In southern Spain, overlooking Africa, Cádiz is one of the Spanish cities that first captivated the English, with its fantastic Jerez sherry and its heavenly beaches.
WITH Cádiz, a curious phenomenon occurs. It is not one of the most popular capitals of Spain, but everyone who knows it will recommend that you visit it. It is the perfect destination in which to pass one of those long weekends.
Besides, now there are cheap flights to Sevilla, the capital of Andalucía is only 134 kms away, and there is hardly any excuse. A good plan is to rent a car at Sevilla airport and make your escape bound for Cádiz, the most southerly border in Spain, stopping along the way to get to know the province.
Before you set out
There is ample choice of accommodation. Choosing a small charming hotel is a good option, preferably in a small town such as Vejer de la Frontera (second photo), for example. This town is formed by a framework of white houses situated at the summit of a hill. The views of, and from, Vejer are impressive. In the mornings, the mist covers the valley and the scenery is gradually revealed as a luxurious landscape, especially seen from the terrace of Hotel Casa del Califa (www.lacasadelcalifa.com, Tel. 95 644 77 30).
The Casa del Califa is a curious hotel where the rooms are in individual houses reformed for hotel use, integrated to fit in with the urban pueblo style. The views of the town evoke images of the northern cities of Africa; the environment is tranquil and very romantic. The town was declared a historic-artistic landmark in 1976 and has been conserved in its original style.
Travellers may be surprised that many local populations make reference to the existence of a border or frontera: Vejer de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera, Chiclana de la Frontera, for example. The border to which towns and cities of this zone allude is the one that existed between Christian and Muslim regions during the last part of the reconquest in the eighth century.
The history of Arabian occupation is present in many aspects: from the geography to the gastronomy, including the town’s architecture, town planning, and historic monuments. In Jerez, known by the Moors as Scherisch (which is the origin of the English word Sherry) you can see one of the best examples of mudéjar architecture in Spain, the Alcázar, a monumental building of the 12th century that was renovated recently. This fortress-palace functioned in an autonomous way as a small city, headquarters of the power that governed the territory.
During the Arabian era, they created the beautiful palace gardens, the entrances to the precinct, the buildings of the baths and a small mosque.
The process of obtaining oil via an old oil press of the 18th century can be seen. Alongside the grinding mill is the press, composed of an enormous beam of wood whose weight permitted the extraction of the liquid.
But without doubt, the most significant sight in Jerez is its wine cellars. Make sure your trip includes travelling through the bodegas and especially tasting some of the excellent wines of the region, from Fino, to Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado and even Pedro Ximénez. From its inception, the wine of Jerez, or ‘sherry’ has had a strong connection with England. Some of the most important wine cellars of the area such as Garvey, Duff-Gordon, Wisdom & Walter or even Osborne (origin of the famous billboard with the silhouette of a bull which is practically a symbol of Spain) were founded by English businessmen in 1682.
The origin of this passionate relationship between the English and Jerez goes back to the 12th century and culminates in 1587 when the fleet of Sir Francis Drake attacks Cádiz and Jerez, carrying off 3,000 barrels of wine to make it fashionable in the English court.
This wine owes its speciality to the appearance during fermentation of a unique yeast of this region that imparts its exclusive flavour, which is then ‘blended’ by the contribution of alcohol from older wines. The result has given the city its deserved fame, although it is also known as the birthplace of flamenco (Jerez Flamenco Festival is considered one of the best in the world), and by the quality of its horses and equestrian spectacles.
During May, the Horse Fair is celebrated (Feria del Caballo). Additionally, once a year the city transforms to accommodate the Gran Premio (Grand Prix) of Spanish motorcycling.
The magic of Cádiz
One of the first impressions the city gives is that of a shining brightness. Its buildings are of an impeccable whiteness, the golden dome of the cathedral shines in the distance (main photo), the twinkling sea surrounding it all, in what is known geographically as a tombolo (an island linked to the mainland by a stretch of beach, created by longshore drift).
Cádiz has more than eight kilometres of beaches, among them the La Playa de la Victoria, named as the best urban beach in Europe.
The city radiates a colonial air that evokes histories of pirates and discoverers. Columbus left from its ports on his second voyage, and consequently established Cádiz as the site of a commercial monopoly with America, and headquarters of the Casa de Contratación.
In its waters, numerous naval battles took place including the resisted siege of the English Navy of Horatio Nelson in 1797.
Cádiz was founded by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC as Gadir and became Gades during the Roman era, enduring a long and intense history.
To get to know Cádiz best, take a stroll round its lanes. One of the most beautiful walks is from the city and the Castle of San Sebastián, a fortress that occupies a small island, connected to Playa de la Caleta by a jetty that crosses the sea.
It is said that it occupies the place of the old Temple of Kronos. Also worth recommending is the journey along the walls of the city. However, the best option altogether is to wander aimlessly through the historic centre or any of its popular neighbourhoods to soak up the urban environment and spontaneously discover architectural monuments such as the spectacular Catedral Nueva or the ruins of the largest Roman theatre in the world, after that of Pompeii.
You can admire the beautiful façades of its buildings while strolling through twisted streets to return to the same starting point – and the surprising street names will jump out at you.
Don’t forget that this is the site of the famous carnival of Cádiz, one of the most spectacular, provocative and amusing in Spain.
In Cádiz, as in Sevilla and in many cities, it is customary that the entrances to the buildings in popular and historic neighbourhoods are left open all day. This is a golden opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the interior patios and to return them to their historic roots as communal spaces. Many of the courtyards are flooded by enormous plants that grow in abundance as if to say they enjoy living here.
It is very probable that some resident with their characteristic amiability will offer to show you their terrace and views of the city and its roofs. And perhaps a fun-loving group of children will be there enjoying the morning, playing and chatting about their dreams for the future.
The people of Andalucía are of another era: always smiling and joking, vibrant and welcoming. And that is translated into the environment of their streets: all is very natural and familiar, children play in the streets, neighbours converse amongst themselves, people smile, unhurried. This is Cádiz in a nutshell – full of tranquillity and good humour.
Try out the tapas
The tradition of tapas, nibbling small but delicious dishes, from bar to bar, is the most popular Spanish custom among international tourists. To enjoy tapas in Cádiz, don’t miss the Plaza de la Mina at the weekend, or the neighbourhoods of Pópulo, De la Viña or that of Santa María. A mini-beer and some nibbles; boiled shrimps or shellfish are a good option.
For food that is a little more refined, El Ventorrillo del Chato, by the Cortadura beach offers beautiful views and the possibility of a walk right on the beach after eating (www.ventorrilloelchato.com. Tel. 95 625 00 25).
This area has numerous beaches of fine sand and clear water all along its coast. There are impressive natural beaches, almost virgin in some cases, spectacularly conserved, large and extraordinarily landscaped. Here is the ideal spot to watch the sunset with friends.
A relaxed day on the beach of Bolonia (third photo), in Tarifa is especially recommended. In front of you is an extensive view of the beginning of the Atlantic from Cádiz (from the north edge of the Straits of Gibraltar). At the end of the beach, the African coast can be glimpsed on a clear day. Behind, the Sierras de la Plata and San Bartolomé mountains frame the landscape, protecting the area and increasing the sensation of pleasant isolation.
At one end of the beach, an enormous dune is followed by mountain foothills of some 30m tall, creating an unusual landscape of hypnotic beauty. This has just been declared a natural monument by the Department of Environment. In the distance you will usually spot surfers disturbing the wildlife, but enjoying the waves and the glorious beaches.
There is parking, toilets and two or three refreshment stands, which are often indispensable and add to the enjoyment of the landscape with the characteristic cuisine of the place: cooked fish and shrimp tortillas by the hush of the sea. Cattle and animals from adjacent farms also stroll tranquilly among tourists relaxing in the sun. Cows, horses and donkeys rest, are fed and coexist in harmony with the visitors.
The city of Baelo
At the end of a pleasant day, a visit to the archaeological site of Baelo Claudia, an old Roman city on the edge of the beach, invites us to imagine the everyday life of a small Roman population, dedicated to the industry of the saltflats and production of the precious Garum, a renowned ancient sauce based on intestines and heads of fish.
This site’s perfect state of conservation has created the most complete urban Roman location on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a faithful reflection of the development models of the era: orthogonal grids of streets, the forum at the crossroads, a theatre, market, and basilica (the public building for administration of justice) and various temples, one of them dedicated to the goddess Isis.
The presence of the Egyptian goddess is another of the surprises you’ll find in Cádiz. Isis, the most popular female Egyptian deity, sister and wife of Osiris, resists the onslaught of Christianity and here in the Iberian peninsula you can find different Roman temples all dedicated to her.
This city of Baelo is also interesting for its position, raised on a natural podium, and therefore divided from the rest of Cádiz by the sea, which would have permitted the celebration of rituals relating to the protection of navigators and fishermen, as was common then.
So, Isis bids us good-bye from the coast of Cádiz, with its heavenly beaches, tasty tapas, agreeable people, Roman cities with Egyptian goddesses, and white cities on the banks of the Atlantic. What more can you ask for!
Holidays in Cádiz often seem unbearably short, but there is still just time to catch a glimpse of Sevilla before the flight home.
Cádiz’s top wine cellars
A tour of a bodega is a must on any visit to Cádiz. Try one of thinkSPAINtoday’s favourites:
Bodegas González Byass (Tío Pepe): www.bodegastiopepe.com
Bodegas Álvaro Domecq: www.alvarodomecq.com
Bodegas Pedro Domecq: www.domecq.es
Bodegas Garvey: www.bodegasgarvey.com
Bodegas Osborne: www.osborne.es