It's easy to be beguiled by Cadiz, a city of milky light and one that devotes itself to celebrating like nowhere else in Spain
If there’s a happier, more optimistic group of citizens than the gaditanos, I’d like to meet them. I bet they could throw a hell of a party. To be honest, it would be a tough call because every year Cádiz plays host to the best, the wildest, the most hedonistic – most everything – celebration in Spain. The city’s carnival is a legend in a country whose fiestas are legend.
It’s not just about saying goodbye to winter (such as it is in southern Andalucía), nor about drinking as much as possible for 10 days and nights, nor even about having the opportunity to publicly ridicule politicians and celebrities in song. Carnival in Cádiz embraces all of these and something else besides: an almost reckless sense that you have to live for the present. You never know what might be round the corner, so make the most of tonight, crack open another bottle of wine and hit the streets.
There’s good reason for the gaditanos’ cheery approach to life. This may be Europe’s oldest surviving city – founded more than 3,000 years ago by Phoenician traders – but it has seen its share of misery. It was here that Drake “singed the King of Spain’s beard” by destroying half the Spanish fleet at anchor at the back end of the 16th century. Regular sackings and plunderings at the hands of England’s Elizabethan sailors followed. A couple of hundred years of prosperity peaked with Cádiz’s brief moment as the home of Spain’s liberal parliament in 1812, but long decline and a pounding at the hands of Franco’s troops during the Civil War left the city reeling.
Through all this, the warmth of the welcome and the cheeriness of those who live on this tiny, fist-shaped peninsula, have remained constant. The elegant buildings may be crumbling in the face of salty Atlantic air, but the locals’ response is to plaster the walls, slap on another coat of whitewash and get on with life.
White is very much the colour of Cádiz – that and the blue of the skies that stretch above the narrow streets. The whiteness of the buildings has a milky quality, unlike the starkness of the villages a few miles inland. Here, the moist air moderates the light – and the temperatures – adding to an almost otherworldly atmosphere as you wander down streets half a mile long yet so straight you can see the ocean at the far end.
Straight they may be, but the passageways and avenues and plazas crammed into such a small space make it far from easy to navigate here. The best way to get your bearings is by heading upwards, and the best view of rooftop Cádiz is from the tower of the city’s cathedral. The steep hike up 250ft of ramp in the Torre de Poniente is worth the effort. An audio guide (in English) points out the city’s landmarks: its great churches and monasteries, its parks and plaza.
But it’s what lies beyond that draws the eye. The huge dockyards and the ring of towns spread out around the bay, and to the east the causeway linking Cádiz with the rest of Spain shines like a silver ribbon in the sun. To the west, though, all you can see is water. The sense of being at the edge of Europe is palpable.
Closer at hand, the shining yellow dome of the cathedral dominates. This is an odd building, partly constructed in honey-coloured stone, partly in white. But it is inseparable from the Cádiz skyline, and as much a part of the city as the hundreds of feral cats that sprawl on the rocks beyond the promenade below.
Back at ground level, the streets converge on Plaza San Antonio, the Plaza de España and the Plaza de la Mina and the layout begins to make sense. What’s still a mystery is how upwards of 150,000 people cram into these houses and apartment blocks. The streets may be lined with paint-peeled mansions four storeys high, but it doesn’t add up. It’s only when you sneak down one of the ground floor passageways that the answer is revealed: they open out into vast courtyards, with apartments and flats on all sides. Some even have bungalows and inner terraces of houses running off the patios.
This propensity to live in each other’s pockets explains a lot about the welcoming nature of gaditanos. You can understand, though, why they head for the long beaches that fringe the city’s southwestern edge whenever the chance arises.
The Playa Caleta may be much treasured as a hangout for city-dwellers, but the wide, golden sands of the Playa Victoria are where gaditanos go to play. There are basketball courts, volleyball courts, football pitches – even a rugby pitch – laid out on the beach. But there’s also plenty of space to spread out a towel, take in the sun and go for a paddle or a plunge in the Atlantic.
The one weekend of the year when you might find Playa Victoria a little claustrophobic marks the ‘Night of the Barbecues’ in August. The beachgoers’ numbers are already swollen by holidaying Spaniards in high summer. But locals intent on a world-class ‘cookout’ boost the numbers to near 100,000 for this celebration of life, free time, meat and more meat.
In their wake they leave mountains of rubbish and, doubtless, problems for those whose lungs won’t stand up to the fumes from tons of burning charcoal. In recent years a small but voluble protest group has attempted to have the barbecues banned. With typical disregard for personal safety and longevity, the gaditanos have shouted them down and turned out with their barbies in even greater numbers.
It’s a typical reaction and one that may lend support to the accusations of an ‘island’ mentality. Maybe so, but anyone who doesn’t like it can always take a car, bus, train, even a boat and be in Spain ‘proper’ within minutes. That leaves the gaditanos, temporary and permanent alike, to get on with the business of enjoying life.
WHERE TO STAY
The new Hotel Spa Senator is one for pampering fans, with a pool and well-priced spa treatments. Accommodation is good too.
Hotel Playa Victoria is a big, modern four-star hotel right on the beach, five minutes by taxi from the old town.
The Francia y Paris in lively Plaza San Francisco is right in the middle of the old town. Comfortable if a bit impersonal.
Hotel Tryp La Caleta, part of a good value mid-range chain, is 10 metres from the beach and a few minutes’ taxi drive from the old city.
WHERE TO EAT
The combination of an imaginative Dutch chef and the fishy riches provided by the Bay of Cádiz make La Cigüeña a great bet.
El Faro enjoys near-legendary status, even in a city where seafood reigns supreme.
Balandro is a smart, modern restaurant with interesting food and a great value tapas bar.
Restaurante San Antonio sits on one of the city’s principal squares and offers traditional local fare.
Aljibe brings Asian and Spanish cuisine together thoughtfully and impressively.
You can’t visit Cádiz without indulging in a tapas crawl: bite-sized prawns, seafood stews, morsels of pork and venison and, increasingly, vegetarian snacks at every stop – of which there are many, all over town.