After fish ‘n chips and pints of lager with the monkeys in Gibraltar, we continued our loop around Andalusia.
Sometimes our travel decisions are based more on a whim than solid research. In this instance, we booked an apartment in Cadiz for a week based on a vague recollection of Rick Stein enthusing about it on one of his shows and an English guy we met in Ethiopia saying it ‘shouldn’t be like the Costa del Sol’.
We are glad we did. Our apartment was just inside the historical central area and overlooked the square by the port. Brilliant tapas bar downstairs, easy walk to the central market and an abundance of bars and restaurants. Not too many tourists this time of year, except for a day when a cruise ship berthed, but even then the town is big enough to absorb the influx without seeming crowded.
Cadiz is widely described as the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe. The Phoenicians first settled here about 3100BCE. But it really came to prominence in the 18th century. When large boats could no longer get upriver to Seville due to silting up, Cadiz became the official port for voyages and trade to the Spanish holdings in the Americas.
The well preserved historic centre is clear evidence of the wealth this brought, including public buildings and the obligatory absurdly-oversized cathedral.
The historic centre is effectively a large orb at the end of a peninsula. There’s a seaside promenade around most of it, small enough to walk the whole foreshore in a few hours. The beaches were gloriously empty but will fill up come summer.
As reminders of the past, there’s a ruined fort at the end of a promontory – a rock at the end of a rock at the end of a continent.
And on the beach facing the fort, there’s a pavilion that wouldn’t look out of place in Brighton.
Along the sea wall someone is looking after the stray cats. You cannot get a beach house closer to the sea than these.
There’s a rather cool puppet museum which we found almost by accident and which deserves better promotion.
And the usual smattering of Roman ruins, a local museum with Phoenician sarcophagi etc. but really, Cadiz was more just a relaxing spot to put our feet up and goof off for a week. Not sure if it’s the same in summer, but off season it was terrific for that.
Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez de la Frontera is the home of sherry. Translated into English, Jerez means ‘sherry’. And for a European drink to be labelled ‘sherry’, it must be made only from grapes grown on a small triangle of land bounded by Jerez and two other local towns.
Here, sherry is consumed very much like wine. It’s not just a pre-dinner drink. And forget any mental images you might have of sherry as a sweet sipper favoured by your aged auntie. This stuff is very good.
The grapes are grown in the vineyards but a lot of the production happens, as it always has, in bodegas in town. The thick stone walls maintain a constant year round temperature, and large windows are used strategically to channel just the right amount of sea air through the barrel space. There are bodegas dotted throughout the old part of town where we stayed, so walking through the cobbled streets was not just architecturally interesting but frequently enhanced by wafts of that lovely wine-soaked wood smell you will find in vineyard cellars. We stayed in an old bodega that had been converted into apartments around a central courtyard, next door to an operational bodega.
We did a tour of Bodega Fundador, the oldest in Jerez, established in 1730.
Bodega Fundador also lays claim to having invented Spanish brandy. The story as told is that the house received an order for 500 barrels of grape spirit, but when payment failed to materialise, the raw spirit was placed in barrels previously used to age sherry, and forgotten. Five years later, the owner found the barrels and tried the contents. The spirit had darkened in colour, mellowed in flavour and developed a rich aroma. Adding distilled water, Spanish brandy was born.
History buffs will recall that Lord Nelson’s body was taken back to England in a brandy barrel after he was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar. Could it have been this one?
Jerez calls itself the ‘cradle of flamenco’ – disputed by Seville, of course! It is dotted with tabancos – traditional bars serving sherry and tapas, where you can catch a very local flamenco performance. Forget the touristic ‘dinner and flamenco show’ concept, these are local artists performing for local audiences, as well as tourists of course.
The tiny Tabanco El Pasaje is the oldest continuously operating tabanco in Jerez. With just six tables in front of a tiny stage, and a stand up area around the bar, this is a no-frills proposition. The performance was really good and we ended up staying much longer than we’d expected to.
Jerez has Spain’s newest cathedral. Looking at it, you might say ‘hang on, that looks quite old’. You’d be right. It was completed in the 17th century, but for a church to be a ‘cathedral’, it must be the seat of a bishop, and Jerez only got a bishop in 1980. Save that one up for your next Catholic trivia night.
Jerez is also home to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. No, it’s not a gallery of paintings of horses. It is a foundation dedicated to preserving the traditions of Andalusian equestrian performances, popularly known as the Andalusian ‘dancing horses’.
In a beautiful complex in suburban Jerez, the foundation has stables, a horse training centre and a purpose-built performance arena seating 1,600 people. The show includes stepping skills, precision riding and performances involving horse-drawn carriages. There was one small segment which made us uncomfortable as it seemed to require quite unnatural movement by the horses. But the rest of the show was precision horsemanship which most people would consider ‘natural’ for domestic horses, just taken to a higher level. These horses are extremely well treated, highly valued animals and overall the show was just beautiful.
Photos are not permitted during the performance, but they parade a few of the horses around the grounds during the interval to satisfy viewers’ desire to take some pictures.
A wealthy Moorish city in the 12th century and the capital of a resurgent Spanish monarchy in the 16th century. Wealth beyond imagination poured into the city for 150 years whilst it held a monopoly on trade with the Spanish Americas, before plague and river silting meant trade moved to Cadiz in the 1650s. Here more than anywhere else we went in Andalusia, that history and tradition seems to be integral to the life of the city. Despite more austere modern times, Seville still feels like the most ‘Andalusian’ city in Andalusia.
First a fort, then a Moorish palace, then a Christian palace, the blending of Moorish and Euro-Spanish culture which we first saw in the Alhambra reaches a state of near perfection in the Alcazar.
When Don Pedro built his palace within the complex in the 1300s, his neighbour, the Emir of Granada, sent craftsmen to assist the Don’s local guys. One inscription on the palace facade reads, in Spanish, that the builder is ‘the highest, noblest and most powerful conqueror, Don Pedro’, but another in Arabic reads ‘there is no conqueror but Allah’. Maybe the Don should have paid more attention in his Arabic classes.
The wealth brought by the city’s control of trade with the Americas wasn’t limited to the royals. Numerous private homes from this era can be visited which are themselves quite spectacular.
Casa de Salinas is a 16th century family mansion in the same style as the Alcazar. The family matriarch still lives here, aged in her 90s, along with three of her twelve sons. Sounds a bit like an endurance exercise to see who can outlive the others.
The Plaza de España was the most ornate of a number of buildings constructed for the 1929 Exposition Iberoamerican. Like most such endeavours in the 20th century, it was criticised for the cost at a time of economic hardship, but it’s been well maintained and remains a big tourist draw card to this day. It even has a Venice-style canal where tourists and youngsters can paddle around whispering sweet nothings to each other.
Although banned in some other provinces of Spain, bull fighting is still an event in Seville. We would never go to one, but it is such a part of the culture, we did visit the Real Maestranza, Seville’s bullring, where you can see an exhibition on the history of this activity – Julie refuses to call it ‘sport’ – and step inside the bullring.
Seville’s immense Cathedral is the largest gothic cathedral in the world. The level of decoration is probably the most lavish we’ve seen anywhere – which is a big call considering the number of cathedrals, churches, temples etc we have visited.
It also houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Chris died in Valladolid in central Spain, but his remains were later moved to what is now the Dominican Republic, then to Havana, Cuba and finally here to Seville. It seems even death couldn’t slake his thirst for maritime meandering.
The cathedral tower is the minaret from the mosque previously on the site, with a Christian extension built on top. Inside, the ascent is via a set of ramps, not stairs as would usually be the case. Apparently this was so the imam could ride his horse to the top instead of having to walk up five times a day to give the call the prayer.
And to cast a bird’s eye over all these sites, you just need to go to the Metropol Parasol – or as the locals call it, Las Setas (The Mushrooms). It is said to be the world’s largest wooden structure. A series of 30 metre high pillars with an undulating roof, it looks like a series of giant mushrooms sprouting out of a totally urban landscape. You can take a lift to the roof, where a walkway meanders around with views over the city. On first look, such an ultra-modern structure seems out of place in this traditional environment – and it certainly polarised opinions locally when it was built. But somehow it’s uniqueness salvages it. So much better than just building some chrome-and-glass observation deck.
Seville’s Barrio de Santa Cruz is a pedestrian-only neighbourhood near the Cathedral and the Alcazar. It’s a maze of little cobblestone lanes where locals still live, but gentrification has brought boutique hotels and apartments in renovated old buildings. The area is packed with old and new tapas bars, restaurants, flamenco bars and shops. Base yourself here and you will be able to walk to everything you want to see, eat, drink or buy.
Seville is a perfect place for hopping between tapas bars and trying local wines. One particular local specialty we loved was orange wine. It’s sweet but with an aromatic spiciness which stops it being too cloying. Made by soaking orange peel in sherry wine in barrels for four years, it’s an aperitif. Or a digestif – it goes rather nicely with a hard cheese like Manchego.
As for the famous Seville oranges, this time of year the trees are full of fruit. And although fresh orange juice is ubiquitous, no one is picking the oranges from the trees throughout town. Could there be a reason for this? John thought he’d find out. And yes, there’s a reason. Enough said. No wonder these oranges are most famous for being turned into marmalade.