A day spent in Cadiz leaves you on a high – with all neuro-cobwebs swept away. This city is magical, luminous, breezy, packed with baroque and Andalucian gems, as well as possessing a distinct air of north Africa. Not least, it’s the oldest settlement in Europe, founded by the Phoenicians some 3,000 years ago. You get the picture – it is unique.
Even if you lose yourself pleasurably in the inner web of tight streets and palm-studded squares, it’s impossible to forget the ocean, as Cadiz is virtually surrounded and salt permeates the air. Built on a fist of land jutting out into the Atlantic, it is only attached by a slender arm to the mainland. Will it one day detach itself and float away – an urban raft drifting westwards to the New World? If so, I’ll book a seat please.
Because I love this slow-paced city (except during its February Carnival – the largest and rowdiest in Spain), where an army of palm-trees gently sway on promenades or in squares overlooked by ice-cream coloured houses with curvaceous wrought-iron balconies (all the better to accommodate crinolines it seems), where the hefty branches of a giant 120-year old ficus tree lean on custom- made stilts, where kids kick footballs around in a baroque twilight, where 129 watchtowers survive from its golden 18th century age.
For this city was built on trade – no doubt a hangover from the Phoenician founders (there are none better at that art, as proved by their Lebanese descendants) and/ or a result of its strategic coastal location. Those watchtowers were the only means for the wealthy merchants of 18th c Cadiz to spot their ships returning from the Americas, laden with treasures; today, despite high-tech communications, they still project magnificently from the rooftops – see below – though only watch the wind and the waves.
In the inky-dark night, lifted by pools of light from ornate street-lamps, the old fishermen’s quarter of La Viña becomes the destination of choice for tapas aficionados like me.
At the lovely old corner bar of Casa Manteca, propped up at the marble counter, I tucked into a famed house tapa – chicharrones especiales (2€). Nothing to do with crackling, it turned out to be thin slices of pork dressed in lemon juice and salt – served on squares of greaseproof paper. Brilliant eco-plates, only just surpassed by the delicious subtlety of the slivers. My mini portion of wafer-thin slices of chorizo de bellota (2€) didn’t last long either. Tossed down with a fino, claro.
I abstained from that wonderful Cadiz classic, the seafood bar and restaurant, El Faro, having indulged there before, and instead headed into the central pedestrianised streets to find Taberna La Manzanilla.
Now this is another institution, dating from 1932, where 18 types of sherry are dispensed from huge barrels in a pretty rough and ready setting – nicotine-stained 1950s clock included. It’s now run by Pepe, grandson of the 1940s owner, whose machine-gun Andaluz succeeded in knocking me sideways – before I’d even touched the nectar-like Amontillado viejo (26 years old) at 3€ a glass. I had to beg for a couple of olives though – not quite the same abundance as Manteca.
Next day I felt obliged to investigate the Mercado Central which, like others in Spain, is trying to morph into a foodie rendezvous, while continuing to sell an intimidating array of beady-eyed fish. I was less than convinced by the choice of tapas at the stalls in the outer aisle, though I did corner a smart Cordobés (above) who’d cooked up a lip-smacking potaje of chickpeas and spinach. Round the corner a tortillita de camarones (crisp shrimp tortilla) had that requisite crunch, but the shrimps? nada.
But despair not, I’ve saved the best for last, tucked away in a back street behind the harbour, just steps away from the bulky Cathedral (for once in Spain, this one isn’t worth visiting, leaving you time for other indulgences) and the elegant Plaza de San Juan de Dios (above). More palms.
At sleekly designed, intimately scaled Sopranis, which extends to an adjacent tapas bar, I embarked on a journey of gastro finesse and gustatory heaven.Their menu de degustacion of 4 courses and a dessert for 30€ was a steal – from the exquisite tuna tartare with seaweed in ajoblanco, to perfectly grilled salmonete (red mullet) fillets (above), to tender pigeon, its breast roasted and its wings stewed, which came with crisp little discs of purple potato. To drink? A glass of red Barbazul, a fruity-berry blend of four grapes from the Cadiz region – a wine that I would guess has a great future.
Together with the freshly scrubbed and repainted façades of this extraordinary town, an audaciously designed new parador, and the just opened, interactive excavations of Gadir, Cadiz is no slouch. Nor is it what a British writer described in the 1930s as “a heap of squat cubist hovels enclosed by medieval ramparts, joined to the mainland by a dirty thread of sand”. Rise from the dead Laurie Lee, come back, you’d be surprised – Cadiz is transformed!