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From our travel archives: Cadiz - Spain

Cadiz: Learning to love Spain -
Rule One: Learn to Read Spanish
Sam North
(From our archives)

The Rough Guide says the hostel in the old town is just a short walk from the station. This is true. Just make sure you get off at the right station! Get that wrong, by the time you arrive, all the other punters who know to stay on the train till the bitter end have long ago taken the only available rooms.

Cadiz, like Madrid, dislikes people looking for ‘solo’ rooms. When I got there after a long walk from the wrong station everything cheap or even expensive had gone. In the end I found a hostel so unpleasant I won’t even mention it, just so you can't find it yourself and experience the full horror. Well alright then, Hostel Espana, but don’t say you aren’t warned. At 3500 ptas per night it was not cheap (It's more now in Euros) and they want the money in advance and won’t let you see the room first. Because I was tired I took it. It might have been better to sleep on the beach. The room on the top floor was a prison cell so cramped Hannibal Lecter would have found it a squeeze. It was on the inside, had no glass in the window or door and the curtain didn’t even stretch fully across it. People could see in and there was a neon light burning all night. Outside in the street motor scooters droned all night long, the bathroom was dirty, you must provide your own soap and towel and the owner, old and decrepit, made noises late into the night dragging garbage slowly across the inner courtyard for what seemed liked hours. He sat waiting in his pyjamas for you to come back from the rather forlorn search for food in the town. He’d grumble a lot as you walk back to your cell, but it may never occur to hostel people that their lives might be better if the customer had a key to let them in. Cadiz in October takes some getting used to.

Cadiz new town is the usual grid pattern of tower blocks. Cadiz old town is a 2000 year old settlement that has seen a lot of action in history. Much of what you see isn’t as old as it looks, since friendly Brits like Captain Drake set fire to it a few hundred years ago. Before that, the Moors invaded after the previous invaders, the Romans, left the region.

Cadiz has developed vertically. It is built on a virtual island peninsular connected to the mainland by a road. I began my day by searching for a bar to watch the sunset from. Weirdly, this proved harder than I imagined. The city has its back to the sun and I found a little place in the old fishing harbour where they serve cheap Vino Tinto and Red Roman fried fish. The fish was excellent, caught just hours before, but not cheap. Nevertheless, you are made welcome and you can sit out there, watch the red orb in the sky and eat your fish. I spoke with Midori who is a Japanese visitor and guest of the bar owner. Midori helps run the Flamenco theatre in Osaka. The bar owner visited the Flamenco theatre in Japan and kind of adopted Midori. She doesn’t dance, but sings and is fascinated by Spanish culture. She speaks Spanish and fluent, flawless American, learned on exchange in Portland, Oregon. The lure of Flamenco is world-wide it seems. This scene, the little harbour, fishermen fixing their boats, the vino, not much has changed here in a couple of thousand years . Yet it has, because beside the Spanish watching this sunset is an Englishman and a Japanese girl. Cadiz is no longer isolated. The fast AVE train is bringing the world to its door.

Cadiz feels like a student town. Indeed there is a big University here famous for medicine and economics. Just across from this little harbour you can find two enormous South American trees outside a campus building and students leaving seminars as the sun sets. Cadiz feels very real and is not really geared for tourists. They come and are fascinated by the narrow streets, the crowded tenement buildings and one senses that if one actually spoke Spanish people would be friendly. There are pavement cafes in little plazas, crowded into spaces that compete with the cars and Vespas. Like Madrid, you have to walk it to know it. You could just go to the beach and many do, but you are missing out on one of the most interesting places in Spain.

Getting your bearings is hard in such a narrow confinement, so luckily there is a tower in the heart of the town with a camera obscura at Torre Tavira which is on Calle Sacramento, where you can see everything and incidentally get some great shots from the windows half way up. See Cadiz and learn something of its history too.

Cadiz seems to gather in a knot at the centre around the old market place and from here spiral out to the shops and cafés and tiny galleries that make up Cadiz shopping. The market is a genuine institution and a bargain. Imagine Harrods Food Hall at Lidl prices. It’s a revelation. However poor the region might be, they have the best fish and fresh food available anywhere. Try the cafés around the market for breakfast or lunchtime tapas.

Of course, you’ll find Mango and Zara and Springfield, but also tiny fruit shops or lone art shops in all the side streets. Cadiz has all the character that is absent from equivalent towns in England, with the added benefit of being able to get coffee and food late into the night. It is also a lot warmer. It’s hard to square official figures for unemployment and poverty with the visually rich tapestry that greets you at every turn. People seem to genuinely enjoy life here and know, much better than the English, on what is required to do that.

Getting used to Spain on your first visit takes some doing. Hours run from around 9am to 2pm followed by siesta and then again from 5pm to around 8 or 9pm. Sometimes later. For north European tummies used to dinner around seven or eight, well you’ll be dining alone. The Spanish spend all day grazing on tapas, they don’t even think about dinner until around ten pm or more likely, they eat at home. Going out is for drinking and talking. They do a lot of talking. For the lone October tourist and there are quite a few of us, never talking to each other, but sort of recognising that we are ‘foreigners’, you can slink into the places that cater for us. Empty, soulless places to be sure, but the set menus are not entirely unreasonable. In Cadiz you get a bread roll, a glass of chilled vino tinto, a freshly cooked pork chop, a lemon to cut the grease and for afters, a creme caramel. Four quid at the rate of exchange in 2000.

Solo holidays are quite a challenge. Suddenly I understand, perhaps more than ever the sadness of Monsieur Hulot. What made me laugh as a child now disturbs me. I have grown up to be Hulot. Sleeping in my prison cell in Hostel Espana, dining alone, walking alone. Tomorrow I tell myself that I shall enquire about the ferry to Tenerife or Morocco. Something exotic. I find myself wishing that I had time to keep going, all the way down through Africa to the Cape. Now that would be a holiday.

Cadiz is another medieval town like Venice. The long narrow streets that echo with the sound of kids, dogs, Vespas and Hondas. Walking everywhere, as I do, dog shit is your enemy. Being lost is not a problem, this is why I am here. You learn something new everyday, discover a gallery, walk onto a movie set or into a prize-giving for contributions to culture. All accidents, but fun to see and experience and no one ever seems to question you being there. Sometimes you get lucky, there’s free wine, sometime you have to politely sit through some speeches or quickly get out of the way. Cadiz is full of events, things going on, one wishes to be part of it, understand. Next time I shall know some Spanish, I hate to be so cut off. Nevertheless, I was experiencing this solo. I am pretty sure Cadiz should be a 'couple' town.

And now, after dinner, back to the cell or another coffee? Sleep will be impossible, no doubt doors will slam, toilets will flush. Of all the things I hope we don't get as Euro culture slowly assimilates us is Euro plumbing and building standards. You could argue that everything has been standing for years, but it has also been terrible for years. The Spanish live with a noise pollution that would drive the most northern Europeans crazy. The showers either work fantastically well or not at all, but the fittings are always in the wrong place. The sewers are suspect everywhere and if a hole can be left a year or two, another ten won’t hurt. Broken tiles stay broken and a bit of pavement can be missing for decades. On the long journey between Sevilla and Jerez, one constantly saw new housing developments in the middle of nowhere with not a tree to moderate their starkness. All that space and all they can do is replicate the same overcrowding. Around it, in the fields lie broken beer bottles, abandoned farm machinery or industrial debris. New housing beside garbage dumps. The environmental movement is not even a concept in modern Spain.

There is an extreme to the simplest things. In the Park in Cadiz there is the quaintest of duck ponds with waterfalls and Japanese bridges. But the ducks are so overcrowded, some are so pecked they're bleeding and some lie emaciated and deformed dying. Perhaps the children don’t notice these things, just over sensitive English eyes.

The heart of Cadiz is crossed by Calle Sacramento. A narrow artery bordered by shops that cross every economic divide, some could have been open for business a thousand years ago. Carpenters’ workshops in narrow slits, men working vertically on different levels. Plumbers, glass makers, glaziers, the inevitable cafe, some so small three would be a crowd. There may be high unemployment in Cadiz, but the ones with jobs don’t seem to work so hard either. The cafés are filled with city types grabbing their café con leches and dry toast (with the option of olive oil or chocolate paste) at all hours. My advice is, if you have business to do in Cadiz, the best time is between ten and twelve when you may have their complete attention.

Looking at dead castles in Northern Europe and Spain, we get an idea of what life was really like living in such a closed society five hundred years ago or more. Here not even the Royals or businessmen had a moments peace from the ‘public’ or even their own families. The noise, the smell and sounds of animals and carts, men building, digging, the sweat of crowds all talking, the yells of young men as they call up to their friends on the fifth floor at any hour; Cadiz, like many medieval cities that survive resounds with music, traffic, people, the stench of cooking or sewers that hangs heavy. Look around more carefully and see the starving cats, hear the hum of machinery and as each home has an inner courtyard, the sound is magnified, made all the worse by the use of marble or concrete. To be rich in silence and privacy in Cadiz you’d have to own a whole city block or retreat to the mainland and build your castle there.

As I leave Cadiz, I have a memory of a beautiful young French watercolour artist painting a naked girl nailed to a cross. Her warm inviting smile contrasting with the bloody feet she was painting. I can see the Japanese girl Midori watching fascinated as the fishermen gathered in their catch of octopus on the dockside and my hostel owner standing like a statue in his pyjamas at three in the morning waiting for the last of the guests to come back from a night on the town.
Tonight I shall be in Jerez.

© Sam North 2000
Prices change, hotel ownerships change, stations and train times change. This piece reflects a time and place in October 2000. Your experience may be different to mine and of course in the present tense. Is Cadiz a place to go back to? Certainly. But book a hotel first - with a window.

The Sam North novels still in print

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