Cádiz – it sounds like a word to meditate on. Words do play an important part in this spectacular Spanish city, by many considered the oldest in the western world, 3,000 years or so.
Such a short name, shorter yet when the locals skip the z and d. Makes you expect a nickname, Cádiz has from time immemorial been called Tacita de Plata, Little Silver Cup. It’s a cup rocking on the sea, with a handle fastened to the Atlantic coast via a thin isthmus, thereby forming the Bay of Cádiz. The cup’s bowl symbolizes the old town, its handle the new town, clearly separated by Puertas de Tierra, the gates of the city wall.
The position of Cádiz has been both its strength and weakness; an important base for overseas trade, at the same time exposed to seaborne enemies. Watchtowers became a natural part of merchant residences, serving as a combined control post and outdoor living room. The tallest remaining tower, Tavira, houses a Camara Oscura. A young operator gathers people around a saucer-shaped screen, a variation of the silver cup. Speaking softly as he turns off the light, he seems to prepare you for a meditation under his guidance.
The young man does generate wonders: beams of daylight, first broken in a mirror and sent through a magnifying lens, project a live picture of Cádiz on the horizontal screen. His comments are few and well-chosen as he takes you from district to district with glimpses of the sea in between, close-ups reveal parks and squares, the enormous glass facade in the harbor turns out to be a cruise ship. This man combines veneration of an age-old technical device, enthusiasm for his home city and a charming way of communicating.
From a terrace atop Tavira, the longest street in town, Calle Sacramento, appears like a deep dark ravine nearly splitting the old city. But the silver cup of Cádiz is solid. Every time its contents were destroyed, it just turned around and emptied itself of the ruins to give room for rebuilding. Today’s version of Cádiz is mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, a bourgeois elegance built on top of other civilizations, whether that of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths or Moors.
Not the entire history lies underground, though. A few blocks ahead, at the Sacramento and Calle Sagasta crossing, there is a Parliament museum, Museo de Las Cortes. The upstairs end wall depicts the proclamation of the Spanish Constitution of 1812, nicknamed La Pepa, which had been drawn up in the neighboring Oratory of San Felipe Neri. The 200th anniversary is already on the drawing board. An amazing model of the city from 1779, not silvery but brown-black with age, lies at the feet of the Cortes picture.
El Gran Teatro de Falla, a couple of blocks further, seems to be blushing at what it saw and heard in the latest Carnaval. It stages Gran Final the night before the opening, a competition for four categories of carnival groups, each obeying very strict rules for form and content.
This is how the Gaditanos verbally hit back at injustice, incompetence and stupidity, in the shape of well-formed satire served with humor and a potentially prize-winning angle. Then come ten days of partying in funny costumes and streams of alcohol. When all steam is let off, it’s time to meditate again, over next year’s contribution.
Latin-American tunes welcome you to Plaza de la Catedral. A gentleman sits bent over his guitar, hypnotizing people to sit down on the steps of the majestic cathedral to daydream awhile, cafe customers opposite stop talking. The man, always in a new polo shirt and inscrutable behind his sunglasses, has apparently grown together with his guitar. Some forget what they came here for: to ascend Torre Poniente, one of the Cathedral’s twin towers, the highest viewpoint in Cádiz, taller even than Torre Tavira.
Standing on top of Cádiz, refreshed by the music, you might be inspired to recapture the role of Cádiz as a link between Europe and Africa, and not least between Europe and the Americas, twice used by Columbus as a starting point. The 18th century was a golden age, thanks to monopolies on trade with the Spanish Americas. Hidden loudspeakers are eager to tell you more, but may not mention that Cádiz City, boasting a population of 135,000, is the capital of the Cádiz Province, part of Andalusia.
Doing the Circuit
The sea around Cádiz draws an almost complete circle. If you wish to copy it, the back side of the cathedral is a good place to start, revealing what its towers and dome do to the skyline of Cádiz. The blue sea, the sun and the whiteness of the city merge into silver as you proceed down Avenida Campo Sur to the safe corner of Castillo de San Sebastian, an island castle at the end of a causeway, and Castillo de Santa Catalina, in our days a cultural center. The inviting Playa de la Caleta is thus fortified at either end.
The city walls are soon hidden by the Genoves Park, where the trees wear nameplates. Under an incredible rubber tree, a homeless man in a purple sleeping bag meditates how to get through another threatening day. Gardeners have meticulously cut whole lines of trees into green sculptures, taking care that the flowers are also in good health. Other men seem to philosophize over their own bad luck, while waiting for their fishing rods to give a jerk, like the dark tall cranes do in the commercial harbor up front.
It’s time to change focus from sea to plazas. Plaza de Espana at the beginning of Avenida del Puerto cannot be missed for its towering monument to Las Cortes of 1812. The main square lies at the other end of the Avenida, Plaza San Juan de Dios, popular for its cafes and neoclassical Ayuntamiento, City Hall. The guitar player, still strumming outside the cathedral, accompanies you to Plaza de las Flores. The smell and sight of lilies, mums and carnations can easily be combined with a quick coffee. The Mercado on the adjacent Plaza de la Libertad greets you with the strong colors of fruit and vegetables and a reek of fish and meat.
If peace and beauty are all you seek, Plaza de Candelaria is ideal with its monument and benches, among cypresses, orange trees, palms and bougainvillea. Let it be a prelude to the more hectic Plaza de San Francisco at the end of busy Calle San Francisco. Should you need open space, simply choose squares like the semi-forested Plaza de Mina, or the square where La Constitucion de 1812 was proclaimed and El Carnaval is sparked off, Plaza de San Antonio.
The upcoming 200th anniversary of La Pepa is a milestone for Spain and Cádiz. The government in Madrid hopefully will leave the preparations to the Gaditanos, exploiting their talents for viewing politics through spectacles of humor and irony, if necessary, ridicule those involved, in a laughable yet elegant manner. They will most certainly treat the Constitution with equal respect and disrespect.