Cadiz, the province and city on Spain’s southwestern edge, is an underdog — and I’m among the many travelers who have spent years overlooking it. I know Andalusia, the southern region it is part of, well. For years, it’s been a meeting point for my family who has just as much wanderlust as I do and is spread across the world.
My memories of Christmas are anchored by evenings spent gorging on plates of thinly sliced jamon iberico on the Costa del Sol. We’ve done countless road trips through the pueblos blancos, or “white towns,” hidden in Andalusia’s hillsides, and visited all the sites in Granada and Cordoba. But Cadiz, on the other side of the Gibraltar headland, was always just a little too far.
People have been living in Cadiz for more than 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe: Traces of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and North African Muslims who once ruled these lands can all be found on a short walk through the old town. Today, those who are from that part of the city say, facetiously, that they are from “Cadiz, Cadiz, Cadiz” — the original city of Cadiz, in the city of Cadiz, in the province of Cadiz. (Those who live in the new part of town, along the 2.5-mile Cortadura Beach, are referred to as “Bedouins” for having traveled into the “desert” to settle down.)
One of the things I noticed first is that the old town, Cadiz-cubed, feels lived in. Paint peels off the brightly colored buildings, and pharmacies and convenience stores are carved out of the ubiquitous oyster stone, in which traces of seashells can still be spotted. People walk their dogs past Cadiz Cathedral, a 19th-century monolith that dominates the horizon. Cannons dating to the Napoleonic Wars have been repurposed as guardrails, standing upright on corners to protect the buildings from turning cars.
It’s a refreshing change from some of the other old towns I’ve passed through, like Zadar, Croatia, with its squeaky-clean marble floors, or the curated-for-tourists Alberobello in Puglia, Italy. It’s perhaps a product of the city not being on many people’s regular Andalusian itinerary — Seville, Granada, Cordoba — but it’s all too rare to be surrounded by so much history and still feel like you’re part of the place; to sit at a bar, digging into plates of fried fish, and hear nothing but the swallowed syllables of Andalusian Spanish.
A walking tour convert
I’ve never been much of a fan of group tours. Too often, it can feel like you’re floating above a place instead of standing in it — that you’re being shown what someone thinks tourists should see, versus really getting to know a city yourself. But that changed with Cadiz. On my first day, I walked more than 10 miles, marveling at the grand churches, watch towers and parks that fill the old city. But I quickly realized that I didn’t really understand much of what I was looking at. So, somewhat reluctantly, I signed up for a free walking tour with Cadizfornia (it rolls off the tongue better when pronounced in the Cadiz way, with a silent “z”).
Over the course of two hours, I was given a whirlwind introduction to Cadiz’s historical importance — why, as a gateway to the Mediterranean, it was so sought after by successive civilizations. I saw the place where the first Spanish Constitution was signed in 1812 and learned of the powerful Cadiz families who, during Roman times, had reserved box seats at Rome’s Colosseum. I saw the little pieces of trivia that make history stick, like a nondescript corner that once housed a famous brothel catering to the sailors who passed through. And the bishop, who under cover of darkness, was known to don a cloak and visit it.
Walking along the long stone promenade that lines the coast, we came across a beach that looked familiar. Remember that opening scene in “Die Another Day,” when slow-motion Halle Berry emerges from the sea, while Pierce Brosnan as James Bond looks on, in what is supposedly Cuba? It’s actually Cadiz, its blend of seaside fortresses and colorful buildings used as a stand-in for Havana’s Malecon.
But, I also got other perspectives on the city. Like so many other European cities, Cadiz is feeling the pressures of growing tourism. My guide, Pablo Alvarez Cadenas, a musician, pointed out stone townhouses that had been cleared out by Airbnb owners. He showed me another house, where a single old woman is the last remaining holdout of the original Cadiz-Cadiz-Cadiz residents who had all been priced out by rising rents.
“I think there would be protests if she’s ever forced to move,” Cadenas said. “I hope more controls are put in place.”
All the fish, all the pork
One of the reasons I traveled to the province of Cadiz is food, as chefs in the area are innovating with pork and fish, the base ingredients here. I tried out a few of the white-tablecloth joints, but came away remembering the noisy, cheap tapas bars that have been around forever.
What makes Andalusian cuisine so delicious are the ingredients, and sometimes less is more. Why go crazy with reductions and infusions when freshly caught sardines sprinkled with olive oil are enough to elicit moans?
In the heart of the city, at the Taperia de Columela, an always-packed, no-nonsense spot, I was offered a lesson in my eyes being bigger than my stomach. Hungry and curious, I started rattling off my order: two different cuts of ham; payoya cheese, made from the milk of a goat unique to the region; cod doused in olive oil and garlic; a tuna lasagna, because why not? — and then the waiter cut me off.
“That’s enough. If you’re still hungry, you can order more,” he said in the tone of an infinitely patient mother.
He was right.
Following a song on a breeze
From a distance, the wavering song of a flamenco singer doesn’t sound so dissimilar from the Muslim call to prayer. I heard it on my first day in Jerez de la Frontera, a town about 20 miles inland from the city of Cadiz. Floating on the edge of dissonance, the mournful tones stopped me in my tracks, and I looked around for its source. I didn’t find it.
The connection to the call to prayer, or adhan, is probably not a coincidence. The 19th-century origins of flamenco are uncertain, but many believe it came from centuries of cultural exchange between the Christians, Jews, Muslims and Roma (or gypsies) who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula.
The music, usually a pair of singers accompanied by a guitarist and dancers, can be found all over Andalusia, but Jerez, according to many I spoke to, is where it can be found in its purest form.
Inspired by the invisible singer, I went in search of it. That brought me to Puro Arte, a flamenco theater down an empty street, where, along with a handful of other tourists, I was transfixed by a troupe of musicians. They clapped out polyrhythms, while my brain — despite at least two decades of training as a percussionist — struggled to figure out the time signature. Dancers — one man, one woman — took turns onstage, spinning, posing and stomping out contrapuntal rhythms with their feet.
But it was only the following night that I really understood what flamenco could feel like — and caught a glimpse of how it’s been performed for centuries. At “tabancos,” old taverns unique to Jerez, sherry is poured straight from the barrel and, at some, your running tab is written directly onto the bar with chalk. At night, flamenco takes center stage.
I stumbled onto one, Tabanco a la Feria, just as three flamenco musicians were setting up in a corner. Then they started performing. Packed into the hot room, the crowd was raucous, yelping loudly at the end of each number. There was no stage, no microphones, no amplifiers. They didn’t need them.
I kept glancing over at an older couple standing next to me, the woman, leaning on a walker, the man, wearing a flat cap and with a crossword puzzle tucked under his arm. Their mouths moved throughout, silently mirroring the lyrics, as their eyes welled up with tears.
“Do you come here often?” I asked, in between songs.
“Every week,” the man said, before shushing me and pointing back to the musicians who were starting the next song.