Torre de Force
There’s an ‘ends of the earth’ feeling to Cadíz. Its old town, almost surrounded on all sides by water, is bleached in a bright white light, creating dramatic, architectural shadows across its rooftops and famous towers. The oldest inhabited city in the Western world (so the gaditanos say), each and every twist and turn of its shadowy streets – designed, perfectly, to cool its inhabitants and protect them from the harsh Mediterranean sun – uncovers a new fading façade or architectural wonder. From Roman ruins to Moorish towers, this town glimmers and glows, its outer skin crumbling thanks to being beaten by the winds, salt water and sun over the centuries. There’s something of the Havana about this place – painted buildings reduced to pastel hues by the glaring sun; its streets and beach have even played the part of the Cuban in a 007 film.
Whilst the tourist hordes tend to head into the Sierra Nevada to Granada and its Alhambra, or to the beaches of the Costa del Sol, Cadíz is increasingly being added to the travel itinerary of visitors in search of great food, wine, history and architecture. But because it’s been mostly forgotten, out to sea at this southernmost point of Iberia, its charms seem authentic and untouched by the needs and demands of tourists. This is a working, breathing, eating, drinking, learning city – not far from where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean – floating in the brine away from the politics and arguments of mainland Spain. Like many weather-beaten towns, the locals make up for the harsh conditions, and are warm and welcoming. They will happily interject as you stand peering into a restaurant, to tell you where you should be eating and what, specifically, you should be eating when you get there. Some of our favourite meals in the city were recommendations from Cadíz locals, keen to point us in the right direction.
We arrived into the city over the bridge that connects this isthmus of land to mainland Spain, the sea dazzling – reflecting early June’s brilliant sunshine. It’s a damn good-looking city – all wonky roofs and looming cruise ships in the port and watchtowers peering out to sea, with their Moorish influenced shapes. From these viewpoints, the locals would have watched Christopher Columbus setting off in 1492 on adventures that would change the world. 126 towers still punctuate the skyline. The most famous, Torre Tavira, even boasts a camera obscura on its roof, giving a different perspective of the city’s rooftops.
We were heading for the city’s newish Parador – one of the hundreds of Parador hotels across Spain, in culturally and historically important locations, that are operated by the government. To get there we hugged the main road running along the sea, bouncing over ancient cobbles, passing the oldest parts of the city, including the Roman amphitheatre and the Gothic cathedral with its crumbling domes.
The Parador’s architecture makes the most of its promontory – rooms on both sides of the modern, glass and steel build have balconies that take in the rooftops and domes of the city, as well as glistening sea views. Our enormous glass-lipped balcony – knee-wobbling when we first ventured onto it – looked out across the bay towards the huge American naval base at Roto in the far, far distance (we only realised what it was after a handful of weird and enormous aircraft came into land) and one of the sherry triangle towns, Santa Maria. By the beautiful Parque Genovés, it’s the perfect base from which to explore the city. Pack your comfiest shoes – this is a walking city.
We were here to eat and drink – obviously. We pounded the streets day and night, looking for tapas joints and freidurias serving the city’s famous deep-fried fish dishes. A favourite being the teeny-tiny deep-fried shrimp from a little booth just outside the Mercado Central. Zig-zagging, crossing back on ourselves and occasionally getting lost, we stumbled across traditional bars, bustling plazas shaded by huge trees with families playing and chatting in their open spaces. By accident – even though it was on our extensive ‘to-do’ list – we found the excellent Museo de Cadíz, with items gathered from across the city and its environs, covering all of the city’s previous inhabitants, including the Romans, Phoenicians and Moors. We were here to see the enormous marble statue of a Roman emperor that had been air-lifted by helicopter from the Roman city of Bolonia, just down the road.
‘Look up’ is our best bit of advice, along with ‘get lost’. Pushing on through the winding city’s streets, we stumbled across grand, derelict government buildings, breathtaking old townhouses ripe for conversion into boutique hotels (this is definitely a city that needs more places to stay); just past the mid-century-era abandoned naval building we found two enormous ficus trees, their huge, heavy branches supported by pieces of wood; further along on the beach, an elegant former Victorian spa – that has something of the English seaside about it – has been turned into a faculty of Cadíz’s university for Subaquatic Archeaology. In La Viña, the old quarter where the fisherman lived – and still live – we found great little local joints where leathery-faced locals were drinking coffee and brandy in the mornings and cold beer in the warm evenings. This was once a wealthy port town – from here the Spanish set out to conquer the Americas, and brought back with them the spoils of their trade – and you’ll see that the canny Spanish invested their cash in bricks and mortar.
Walk, eat, drink, look and chat your way around this incredible, historic city, and think of the footsteps that have gone before you.
Where to eat and drink:
The Spanish have nailed their reinvention of the traditional food market. Here in Cadíz, the Mercado Central is a great mix of traditional stalls selling local produce – including the freshest tuna you’ll ever see – and pop-up booths serving up traditional local dishes. Be sure to step outside onto the plaza for a cone of the tiniest, sweetest shrimp you’ll ever eat, sold from a little kiosk.
Plaza Libertad, Cadíz
La Barra de el Faro
Nip around the corner from the white table-clothed restaurant and head to this renowned eatery’s tapas joint instead. There are just two small tables in each corner, so you’ll end up propping up the bar with the locals. We were told about this place by a local hotelier, who saw us peering into the main restaurant – which does look gorgeous. He told us that all the dishes served in the restaurant were available in the bar, so head there instead. Crumpled, waxy paper napkins were scattered across the floor, along with olive stones and tooth picks. If you’re looking for authentic, this is where to find it.
The seafood is of exceptional quality and we ordered far too many dishes, with a couple of favourites being a thin, crisp, wafery shrimp omelette (la tortillita de camarones) and a bowl of tripe stew. Swill everything down with a cold caña or three, or a glass of ridiculously well-priced vino tinto. We’ll definitely be heading to the restaurant proper on our next visit, if the cooking of their tapas is anything to go by.
El Faro de Cadiz, Calle San Felix 15, Cadiz
Tel: +34 956 225 858
The walls are crammed with images of bullfighting, a nod to the owners’ father who was a matador. Get there early if you want to sit down (like many little gems across Spain, it’s feeling the full force of the Rick Stein and/or Anthony Bourdain affect – recommended in their TV travel shows and now packed with tourists wanting a piece of the culinary action), and then order a sherry and a plate of glistening, jewelled jamón along with some plump, perfectly grilled langostinos. As with most joints in this city, as well as rubbing shoulders with tourists, you’ll also end up chatting to locals. Look out for the portrait of Franco hung upside down.
Calle Corralón de los Carros, 66, Cadiz
Tel: +34 956 213 603
This cute little rustic cafe serves up a modern take on Spanish tapas. Stand-out dishes for us were the ocotpus, some hot and tasty croquetas and baby squid charred on the plancha. But the menu changes all the time and with the seasons, and according to which fresh catch arrives, so order a table full! Seafood is king in Cadíz – as it should be.
Call them if you’d like to book a table, as the booking websites claiming to be affiliated with the restaurant aren’t. Cue us almost missing out on a table during a busy lunch.
La Candela, Calle Feduchy 3, Cadíz
Tel: +34 956 221 822
Freiduría Las Flores
Head to a freiduria for a must-eat dish in this city. Freiduría Las Flores is the joint that gets the most column inches – and because of the volume of people, the oil is clean and the catch is fresh. A myriad of fish hits the hot oil – dipped in egg and flour to create a super-light batter, before it sizzles and is cooked perfectly. Order the boquerones (anchovies) or chocos fritos (cuttlefish) to eat like a local.
Plaza Topete, 4, Cadíz
Where to stay:
Parador de Cadíz
It’s slim pickings on the hotel front in Cadíz. We loved our stay at the Parador for ease of exploration and for the views from the rooms – ask for a room on the top floor if you’ve got a head for heights. Having only been built a few years ago, it’s clean, light and bright and its position is perfect for exploration of the city. Views of the rooftops of the old city are magical. The breakfast buffet is generous, constantly replenished and features gluten-free options. The outdoor pool on the roof, overlooking the ocean, is spectacular.
Avenida Duque de Nájera, 9, Cadíz
Tel: +34 956 226 905
What to do and see:
• Take a morning stroll and head out into the sea along the seawall, the Paseo Fernando Quiñones, to the 400-year-old Castillo de San Sebastian and to the lighthouse, ducking under ancient archways, past the waves crashing into the rocks. The views back to the city’s skyline are worth the walk alone. Walking is thirsty work, and the little restaurant at the entrance to the castillo is a great little pit-stop for a caña and tapas.
• At sun set, just before heading out for pre-dinner tapas, join the locals at La Caleta beach, who gather here on warm nights to see the sun sizzle into the Atlantic.
• Just keep walking: twist and turn, look up and cool down in one of the many plazas lined with bars and cafés, cooled by the branches of trees.
• If you’re staying in the Parador, be sure to spend an hour or two in the beautiful Parque Genovés next door, with its collection of trees from all around the world, shaded seating areas, duck pond and café.
• One fears for the longevity of the Catedral de Santa Cruz de Cadíz, built between 1722 and 1838 – the city’s golden age when money flowed in from its trade with the Americas. But despite its crumbling domes, there’s something wonderfully dramatic about this weather-beaten place of worship. Pay the extra so you can climb up its Levante tower for spectacular views.
After your visit, head across the plaza to the modern gelato joint that scoops up homemade ice cream. The turron flavour is a must. Fingers crossed they’re serving the gelato mixed with plump, juicy raisins soaked in Pedro Ximinez sherry, made just down the road.
• Climb up to the top of the Torre Tavira, one of the many watchtowers used by merchants to keep a keen eye on their precious cargo arriving from all four corners of the world. Tavira is the tallest of the city’s towers and boasts a camera obscura on its roof.
• Scan the horizon for a glimpse of the city’s unusual and striking electricity pylons.
• The Museum of Cadíz is a must for anyone interested in archaeological finds – something this area is rich in. One of its key pieces is a male, marble Phoenician sarcophagus that was discovered in the shipyards in the late 1880s; its female counterpart was discovered later and now lies along it. Since the initial discovery, the collection has been added to as the area has been scoured for ancient ruins, including amazing pieces from the nearby Roman city of Baelo Claudia (above). Look out, also, for canvases by Francisco de Zurbarán. Don’t expect digital interactive pieces or spectacular modern architecture to house the collection – this is a sleepy, old fashioned collection of works telling the story of this incredible region.
Plaza de Mina, Cadíz