Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cadiz - where everything is sunny and smiling

Cadiz (prounced Cadithe) lies on the southern coast of Spain facing into the Atlantic Ocean. It is continental Europe’s closest point of land to the African continent and one of the closest ports to the Americas with whom Cadiz became a great trading partner.

It is 125 kms south of Seville and we took a day trip today. I had heard much of the forts that guard the entry to the Port of Cadiz and thought it would be fun to see them. The day is beautiful and you could be forgiven forgetting that Europe is in the grip of one of its harshest winters for years.

As we drive south, we continue to smell the cloying scent of olive oil being processed – it permeates almost into the pores of your skin. But on the plains around Seville, the olive trees are not so abundant. You see, olives will grow in fairly poor soil and the alluvial plains through here are rich and dark and there are more valuable crops to grow – strawberries (that are about to come into season – yes, in winter!) and other ground crops. The crops also include turf and in technology borrowed from the ancient Romans, the landscape is dotted with (albeit much smaller) aquaducts that transport irrigation water. We also see flocks of sheep grazing – hundreds of them in fields small by comparison to the Australian sheep farm.

The trees in this part of Spain are larger, greener and more dense. There is a greater variety including stands of Eucalypts as well as the ever present fir trees. And there once again, atop the rolling hills covered in a carpet of green is that Andalusian symbol – the large bull silhouette!

It is of no wonder Spain continues to astound us with its varied vistas, climate, and when the sun shines – a brilliance which appears to be at the heart of Spaniards. However, this land’s beauty lies within its ruggedness, which seems to beckon adventurers of a colonial spirit to test their valour. Mind you, these two adventurers are more than happy to enjoy the security within the boundary of modern technology. As we continue our journey, it is impossible to miss those fading signatures of past habitations which appear to punctuate the land like broken teeth.

Our first view of Cadiz is out across the Bay – with fishing boats bobbing in the channel even though it is low tide, and large electricity feeders stand on platforms atop pylons, silently waiting for the tide to return around their ankles. With a population of 150,000 Cadiz however is not some sleepy backwater. There are plenty of medium density apartment blocks lining one the shores of the Bay. And it is a busy port conducting trade with all points on the globe - but mainly with America and Africa.

One of the oldest western civilisations, the history of Cadiz dates back to the Carthaginians more than 3,000 years ago and after this, due to its location at the base of Europe, it was the third most important city in the Roman Empire. Visible from most of the city is the large yellow dome of the Cathedral. This was deliberately tiled in yellow tiles so the sun would reflect off the top, beckoning sailors out to sea to come to or return to Cadiz.

The bourgeois built large buildings just back from the port, with tall watch towers so that they could look out to see and watch for the ships arriving from America and the African continent bringing goods for sale.

There are actually two forts that guard the entrance to the port – the 16th century St Catalina with its unique five-point star design and the more recent St Sebastian Fort built after a battle to repel invaders. The City Gate is all that is remains of another stronghold – the land fortress. Built in the 18th Century, this completed a series of walls designed to protect the city and the port from the continual attacks to which it had been subjected. The land fortress had an unusual design with at its outer an arrowhead shaped wall that had a series of other walls behind it that overlapped, maze style. As increasing pressure for land for commerce and urban sprawl, much of this fortress was dismantled in the 19th century. Still, it had served its purpose well – once all the fortifications were completed (including the two port fortresses) the city was never again taken – even Napolean’s great army could not breach the city’s defences.

Playa (Beach) Santa Maria got its name from the wreck of a ship carrying gold coins in the 1800s when in a period of great hardship, locals went to the beach to dig amongst the sands trying to discover their fortune while Playa Victoria is considered one of the best urban beaches in the world with locals and visitors alike flocking to its long white sandy stretch and long days of sun, year round.

Today Cadiz looks green thanks to the rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Genovés Park extends around the ocean edge. Rubber trees that were brought over from America more than 100 years old line a part of the promenade. The people of Cadiz are proud of their connection to Simon Bolivar (who at one time lived in Cadiz) and there is a huge statue given to the city by the people of Venezuela.

The former military buildings are now home to the University and canons stand guard outside the Renis Sofia Centro Cultural Municipal. This reuse of buildings is very common and there have been examples of earlier cultures lost due to the constant renewal and re-urbanisation of the City.

Mopeds abound throughout the city zipping in and out of the other traffic. Many are ridden by young people – a fast an economical alternative to walking! The young men particularly ride with reckless abandon ignoring both safety and most of the road rules – including traffic lights. I even saw one girl with another riding passenger behind her, leg in plaster sticking out the side into the traffic and crutches held high – one in each hand! Don't think anyone was holding her!! We saw many near misses. But there are also significant numbers of business people and older men who ride them – a good choice in a city that is heavy with traffic and that does not have a good supply of parking along the shores. We parked the car at the long distance rail station where all the public car parks charge by the minute!! At €2.70, we thought the €0.01 per minute good value for our 4.5 hour stroll and bus ride! From the car park, we strolled through the historic streets that are still home to fisherman and artisans up to the front promenade to get yet another red sightseeing bus.

So after an all too brief visit, we head out of the City and back for Seville about 4 pm. Tonight we are staying at a different hotel – the Hotel Zaida closer to the centre of Seville. This hotel is a former private home and is built in Arabian style

Around 8:30 pm we take a walk to find somewhere for dinner and a couple of streets away just off the Reyes Catolicos we find the Las Piletas Cocina Andaluza y Mediterránean. The décor is pure matador and bull fighting, but most of the menu specialities are seafood! The restaurant is almost a shrine to a famous matador La Lidia and they have not only many sketches and photographs but also the heads of three of the most famous bulls he defeated (stuffed and mounted) along with his cape and the shirt he was wearing when another bull got him! Other decorations include about a dozen Madonna icons and lots of bull brands.

I order a half bottle of regional red wine (Marquis de Arienzo RIOJA) that is hearty and lovely and Michael has the customary agua con gas. A basket of breadsticks arrive in their packet – they are thin and looped into a rope of about 7 inches. The most interesting thing about this restaurant are the Iberian Hams (with hooves) hanging above the bar – no doubt continuing the process of aging and drying, along with ropes of garlic. But they are also immersed in the smoke from the cigarettes of people standing at the bar where they down beer after beer, eat tapas dishes one after the other and continue to light cigarette after cigarette. Gosh, the food safety freaks could have a field day here!
Gula del Norte con cayera y ajos (Eel with cayenne pepper and garlic) Michael
Gambas al ajillo (Prawns with garlic ) Maria
We shared a Paella de pescado y mariséo (Paella of fish and seafood)
We both had a crème caramel and finished with the obligatory espresso.

Back to the hotel around 11pm – yes, life is not hurried here and to bed after a little while checking emails in the lobby as there is no wireless reception in our room – grrr, their advertisement said there was.

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