CÁDIZ is among the oldest settlements in Spain, founded about 1100 BC by the Phoenicians and one of the country’s principal ports ever since. Its greatest period, however, and the era from which the central part of town takes most of its present appearance, was the eighteenth century. Then, with the silting up of the river to Seville, the port enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the Spanish-American trade in gold and silver, and on its proceeds were built the cathedral – itself golden-domed (in colour at least) and almost Oriental when seen from the sea – grand mansions, public buildings, dockyards, warehouses and the smaller churches.
Inner Cádiz, built on a peninsula-island, remains much as it must have looked in those days, with its grand, open squares, sailors’ alleyways and high, turreted houses. Literally crumbling from the effect of the sea air on its soft limestone, it has a tremendous atmosphere – slightly seedy, definitely in decline, but still full of mystique.
Unlike most other ports of its size, Cádiz seems immediately relaxed, easy-going and not at all threatening, even at night. Perhaps this is due to its reassuring shape and compactness, the presence of the sea, and the striking sea fortifications and waterside alamedas making it impossible to get lost for more than a few blocks. But it probably owes this tone as much to the town’s tradition of liberalism and tolerance – one maintained through the years of Franco’s dictatorship even though this was one of the first towns to fall to his forces, and was the port through which the Nationalist armies launched their invasion. In particular, Cádiz has always accepted its substantial gay community, who are much in evidence at the city’s brilliant Carnaval celebrations. The city is making elaborate preparations to celebrate the bicentenary of the 1812 Constitution (Spain’s first, called “La Pepa”) and setting up of the Cortes (parliament), in opposition to the Napoleonic blockade. The major monument commemorating this event will be a new road bridge named “La Pepa” linking Puerto Real across the bay with the old town.