A few weeks ago I moved away from Reading in Berkshire having lived there for just over fifteen years. I can clearly remember my first visit to the town in Spring 1999 when I was summoned to the university for an interview. It was a horribly wet and windy day and one of the first streets that I came across – what I now know to be Friar Street – was in the process of being dug up for some reason. The shops on Friar Street were (and alas still are) fairly second-rate and it was all compounded by a bus ride to the university during which the driver had a full-blown argument with one of his customers. I did begin to wonder what I was letting myself in for. Prior to applying for a place on a teacher training course in the town I had of course heard of Reading; it was famous for hosting an annual snooker competition in The Hexagon theatre and it was, and still is, renowned for the music festival. Apart from that? Well, I’m not sure. If someone mentioned Reading to me in say 1995, what would I have thought about apart from Steve Davis and a muddy festival goers? It has been a question that I have occasionally pondered upon.
On Wednesday I fly to Malaga and after one night in Andalusia’s second city and then two nights staying with an uncle who lives near Marbella, I’m off to Cadiz. I pray that my first impressions of Cadiz are more positive than those that were so clearly burnt into my memory of Reading. But what about my preconceptions? Without having ever stepped foot in the city, how do I imagine it to be? What do I know of it? What is there to do and see? I’ll be living there for the whole of the month of March studying Spanish at a school called K2 Internacional (read more about my ‘Spanish Plan’ here) so I should have plenty of time to discover the real Cadiz but a bit of research prior to visiting anywhere doesn’t go amiss.
I first read about Cadiz when I was planning the cycle along the Eurovelo 8 in 2013. The Eurovelo 8 starts in Athens and finishes in Cadiz. In the end I extended my own cycle to be a corner to corner crossing of the continent from Cape Sounio in the south-east of Greece to Cape St. Vincent in the south-west of Portugal. If all had gone to plan I would have cycled through Cadiz but I didn’t. I was running out of time as I made my way through Spain and decided to cut across country from Valencia to Seville instead of following the coast. I never made it to Cadiz. That said, someone did warn me that it was ‘impossible to get to the centre on a bike because of all the motorways surrounding the city‘. I never had a chance to find out. More recently I have been told that it is the oldest city in Europe. I can see the logic of it being so; it’s very close to Africa and must have been one of the first strongholds of the Moors when they first passed that way not to mention all those who had risked their lives crossing the Straights of Gibraltar prior to them (although I’m sure they didn’t call them that at the time).
When you look at a map of the city, it’s perhaps not where you expect it to be. It’s actually a peninsula, delicately attached to the mainland by a thin strip of suspiciously straight land. Is that man-made? Was Cadiz originally an island I wonder?
It’s a well-connected place, however thin its umbilical cords might be. Focussing in on the old part of the city – the northern part – you can see there’s a train station and a substantial port:
The K2 school is in the very heart of the old city (it’s one of the main reasons why I chose to study there) and this, courtesy of Google Street View, is what I will see every evening as I step out of the school after a strenuous day at the chalk face:
Not bad, no? It’s called Plaza Mentidero. (Incidentally, I have mixed feelings about Street View; does it enhance the travelling experience or does it take away the ‘wow’ factor? Discuss.) The square is located just to the left of the ‘M‘ in ‘Museo de Cadiz‘ in the second map above. I have yet to find out where I will be living (I’ve decided to share a flat with other students rather than live with a family for four weeks, just as much for their sake as mine) but it will hopefully be near the square and the school. So that’s the geography lesson over.
What will I be able to see and do while I’m there? I actually have two uncles who have houses near Marbella. One who lives there permanently (he’s the one I’m staying with later this week) and another who has a property there and who visits several times a year. I had dinner at the weekend with the latter uncle and he enthused about a few things: the camera obscura the the top of the Torre Tavira, the modernist Parador de Cadiz where he stayed and a very old tree… Both my uncle and his wife were very impressed by Cadiz and having travelled widely in his long and illustrious career in the oil business, he knows his stuff. Alas I fear that should I fall out with the people I am sharing the flat with and move into the Parador, my budget would be dented to the tune of €150 per night. That would inevitably mean a few more nights of wild camping when I set off cycling. I’d better just try and get on with my flat mates.
Time to turn to the Rough Guide to Spain. I’m informed that Cadiz is indeed ‘one of the oldest settlements in Spain‘ although what there is to see today mainly dates from the 18th Century. It is ‘slightly seedy, definitely in decline, but still full of mystique‘. Aren’t we all? It is known for its ‘tradition of liberalism and tolerance‘ although whether that spreads to me not doing my Spanish homework in the evening remains to be seen. The guide goes on to list the following things that must be worthy of a visit
- Museo de Cadiz: I’ll attempt to pay a visit sooner rather than later. I still remember how useful it was when visiting Luxembourg back in 2010 to spend a good couple of hours rummaging around the local museum. I was then able to put much of what I saw later in the day into context.
- Catedral Nueva: recently renovated and with commanding views from the Torre de Poniente.
- Santa Cruz: the original cathedral of Cadiz ‘severely knocked about by the Earl of Essex during the English assault on Cadiz in 1596’. How did I guess that the British would have come along at some stage and caused some form of destruction?
- Torre Tavira: as mentioned above.
- Hospital de la Mujeres: ‘one of the most impressive Baroque buildings in the city’.
- Santa Cueva (another church but one with ‘fine Goya frescoes’) and
- The beaches. I’m not sure that it will be sunbathing weather in March (although I am prepared to be corrected on that). The one thing I do know about the beach in Cadiz (and this isn’t mentioned by the Rough Guide) is that it is where Halle Berry appears from the sea in the James Bond film ‘Die Another Day‘. I think it was supposed to be Havana…
So there you have it; Cadiz in a nutshell. When, in the future, I look back and ask myself the question ‘what did I know about Cadiz before I went there?‘, I’ll now be able to remember the answer.