At first glance, the Spanish city of Cádiz can seem not too different from the strips of the sunshine coast on the Mediterranean side of Gibraltar. The more modern part of the city seems centered around highrise lined boulevards and palms that stretch alongside the Atlantic. But continue along the Island to its northern tip and you find its true history – and beauty – plain to see.
Tucked away between the southern coast of Portugal and the great limestone monolith of Gibraltar, Cádiz lies at the south western tip of the Iberian peninsula, itself stretching thinly into the surrounding bay. It’s this location on the cusp of Europe that has made the area one of great importance for many cultures. First founded by the ancient Phoenicians as Gadir over 3,000 years ago, this tiny island strip has been fought over and prized ever since making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the whole of western Europe.
Initially founded as a western trading post by the seafaring Phoenicians around 1100 BC, it soon became a port of great repute with many early explorations of West Africa and Europe setting off from it’s waters. Soon however the power struggles of Mediterranean antiquity soon caught up with Cádiz as it was taken as a military stronghold by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca for his first war against Rome. Named the Punic Wars, these were barbarous and viciously fought as the North African and European superpowers struggled for control of the Mediterranean and its trade routes. Hamilcar Barca’s son, the black general Hannibal who famously led elephants across the Alps to attack Rome in the second Punic War did so using the military depot of Gadir/Cádiz as his setting off point for his infamous crossing.
Cádiz however was to change hands again before long. As Carthage eventually fell to Rome, so did the Iberian port. Under Julius Caesar and later Augustus it became a place for the wealthy to have sprawling estates across the island and surrounding area, with sources describing how the noble families would reserve box seats for Rome’s Coliseum, lavish themselves with music and art and indulge in amazing food. While the sprawling estates no longer stand – after being raised in raids by the Visigoths – the attitude towards food and culture can still be found lingering amongst the city’s narrow cobbled streets.
The gastronomy of Cádiz is well renowned throughout Spain, its famous fish market seemingly providing all of Andalucía with daily fresh produce. From tiny bar-service Cervezaria’s to Michelin starred restaurants like El Faro, the smell of cod croquettas and fried hake hangs in the air as if it were the sea breeze itself. But to truly experience the food, one doesn’t have to leave the market at all. Like many Andalucían towns and cities, the square of hectic haggling and propped up produce is surrounded by stalls and hole-in-the-wall style eateries that provide dishes made with ingredients you may have just walked past half an hour ago and Cádiz is no different. From sublimely fresh salads of roasted peppers and artichokes to delicately fried fish and shrimp, the surrounding stalls of Cádiz’s marketplace give you all you need and at such reasonable prices you’ll consider never leaving.
Within the tiled walls of the market, sharp-eyed fish of all sizes stare back at you while prawns of various colours lounge over the sides of the stalls. Eager to be picked by the many people shuffling through, stuffing bags of seafood into their two-wheeled trolleys.
Watching the world go by with a glass of white wine and a thinly fried prawn pancake (called a Tortilla de Camarones) is a simple pleasure but it’s always enhanced by the addition of culture, and Cádiz has plenty to spare. Meandering through the marketplace you may see the white bearded figure of a certain Luis Aranzana Morales, a poet more than happy to share a piece or two of Spain’s literary works – as well as some of his own – for no more than a true appreciation of his craft. And he is not alone, for Cádiz, despite being a place of wealth and nobility in the past, has a rich history of left-leaning commentators quick to point out the flaws in the system and the grievances of the people.
While many carnivals centre around lively music and dancing, the Carnival of Cádiz has been doing this while throwing shade at the establishment since the fifteenth century. Using humour as its vehicle, the carnival allows its participants to “purge” their grievances through mockery and irony. These often come in the form of satirical songs to the point where the fascist dictator Franco officially banned the celebration in 1937. However in the spirit of true anti-establishmentarianism the practice was continued behind closed doors before eventually spilling out into the streets again in the 40’s, albeit without the use of the word “Carnival”.
Thought to have originated with an influx of Genovese merchants, forced westwards by increasing turkish control of the Mediterranean, the carnival has a surprisingly Italian feel, with confetti, costumes and masks all being a mainstay of performance and participation. It’s beloved all throughout Spain and is a cultural pilgrimage for many, especially as it allows for somewhat controversial conversation in quite a staunchly conservative culture that is an unwelcome but often unspoken hangover from Franco’s long rule. This openness is reflected when walking around the cobbled streets or sitting in the evening air as the inhabitants of the city feel louder and more unhindered than in other cities of the mainland. A free-mind and an unwillingness to conform to a broken system could also go some way to explaining the levels of unemployment in the city, the highest in Spain, along with a shrinking population.
As you walk further through the streets of Cádiz’s Casco Antiguo, lamps jutting from beneath the ornately decorated facades, you could be forgiven for thinking all of the architecture before you harks back to the greatness of Spain’s colonial history. Much of its current aesthetic wealth does derive from the Age of Exploration, with Christopher Columbus setting sail on his second and fourth journeys to the New World from the city’s port and later endowing it with Spain’s Royal Treasure Fleet. It was such a jewel in fact that Sir Francis Drake, the English pirate-cum-privateer, chose to attack the city in the late 14th century in an attack later named “The Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard” in which he captured several ships and occupied the harbour for three days. The attack was so disruptive to Spain and its economy that it delayed the Spanish Armada by a whole year.
But while much of it has indeed been around since Columbus’s time – so reminiscent of Spanish colonies such as Cuba that Cádiz was a stand-in for Havana in the James Bond film Die Another Day – there are few pointers to the previous culture that called this tiny island home, much of the old town being destroyed in raids by Barbary Corsairs before even Drake appeared in Cádiz’s waters. Like much of Spain, white Christians filled a space created by force during the 15th century* Reconquista, in which the Muslim Moors of al-Andalus – modern day Andalucía- were violently expelled from the Iberan peninsula they had called home since 711 AD. However if you look closely enough, distinctly moorish arches curve at the top of some facades but the most notable remnant lies in the shadow of the city’s cathedral.
As you walk along the promenade of Cádiz northwards, the catholic place of worship dominates the skyline. With its terracotta coloured basilica and rising towers it is hard to miss, but continue towards it and you will pass another stack of brickwork and domes that seems to replicate the grand building behind. In fact, this cluster of walls and whitewash is an old mosque, left over from before the largely muslim population were brutally removed from the area. Built before the cathedral (which was constructed between 1722 and 1838) the mosque gives a cultural clue to the diverse history of Spain’s south. Like many Andalucían towns and cities these clues are hidden in plain sight, such as the large cathedrals of Córdoba and Seville which were both previously grand mosques, repurposed or rebuilt as catholic constructions after conquest in the Reconquista. Much of Spain’s history owes itself to the advancements made by these moors, from architecture to agriculture and even the name Cádiz itself is derived from the name given to the island by the Moors; Qādis.
However, this is not to take away from what Cádiz means to Spain and Andalucíans in particular. For every Spanish person that speaks of the city holds it in high regard, whether they are expressing their love of its beaches, its food, its historical importance or its comedy. Most often all at once. The winding narrow streets of the northern old town, found within its fortified walls mimic the islands meandering history, one of culture and conquest and a history that came to an important peak for Spain in 1812. Within these same fortified walls that stand today, the Spanish Cortes of Cádiz signed one of the most liberal constitutions of the time. While acknowledging the importance of and affirming the separation of power, the freedom of the press and abolishing corporate privileges it also granted universal voting rights to all male citizens (with some exceptions of course), a first in constitutional history. Its bold new ideas paved the way for later constitutions in both Spain and Spanish America, placing Cádiz once again at the centre of a changing world.
[All photographs copyright JR Sidhu Photography, 2020©]