June 26, 2014
A Perfect Day In Cadiz
Visitors to Europe understandably head for the “honeypots,” the major attractions such as Venice, Rome, London, and Paris. These destinations are rightly on everyone’s hit list with their wealth of historic sites and iconic monuments. If time and money are tight, then it makes a lot of sense to hit these cities first. But for every Paris or Rome, there are countless, less well known destinations that, while they may not have the kudos that are attached to the big hotspots, have the advantage of being more quiet and accessible. I recently experienced just such an “alternative” destination when I made my third visit to one of my favorite cities, the ancient port of Cadiz in Spain.
Cadiz is reputed to be the oldest port in Europe. Often overshadowed by its neighbor Seville, Cadiz is something of a hidden gem. It straddles a narrow peninsula and consists mainly of a warren of narrow, cobbled streets set out in a regular grid system. Most of the buildings are extremely old and many floors high. The height of these buildings means that it is hard to get bearings from the city’s landmarks and, though I am pretty good at finding my way around, I seem to get lost easily in Cadiz. It is a compact place, however, and losing your way usually means finding a little corner that you missed before. It’s just a great place to wander at random.
The story of Cadiz goes back as far as the 11th century B.C. when Phoenician traders from Tyre established an outpost there and named it Gadir. The fertile land around the port provided abundant and high quality produce, particularly wine, olives, and fruit. From around 218 B.C., this area of Spain — the modern day Andalusia — came under Roman control, but was subject to frequent invasions from the likes of the Visigoths and Vandals. Yet it was not until 711 AD that the next major chapter in the region’s history was written. It was then that the Moorish civilization swept into Spain in their drive to spread the word of Islam. With the Moors came a new, more elaborate style of architecture and a passion for learning and knowledge. They built huge libraries and promoted science, literature, medicine and philosophy. The magnificent palaces of the Moors are unsurpassed anywhere in the world and the Alhambra in Grenada was the masterpiece. Grenada was at the centre of Moorish rule for centuries until it was finally overthrown by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. That was, of course, the year in which Christopher Columbus set off for his famous voyage of discovery to the Americas and Ferdinand and Isabella were his great supporters as he set sail from the Andalusian coast to open a new chapter in Spain’s history.
All these cultural influences are evident in Cadiz. The city’s main beach area is a wide sweep of golden sand that is protected by the remains of the old Roman harbor. A walk along the harbor walls is a walk into an ancient Cadiz. On the rocks beside the harbor walls, local fishermen were cleaning their catches and feeding the waste to a bunch of tough looking yellow-legged gulls.
Not far from the old harbor is a beautiful cathedral with its huge, gilded dome dazzling in the sun. It is a long climb to the top of the cathedral, but worth every bead of perspiration. Those who make the effort emerge to a stunning panorama looking out over the city’s rooftops. Most of the roofs are covered in ridged tiles in gorgeous pastel earth colors ranging from a pale, faded cream through honeyed amber, to a deep, “dried-blood” red.
Cadiz is more than its ancient history. Its citizens may be just about as laid back as you can get, but the place has a buzz about it. This latest visit was on a Saturday when the locals are out in force and one place they all seem to head for is the downtown market. The city fathers have built a modern, functional stainless steel fish market in the center of the square where the old one stood, but had the good sense to preserve the colonnaded old structure that surrounded it. It’s a great mix of old and new. The people of Cadiz just love their fish and the market is a riot of color and noise with a huge variety of produce from bacalao (dried cod) to shark, along with salmon, swordfish, strange shellfish and snails by the sackfull.
I finish up at a shaded bar on San Antonio square. Cold beer cuts the heat like a Moorish sword and a couple of plates of tapas go down a treat. The pork cheeks in rich tomato and pepper sauce were the perfect end to a perfect day.
Image Credit: Thinkstock