mainstream Barcelona and Madrid!)

Steve McKennaThe West Australian
The dome of Cadiz cathedral glitters from the seafront.
Camera IconThe dome of Cadiz cathedral glitters from the seafront. Credit: Steve McKenna

One of the real joys of Spain, for me, is discovering its banquet of enthralling cities that aren’t Barcelona and Madrid.

Away from the big two, Seville is another urban delight that woos tourists, but a 90-minute drive (or two-hour rail trip) south of here is arguably the most exotic Spanish city of them all.

I’m talking about Cadiz. It is in a sensational setting, wedged onto a slim peninsula poking into the Atlantic Ocean and edged by sprawling, wind-tickled salt marshes.

View over Cadiz.
Camera IconView over Cadiz. Credit: Steve McKenna

Its history is suitably dramatic. Dating back more than 3000 years to Phoenician times, Cadiz claims to be Western Europe’s oldest continuously-inhabited city and has seen its fortunes fluctuate like the rolling Atlantic waves that crash into its sturdy stone fortifications.

Whatever season you visit Cadiz in future, you’ll (likely) be greeted by radiant blue skies, beneath which unfurls a knot of narrow, atmospheric streets brimming with fabulous architecture and vivacious Andalusian culture.

Come in February and you can groove at one of the most exuberant carnivals east of Rio de Janeiro, with 10 days of singing, dancing, drinking, feasting and costume-wearing bringing the city’s 120,000 residents (Gaditanos) together as winter nears its end. It’s said Cadiz adopted this carnival tradition in the 16th century, taking its cue from Venice, a port with which it did a lot of trade in Renaissance times.

The glory years of Cadiz flowed a little later after it captured the lion’s share of business with Spain’s American colonies (Christopher Columbus had departed from Cadiz on some of his voyages to the New World).

The Moorish Revival-style Gran Teatro Fallas is one of the most beautiful buildings in Cadiz.
Camera IconThe Moorish Revival-style Gran Teatro Fallas is one of the most beautiful buildings in Cadiz. Credit: Steve McKenna

A symbol of the prosperity of the colonial era is the 18th-century Baroque-Neoclassical cathedral, a yellow-domed jewel that glitters near the seafront promenade. You can climb up one of the cathedral’s bell towers for stirring, breezy vistas, or alternatively, for what many Gaditanos reckon is the best view of their city, scale Torre Tavira - one of more than 100 watch-towers that punctuate Cadiz.

Merchants added these observation portals to their properties so they could keep a lookout on who was trying to enter the Gulf of Cadiz. Their paranoia was understandable. The blue-green waters used to buzz with pirates and corsairs lusting after the booty that sailors brought to Cadiz by ship.

The English seaman, Sir Francis Drake, was one. He raided and burned down Cadiz in 1587, and laid waste to dozens of Spanish naval vessels, in an attack dubbed the “Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard”. The damage done by Drake and his cohorts helped delay the Spanish Armada’s planned invasion of England - which came, and failed, the following year.

Beach time in Cadiz.
Camera IconBeach time in Cadiz. Credit: Steve McKenna

Considering its intoxicating past, it’s unsurprising that Cadiz has been the setting for historical fiction novels.

While sipping a cafe con leche, and watching the world go by from one of the terraces that tumble out onto the plazas and alleys of Cadiz’s old town, I leaf through an English translation of The Siege - a novel by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. Published in 2010, it’s set two centuries prior, when Cadiz is under siege by Napoleon’s forces and a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer is stalking the streets. Its intricate plot and superb sense of time and place brought it the 2014 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger award (you may find a copy in one of the excellent independent bookshops that scatter Cadiz).

I’d definitely recommend staying in Cadiz for at least a couple of nights.

Dawdling, and getting lost, in the city’s maze-like historic core is a pleasure. You’ll pause to browse pretty churches, antique shopfronts and colourful tiled walls, and can call in at galleries, museums and ancient archaeological sites (a good one is the Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir, which, using a mix of ruins and multimedia exhibits, transports you back to Phoenician Gades and Roman Gadir, the earlier settlements of Cadiz).

Al fresco bars and eateries stud Cadiz.
Camera IconAl fresco bars and eateries stud Cadiz. Credit: Steve McKenna

Have a bite to eat at one of the numerous al fresco tapas bars and seafood restaurants or fossick around the vibrant, semi-open-air Central Market, where you can rub shoulders with the locals and sample everything from fresh fried fish and oysters to Argentinian-style empanadas and churros.

Hankering for some beach time? The Cadiz peninsula is lined with attractive strips of sand, among them Playa de la Victoria, on the doorstep of the modern part of Cadiz. Another beach, and a fine place to watch the sunset, is La Caleta. Hugging the old town’s western limits, it starred when Cadiz doubled up as Havana in the 2002 James Bond flick, Die Another Day (clutching a cigar and nursing a mojito, Pierce Brosnan’s 007 spies Halle Berry’s Jinx emerging from the water in her sleek orange bikini and greets her by saying: “Magnificent view”). Cadiz, as it happens, is “twinned” with the Cuban capital - although you’re more likely to hear the sounds of flamenco, rather than salsa, pulsating through its steamy streets.

Cadiz old town is a delight to wander.
Camera IconCadiz old town is a delight to wander. Credit: Steve McKenna

I’d definitely recommend staying in Cadiz for at least a couple of nights - perhaps at the stylish Parador de Cadiz, which featured in the Bond movie and nestles between La Caleta and the lovely, palm-shaded Genoves Park botanical gardens.

After you’ve had your fill of exploring the city, you might fancy a side trip or two. The charming seaside towns strung along the neighbouring Costa de la Luz, the birdlife-festooned Donana National Park and the mighty Rock of Gibraltar are just some of the options. Then there are the quaint bodegas (wineries) of Jerez de la Frontera, the hub of Spain’s seductive Sherry Triangle.

For more information on visiting Cadiz and Spain, see andalucia.org and spain.info.

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