Cádiz is western Europe’s oldest continuously-inhabited city. Yes, older than Rome.
Okay, first things first: Cádiz is pronounced KA-dith. Like Judith with a ka. Or KA-diss, if you’re Latin American. Like bupkis without the bup, sort of. But the only place on earth it’s pronounced ka-DEEZ is on the lido deck of a cruise ship, which is where I am standing now, in the warmth of the southern sun, wondering what this Spanish port has in store for me.
A wise man once told me that a great trip has three equal parts: the anticipation, the realization, and the recollection. I have made this one of the guiding principles of my travel life. I spend months wading through the travel literature in advance of a trip, dreaming, wishing, scouting, slavering. So it’s with a certain discomfort that I find myself approaching this medieval harbour without the first clue of what it’s all about.
The Portuguese ports have threatened to strike, you see, and our anticipated arrival in Lisbon (about which I have been reading, planning and slavering for some months) has been kiboshed. Our ship has been unceremoniously rerouted to Cádiz. It is a beautiful little city, we’re told, resplendent in its ancient cobbled walkways and charming shops. I’m frankly skeptical–what are they going to tell us, it’s the only place that could accommodate our floating mountain-hotel on short notice?
But seeing it loom on the horizon, all turrets and stone and church spires, I admit I’m a little excited. It looks compact, walkable, interesting. The sky and sea are moody, and their greys and greens encircle what looks like, well, what I’ve always imagined a medieval Andalusian port to be. I mentally polish up my awful Spanish and we make our way ashore.
The first thing I learn is that I have given this place short-shrift by calling it medieval. Cádiz is much, much older. Founded by the Phoenicians around 1100 BCE, this is western Europe’s oldest continuously-inhabited city. Yes, older than Rome. This narrow spit of land, on the Atlantic side of Gibraltar, would have been fairly strategic real estate for any seafaring culture, and after the Phoenicians were done with it, Carthage had its turn (Hannibal hung his hat here for a while.) Then the Romans ran the place until the Visigoths sacked it in 410 CE. Those Visigoths always ruin everything.
Next came the Moors, of course, who made Qādis their home until 1262. Christopher Columbus sailed from here twice, and local legend has it that some of the magnificent trees in the public gardens were brought back by him. With its plum location, Cádiz gained further prominence with the rise of the Spanish navy and the plundering of the new world, which inevitably brought it under the covetous gaze of Sir Frances Drake and other gold-hungry Englishmen.
With its turbulent history, it’s a wonder that anything remains intact. But intact it is, and a walk along the stone walls surrounding the old town, or Casco Antiguo, is a fine way to get oriented. The Playa de la caleta is the old city’s main beach and it makes for some very good people-watching. You might recognize this stretch from the Bond film Die Another Day. At any rate, photograph the beautiful painted rowboats and continue to the austere Castillo de San Sebastian. Walk the narrow causeway to get a closer look, but you likely won’t have much luck getting inside- the castle is currently closed while its future is being decided.
Continue along the walls, and don’t forget to look down to see dozens of feral cats, painstakingly taken care of by compassionate locals, before making your way inland toward the magnificent cathedral and the numerous plazas of the old town. Yes, there really are charming cobblestone streets here, and they are lined with an impressive variety of shops and cafes.
They serve a fine, fine cup of coffee in this town, if you like it strong and served at stand-up bars, Italian style. And do not leave the downtown without having a torta de almendras, which is Spanish for amazingly tasty almond biscuity-cakey thing. (Roughly.)
Not having done advance research, we had to trust the local restauranteurs to provide something local and luscious for lunch. We assumed that, surrounded by the ocean, Cádiz might produce some fine sea food, and the steamed bacalao (cod) met our expectations: simple and fresh, as good fish should be. Another highlight: the local olives. Small, spicy, with a snappy skin and a dense flesh, they were unlike any I have had elsewhere. There are dozens and dozens of varieties of olive in the Mediterranean; my partner Tom loathes them. But here, today, he had an Olive Conversion, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. They were that good.
Lo bueno siempre tiene un final, as they say, and our good thing came to an end a bit prematurely with almost every business in town closing its doors at 2 pm for siesta. Far be it from me to begrudge anyone their afternoon nap- we made our way back to the boulevards to take in a bit more scenery before wandering back to the ship in time for shuffleboard.