You’ve frolicked on the beaches of Barcelona, overindulged during a tapas crawl through Madrid, danced flamenco in Seville, and maybe – just maybe – had a front row view of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. But, Hemingway-inspired activities aside, Spain’s riches extend far beyond the stereotypical, and on your next trip to the peninsula, we suggest you veer to the southwest to hear a tale from a lesser-known Spain: Cádiz.
Said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe (founded circa 1100 BC), this tiny strip of land witnessed the arrival of the Phoenicians, as well as that of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Moors. And more recently, relatively speaking, this port city watched as Columbus departed for the new world.
Becoming the gateway to the Americas brought wealth and fame upon this western outpost and the city flourished to become one of the richest and most cosmopolitan in Spain. All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and Cádiz’s path was no exception. Despite now being one of the poorer areas in the country, the city defiantly maintains its pride and its glorious past is still very much in evidence.
Add to this the fact that the Gaditanos, as the locals are known, are some of the most fun-loving, chattiest people in Spain, and you’ll instantly fall in love with the people of this out-of-the-way region.
Exploring the old city on foot is the best way to soak in the vibe and given that Cádiz is conveniently compact, meandering through the cobble-stoned streets is a joy. Three thousand years of history are both literally and figuratively at your feet, and when you find yourself on a deserted street straight out of antiquity, you may mistake yourself for a time traveler.
Most sites of interest lie within the remnants of the city walls – a must-have back in the day given that pirates had a penchant for attacking this once-wealthy port. The cathedral, with its unique golden domes, is the pièce de résistance, viewable from all points of the city. Although an undeniable architectural beauty, the cathedral is a newer addition having been completed in 1838. Definitely a must on your walk around town, the highpoint is to climb the cathedral’s tower called the Torre de Poniente for the stunning views.
From the cathedral, you’ll be able to see many of the city’s watchtowers which dot the urban landscape. As a city of trade, Cádiz erected these lookouts in order to keep an eye on the sea and all who sailed in. The tallest of these towers is the Torre Tavira located right in the center of the old town and definitely worth the climb.
The Roman theatre of Cádiz is one of the largest built in the Roman Empire and was even mentioned in the works of Cicero. As happened in so many ancient cities, what we now regard with awe was at one time seen as nothing of importance, prompting a fortress to be built on top of the theatre, and thus concealing its grandness for centuries. It wasn’t until 1980 that the theatre was rediscovered in an excavation giving us a glimpse into Roman life in Hispania.
Although architecture and monuments are visual representations of a city, the people are what give a place its energy, and nowhere can this be better observed than during carnival. One of the most famous in Spain, carnival in Cádiz is known for its clever parodies and sarcasm based on current events and politics. No one is spared a bit of gibing, but it’s all in good fun to celebrate the season. The entire city participates in the event with preparations being observed throughout the year.
Beyond the city of Cádiz lies the province bearing the same name and exploring this oft-overlooked region will most definitely give you bragging rights back home. If you head north from the coast you’ll find the enchanting city of Jerez de la Frontera, where tradition and hospitality greet you at every turn, giving you the sensation that you’ve secretly walked into a family reunion.
This is sherry country: Sherry is the drink of choice in Jerez and a tasting tour of the regional sherry bodegas is an experience that will make you a convert of this fortified wine (if you’re not already, that is). A complex process of fractional blending makes for a variety of styles, whether the pale fino or manzanilla, or the darker amontillado , olorosos or the palo cortado. Each has its own story and its natural pairing partners. An additional pleasure of drinking sherry is the opportunity to see the venenciadores at work, present for all the special occasions, be it a wedding or a local fiesta. This name is given to the experts who pour sherry into the glass from the venencia – a traditional device consisting of a small silver cup attached to a long flexible handle which is then dipped into the ageing barrels. Carefully lifting the venencia overhead, your host will pour you the perfect glass of this treasured drink for you to sample.
Another treat is a visit to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art to the Spanish traditions of horsemanship from times past. The Andalusian horse also known as the Pure Spanish Horse was the preferred breed among European royalty and the Spanish would use their horses as a tool of diplomacy. For a mesmerizing experience in what truly is an art form, get a ticket for the dancing horse show – in effect a stunning equestrian ballet accompanied by Spanish classical music and riders wearing 18th century costumes.
Venture further afield from the cities towards the mountainous area of the Sierra de Cadiz and you’ll see the hillsides dotted with picturesque, whitewashed villages perched on high. These are the pueblos blancos built in Moorish style, perched on high as a defense measure during more turbulent times. Their striking whiteness is contrasted only by the gorgeous pinks and purples of the local flowers that hang from the window sills in the carefully preserved homes and the blueness of the sky. Each town is a spot worth exploring, and climbing their winding streets adds to the true Cádiz experience.
With so much to see and do, this lesser known travel destination will be so no longer. So if you’re thinking now about new year’s resolutions, put Cádiz on your list. Quick! Before word gets out!