I remember the day as hot, and I was glad to be out on the water. The offshore breeze tempered the heat, and I was enjoying the white-bright drench of the early summer sun. Perching languidly on a wooden bench, I studied the nut brown, wizened pilot as he carefully steered our ferry across the waters of Cádiz bay. Turning, he caught my eye and smiled. Lifted his small hand and beckoned, “¿Quieres probarlo?” he whispered. “Would you like a go?” I looked around. Worryingly, there wasn’t anyone else he could be talking to and so, with the smallest of protests, I politely smiled back and rather bizarrely, stepped up to the wheel. “Just aim for that”, he said, vaguely gesturing towards the golden dome of the cathedral as it appeared through the morning haze. And with another, even more disturbing toss of his hand, he indicated a converging fishing smack. “Don’t worry about him”, he said, “we’re bigger”. We sure were.
It was some years later that I heard that he had managed to sink the ferry, and now, as I make the same trip between the faded river port of El Puerto de Santa María and the city of Cádiz, I spot the old boat, salvaged and beached on the far right-hand bank, a reminder to me of all those days I carelessly tripped between the sands and sherry bars of El Puerto and the bustling beehive of Cádiz. It’s frivolous of course to suggest that in the passing forty years, nothing has changed; I certainly have. But as I approach the port on the new pristine ferry it all seems so familiar. The city grows out of the morning mist, its Baroque cathedral dominating the shoreline. A bristle of 17th-century merchants’ watchtowers punctuate the skyline and, stepping ashore, I enter the grid of still graceful, sometimes faded, slotted streets. Their narrow height shades me from the summer sun and my eye is drawn upwards, passing layers of finely wrought balconies towards the sky. And I wander. Cádiz, as I remember, is definitely a place for wandering.
A tiny place, almost an island, this city is defined by the sea. It influences everything. From the salted tang of its sherry to the thick trunked magnolias and the exotic plantings of its vibrant squares. Once the gateway to the Spanish Americas, the city grew rich on maritime trade. Over two centuries, an explosion of new money swept away the old medieval ground plan and ushered in a period of harmonious physical growth. And, as the Gaditano town planners constructed each new neighbourhood, first in the Baroque and later in the Neoclassical style, they created long, elegant streets that stretched towards the sea. Tall, narrow passageways, decorated with the most delicate of ironwork and large, distinctive, beautifully shaped windows. The churches multiplied and were filled with the finest Mexican silver and exquisite carved altarpieces. Luminaries such as Goya and El Greco were called in, and decorated some of its most important religious buildings. Shaken but not felled, the city narrowly escaped the tsunami of 1755 and went on to survive the long siege of the Peninsular War, a time when Cádiz was the last refuge of the legitimate Spanish government.
Looking around the city now, what I find so remarkable is not that the Neoclassical and Baroque architecture survived such turbulent times, but that the city wears it all so lightly. The buildings are exactly what they should be: an understated backdrop to what really matters – getting on with life. And what life! Exuberant Spanish life that spills out into the streets and fills the shaded squares. A patchwork of distinctive, living neighbourhoods where faded palatial houses have adapted to the needs of ordinary people. Where tiny, specialist shops still thrive and children’s clothes look as if time stopped sometime around 1950. Where stores specialising in canned goods are still referred to as ‘ultramarinos’ (from overseas) and single street vendors take up a pitch to offer anchovies from black plastic buckets, or the delicate, living ‘jumping shrimp’ that makes the extraordinary Cádiz speciality of tortillitas de camarones – a delicious feather-light fritter that tastes of the sea.
Sitting outside the market, sipping a glass of the coldest, driest fino, I watch the leisurely evening paseo , and reflect on my return. There are changes of course, but the essence of the city remains untouched. A graceful, living city, open handed and open minded. A place entirely at ease with itself.