As usual, the trip began with a problem. Trying to act with foresight, we bought train tickets the day before. But, as our host told us later that night, the tickets are only good for one day. Ours were expired. So we had to try to convince the train official to change our tickets, and do this with our halting Spanish.
The morning was thus off to a stressful start. We both had that sort of irritable cabin-fever you get when you spend day after day with somebody in a foreign country; every word we exchanged was peevish bickering. Things ran pretty smoothly, though. The man at the ticket office was very nice and understanding; it took him only a couple minutes to change our tickets.
Soon the train came and we were off. The ride from Jerez to Cádiz is gorgeous. We went through grassy wetlands; on either side of us we could see fields half-flooded with water, with irrigation ditches dug through them in a grid-shaped pattern. What crops are grown here? Outside the window I could see the aquamarine blue of the ocean, sparkling in the Andalusian sunlight like a sapphire.
We arrived. My first impression—and impression that gained in force throughout my stay—was that Cádiz is painfully pretty. I think it’s the prettiest city I have ever seen. The old city center sits on a peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. The narrow streets—lined with pink, yellow, and skyblue buildings—lead you through the interior; and every few blocks you come across a little plaza, with sidewalks tiled in black and white, and tropical trees I can’t hope to name. Eventually you reach the water, lightly lapping the rocky shoreline, which is so bright and blue it looks like it has been dyed.
Cádiz is the oldest continuously populated cities in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians back around 1,000 BCE. It might even be the oldest in all of Western Europe. By the time Herodotus mentioned it in the fifth century BCE, the city was already hundreds of years old. This continuous occupation is no doubt due to the city’s fine port, though nowadays the beaches are more for tourists than traders and explorers.
We got to the shore and strolled. The scene was so intensely pretty that I felt simultaneously ecstatic and relaxed. A sublime cheerfulness flooded my senses. GF had a list of things to see and do here, but now I couldn’t believe anything could be better than the city itself.
We passed a church painted with pastel pink, built in a colonial style, and kept going. Eventually we reached a park, El Parque Genovés. A long promenade cut through the center, each side lined with ferns shaped into spirals and cylinders. Big, twisting, knotty trees, covered in rubbery broad leaves, jutted from the ground, their trunks exploding in multiple directions. Trees even more bizarre bid us farewell as we left—one with a bulbous, almost cucumber-like trunk; and another that looked like it had been turned upside-down.
We turned another corner, and now the prettiness started to sting my eyes. Directly before us was a bay, filled with little white row-boats, floating idly in the calm, sparkling waters. To our left was an old fortress, the Castle of Santa Catalina—a squat, square structure built of tan stones, standing over the water. And to our right was the beach, the Playa de La Caleta, nearly empty. The scraggly heads of palm trees dotted the shoreline, and a boardwalk extended into the ocean beyond.
I could not pull myself away; so we sat in the nearest café and decided to have lunch. I sipped a glass of sherry as I attempted to burn the view into my memory. The white boats and buildings, the yellow-brown sand and tiled walkway, the ocean breeze and the slightly sweet taste of sherry—I was enamored and intoxicated. It was one of those views that look immediately familiar because they are so classically picturesque.
Indeed, as it turns out I had seen this view before. It is the where a beach scene in the James Bond movie Die Another Day was filmed. In that movie, the beach is supposed to be in Cuba—which explains why I was immediately reminded of Cuba, although I have never been there. It’s funny how our memories work.
After lunch we went straight for the beach, stumbling over the sand in a kind of bewildered, euphoric daze. Only a few other people were there, most of them sitting on the sand and looked out towards the ocean. At the end of the beach was a boardwalk, leading towards a big structure sticking out a few hundred feet into the water. This is the counterpart fortress of the Castle of Santa Catalina on the beach’s right side: the Castillo de San Sebastián.
“Oh, this was on my list,” GF said. “It’s a castle or something.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
The Castle of San Sebastián is connected to the mainland by a narrow walkway, only wide enough for two people abreast. When we were midway across the wind started to whip up; the waves were no longer gentle, but angry. They splashed against the platform, spraying foam onto the walkway and covering my glasses in salty droplets. The wind accelerated every few seconds, turning our clothes into balloons and making our hair dance wildly.
The further out we crept, the more of Cádiz we could see behind us. The city was no longer the pretty jewel it had been one moment ago, but a bold bulwark against the brooding power of the sea.
We reached the castle. This was built in 1706 to complement the Castile of Santa Catalina on the other end of the beach. Before the castle was built a hermitage stood on this island, where sailors recovering from the bubonic plague could be isolated. Nowadays the fortress is in a dilapidated state, consisting mainly of ruins and rubble; in any case it is mostly a collection of stone walls, never meant to be pretty. But the view from the tip of the island was splendid, allowing you to see the whole coast of Cádiz and far beyond. Yet it was really the ocean that captivated me. The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt, and the feeling of the cool breeze chilling you to the bone.
We still had much to see. Our next stop was the cathedral. It isn’t very far off. The cathedral’s tall form towers over a row of apartment buildings. These buildings are painted in creamy colors; and the view of the marble cathedral looming above them is one of Cádiz’s distinctive views. Our road ran right along the sea; and to my right, separating the sidewalk from the ocean, was the breackwater: a pile of giant, perfectly cubic stones.
We reached the cathedral and went inside. Everything was smooth lines, rounded forms, and clean white marble. This was neoclassical—elegant and symmetrical. According to the audioguide, this cathedral was built when Cádiz began to profit enormously from Spain’s trade with her colonies in America. Thus this grand edifice resulted. By contrast with gothic cathedrals I had seen, this one looked more like a celebration of human reason than divine might. Its even proportions, its emphasis on balance, its ghostly white marble columns, all this reminds one more of a mathematical theorem made manifest rather than a vengeful deity who sits in judgment.
If you visit this cathedral, make sure to go to the crypt in the basement. There isn’t much to see, but the central chamber has really astounding acoustics. Stand in the right place, and even a whisper will be magnified into an omnipresent hiss. And the sounds of your footsteps bounce from the roof to the floor like a rubber bouncy ball sped up fifty times.
Next stop was the Torre Tavira, an old tower from the city’s golden age of trade. At first I thought it would be a scam—pay a few to climb a lot of stairs. But it turned out to be perhaps the best thing we did in Cádiz. The view from the top is worth the money, as it is probably the most impressive in the city. But the best part of the visit commenced when we were led by the guide to the cámara oscura. This is a very old and very simple device, consisting of a dark chamber with an angled mirror with a small opening. Light enters the aperture and is reflected by the mirror to a surface, where the image shows like a projector.
Our tour guide led us into the room, had us encircle the disc-shaped projecting surface, and dimmed the lights. The show began. Light poured in through the camara obscura above us, created a perfect image of the city on the disc. This image was magnified quite a bit; and by turning the mirror overhead the guide could focus on different areas of the city. Going on this way, we explored the city in every direction, our guide pointing out the notable buildings and briefly explaining their history.
The show ended and we went downstairs. By now I was exhausted. Being continually astonished really takes a lot out of you. I didn’t have the energy to gape at anything else. Besides, it was getting dark by now, and we had to get to our next stop. So we pulled ourselves away from this city, walked to the train, and returned to our Airbnb. Please, if you get the chance, visit Cádiz. It’s a jewel.