Friday, July 12, 2013

The sweet allure of ancient Cadiz

“…Cadiz, sweet Cadiz! is the most delightful town I ever beheld…,” wrote Lord Byron to his mother in 1809.
   Byron was entranced by the town and “the most beautiful women in Spain”, whom he declared were charming and pretty and graceful. In fact, they were a voluptuous delight the staid English could barely imagine.
Narrow alleys lead to ancient squares
   Cadiz may no longer hold the allure of the exotic, after all, the Costa is just around the corner, but there is still plenty to be besotted with.
   Founded by the Phoenicians in 1100BC, Cadiz is a peninsular-island on the Atlantic Coast. Less than a day’s drive from Lisbon to the west or southeast across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco, Cadiz enjoys a location, which is simultaneously isolated and strategic. Seville, Cordoba, Ronda and Granada are hours away.  Jerez, the home of sherry, is a day return trip. Coto de Donana, the largest national park in Europe and the habitat of wildlife and numerous species of birds, lies to the west.  And to the east, the vast wild beaches of the Costa de la Luz are probably the most untouched in Europe.
   Once the launching point for ships sailing to the newly discovered lands of America, today Cadiz is a quiet, laid-back resort where Spanish holidaymakers enjoy the surf and wide sandy beaches.

Sun and surf in Cadiz

   Cadiz old town is a warren of narrow alleyways, once the salty haunt of sailors and vagabonds. Next door is new Cadiz, a strip of high rise hotels and apartments overlooking the sea. The two worlds collide when the promontory of the modern town meets the headland of the old town.
   The old town, preserved from development by its ocean fortifications, is a relic of the 18th century when Cadiz was at its most prosperous. The plazas, both grand and intimate, the churches, public buildings, turreted houses and golden domed cathedral, were financed by the gold and silver trade. With loads of Spanish loot floating around, no wonder Cadiz developed a reputation for indulgence.

The old town's golden domed cathedral sparkles in the sun

   European merchants spent their wealth embellishing the city. All the routes from America converged here, so to keep an eye on the movement of ships in the port, the merchants finished off their mansions and palaces with watchtowers. Today, 126 of the original 160 watchtowers are still standing. The Torre Tavira, the tallest tower in the city, has a camera obscura, an idea of Leonardo Da Vinci’s, which reflects a panoramic view of the city.
   A leisurely stroll over a few hours is all you need to take in the entire old town. And wherever you walk, whether through the parks on the fringes of town or down back streets, a glimpse of the sea is just around the corner.
   Cadiz has endured its share of drama and violence, withstanding a siege by Napoleon’s troops and falling to the forces of Franco’s dictatorship. The decisive Battle of Trafalgar, waged off this coast in 1805, remains a wound in Spain’s side. The Anglo-Spanish Maritime War may be over, but the locals seem to be still smarting from the notorious raid and sacking of the town by Sir Francis Drake in 1587. In an audacious attempt to gain control of trade with the New World, El Draque (The Dragon, as the Spanish called Drake) destroyed up to thirty of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the English.
    The site of Drake’s attack is Playa de la Caleta, a pretty beach with seafood restaurants inside the old harbour wall. The beach is flanked by the fortresses of Santa Catalina on the western tip of the headland and San Sebastian, at the end of the protective arm of the wall. Jutting out to sea, San Sebastian Castle is home to the Faro (lighthouse) but is open to the public by appointment only.
    Given its century after century history of being fought over and occupied, it’s ironic the atmosphere today is so relaxed. The town feels safe to walk around and unlike so many towns in Spain, is not over run with pickpockets, bag-snatchers and car thieves. Perhaps its size means fewer places to hide or perhaps there are richer pickings in the pockets of English, American and northern European tourists elsewhere. For one thing you won’t find in Cadiz, is hordes of tourists. Yes, you will find people on holiday, but these are overwhelmingly Spanish, largely Andalusians escaping the excruciating inland summer heat. Unemployment in Andalusia is high and much of the available work tends to be seasonal whether as an agricultural labourer, a waiter or a concierge.  The overall effect is to lower prices, maintaining restaurants and hotels at a level affordable for the Spanish consumer.
   During July and August, the Gaditanos (Cadiz was named Gadir by the Phoenicians) get down to an abundance of consumption, especially in the fish restaurants specialising in Gaditian cuisine which dominate the town.  Stalls selling fried fish operate along the beach and it’s likely English seamen took the dish home to the East End of London from Cadiz, because this is where takeaway fried fish originated.
   Although Cadiz seems relatively wholesome and void of some of the tack associated with Malaga and the Costa del Sol, it covets its tradition of liberalism and tolerance. Certainly Lord Byron seemed to be looking forward to just that when he described his ride through Portugal and Spain to Cadiz. 
The first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage salivates at the delights awaiting:
“But Cadiz, rising on the distant coast,
Calls forth a sweeter, though ignoble praise.
Ah, Vice! How soft are thy voluptuous ways!
While boyish blood is mantling, who can ‘scape
The fascination of thy magic gaze?”

 Byron had a great time in Cadiz
I didn’t find too much vice in Cadiz, but there was a certain lust for life displayed in the thonged, well oiled bodies of the boys and girls frolicking in the surf of Playa de la Victoria, on the left of the peninsular as you approach the town.  Behind the hotels lining this strip of beach, a four-lane highway is less than inspiring, but along the beachfront, numerous restaurants and bars swing into action as the sun goes down. A night market selling African and Spanish crafts sets up at 9pm and operates until the customers run out. If staying in this modern part of town, the ingredients of sun, sand, sea and sangria make for a memorable vacation.
      The clean water sparkles in the sunlight, coarse golden sand, combed daily for rubbish, is spotless. Senoritas flirt cheekily with their amigos, while aging Don Juans and their senoras laze, languid and sensuous, on the banana lounges. Beach bars continue serving drinks and snacks throughout the afternoon and, as a place to while away the siesta hours when the rest of Cadiz is literally deserted, the lure of the beach is almost irresistible.
   Cadiz is definitely old Spain and in mid summer the siesta is adhered to with a vengeance. Between 2pm and 3pm locals go into a feeding frenzy. In packed restaurants waiters thrust giant platters of fresh and fried seafood upon tables crowded with families and friends. Crab legs are crushed ruthlessly and devoured without any false homage to etiquette. Squid, anchovies, plaice, red mullet and hake make up the traditional Cadiz platter while prawns, lobster, shellfish and shrimp parcels satisfy the more restrained.
   You soon realise the wisdom of partaking in this feast; otherwise you run the risk of siesta time starvation. Because once the shutters come down for the afternoon, you may have to wait until 9 or 10pm before they go back up again.
   What to do all afternoon with everything closed? Well, you could go to the beach. Or, you could spend the time engaged in that indoor activity which Lord Byron was so enamoured of. Byron seemed to set out on his travels intending to bonk his way around southern Europe and from several accounts, he succeeded. But it was the Girl of Cadiz who captured his imagination like no other. No English ice-maiden when it came to love, the Spanish girl, in Byron’s case an admiral’s daughter, flashed her fiery eyes and tossed her dark silken tresses in one big come-on.
   However you spend your time in this busy port, the sting of sea spray and salty air will linger in the senses and Cadiz’s easy-going, slightly seedy charm will seduce you.

Reading:  Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and The Girl of Cadiz by Lord Byron

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