Learning to love Spain
Rule One: Learn to Read Spanish
Sam North (Written
The Old, the Sunsets at the old harbour, the local priests...©
Sam North 2000
The Rough Guide says
the hostel in the old town is just a short walk from the station. This
Just make sure you get off at the right station! Get that wrong, by the
time you arrive, all the other punters who know to stay on the train till
the bitter end have long ago taken the only available rooms.
Cadiz, like Madrid, dislikes people looking for solo rooms.
When I got there after a long walk from the wrong station everything cheap
or even expensive had gone. In the end I found a hostel so unpleasant
I wont even mention it, just so you can't find it yourself and experience
the full horror. Well alright then, Hostel Espana, but dont say
you arent warned. At 3500 ptas per night it was not cheap (It's
probably more now in Euros) and they want the money in advance and wont
let you see the room first. Because I was tired I took it. It might have
been better to sleep on the beach. The room on the top floor was a prison
cell so cramped Hannibal Lecter would have found it a squeeze. It was
on the inside, had no glass in the window or door and the curtain didnt
even stretch fully across it. People could see in and there was a neon
light burning all night. Outside in the street motor scooters droned all
night long, the bathroom was dirty, you must provide your own soap and
towel and the owner, old and decrepit, made noises late into the night
dragging garbage slowly across the inner courtyard for what seemed liked
hours. He sat waiting in his pyjamas for you to come back from the rather
forlorn search for food in the town. Hed grumble a lot as you walk
back to your cell, but it may never occur to hostel people that their
lives might be better if the customer had a key to let them in. Cadiz
in October takes some getting used to.
Cadiz new town is the usual grid pattern of tower blocks. Cadiz old town
is a 2000 year old settlement that has seen a lot of action in history.
Much of what you see isnt as old as it looks, since friendly Brits
like Captain Drake set fire to it a few hundred years ago. Before that,
the Moors invaded after the previous invaders, the Romans, left the region.
Cadiz has developed vertically. It is built on a virtual island peninsular
connected to the mainland by a road. I began my day by searching for a
bar to watch the sunset from. Weirdly, this proved harder than I imagined.
The city has its back to the sun and I found a little place in the old
fishing harbour where they serve cheap Vino Tinto and Red Roman fried
fish. The fish was excellent, caught just hours before, but not cheap.
Nevertheless, you are made welcome and you can sit out there, watch the
red orb in the sky and eat your fish. I spoke with Midori who is a Japanese
visitor and guest of the bar owner. Midori helps run the Flamenco theatre
in Osaka. The bar owner visited the Flamenco theatre in Japan and kind
of adopted Midori. She doesnt dance, but sings and is fascinated
by Spanish culture. She speaks Spanish and fluent, flawless American,
learned on exchange in Portland, Oregon. The lure of Flamenco is world-wide
it seems. This scene, the little harbour, fishermen fixing their boats,
the vino, not much has changed here in a couple of thousand years . Yet
it has, because beside the Spanish watching this sunset is an Englishman
and a Japanese girl. Cadiz is no longer isolated. The fast AVE train is
bringing the world to its door.
Cadiz feels like a student town. Indeed there is a big University here
famous for medicine and economics. Just across from this little harbour
you can find two enormous South American trees outside a campus building
and students leaving seminars as the sun sets. Cadiz feels very real and
is not really geared for tourists. They come and are fascinated by the
narrow streets, the crowded tenement buildings and one senses that if
one actually spoke Spanish people would be friendly. There are pavement
cafes in little plazas, crowded into spaces that compete with the cars
and Vespas. Like Madrid, you have to walk it to know it. You could just
go to the beach and many do, but you are missing out on one of the most
interesting places in Spain.
Getting your bearings is hard in such a narrow confinement, so luckily
there is a tower in the heart of the town with a camera obscura at Torre
Tavira which is on Calle Sacramento, where for around 500 ptas you can
see everything and incidentally get some great shots from the windows
half way up. See Cadiz and learn something of its history too.
Rooftops in Cadiz © Sam North 2000
Cadiz seems to gather in a knot at the centre around the old market place
and from here spiral out to the shops and cafes and tiny galleries that
make up Cadiz shopping. The market is a genuine institution and a bargain.
Imagine Harrods Food Hall at Netto prices. Its a revelation. However
poor the region might be, they have the best fish and fresh food available
anywhere. Try the cafes around the market for breakfast or lunchtime tapas.
Of course, youll find Mango and Zara and Springfield, but also tiny
fruit shops or lone art shops in all the side streets. Cadiz has all the
character that is absent from equivalent towns in England such as Falmouth
or Newquay, with the added benefit of being able to get coffee and food
late into the night. It is also a lot warmer. Its hard to square
official figures for unemployment and poverty with the visually rich tapestry
that greets you at every turn. People seem to genuinely enjoy life here
and know, much better than the English, on what is required to do that.
Getting used to Spain on your first visit takes some doing. Hours run
from around 9am to 2pm followed by siesta and then again from 5pm to around
8 or 9pm. Sometimes later. For north European tummies used to dinner around
seven or eight, well youll be dining alone. The Spanish spend all
day grazing on tapas, they dont even think about dinner until around
ten or more likely, they eat at home. Going out is for drinking and talking.
They do a lot of talking. For the lone October tourist and there are quite
a few of us, never talking to each other, but sort of recognising that
we are foreigners, you can slink into the places that cater
for us. Empty, soulless places to be sure, but the set menus are not entirely
unreasonable. In Cadiz you get a bread roll, a glass of chilled vino tinto,
a freshly cooked pork chop, a lemon to cut the grease and for afters,
a creme caramel. Four quid at the rate of exchange in 2000.
Solo holidays are quite a challenge. Suddenly I understand, perhaps more
than ever the sadness of Monsieur Hulot. What made me laugh as a child
now disturbs me. I have grown up to be Hulot. Sleeping in my prison cell
in Hostel Espana, dining alone, walking alone. Tomorrow I tell myself
that I shall enquire about the ferry to Tenerife or Morocco. Something
exotic. I find myself wishing that I had time to keep going, all the way
down through Africa to the Cape. Now that would be a holiday.
Cadiz is another medieval town like Venice. The long narrow streets that
echo with the sound of kids, dogs, Vespas and Hondas. Walking everywhere,
as I do, dog shit is your enemy. Being lost is not a problem, this is
why I am here. You learn something new everyday, discover a gallery, walk
onto a movie set or into a prize-giving for contributions to culture.
All accidents, but fun to see and experience and no one ever seems to
question you being there. Sometimes you get lucky, theres free wine,
sometime you have to politely sit through some speeches or quickly get
out of the way. Cadiz is full of events, things going on, one wishes to
be part of it, understand. Next time I shall know some Spanish, I hate
to be so cut off. Nevertheless, I was experiencing this solo. I am pretty
sure Cadiz should be a 'couple' town.
Outside the University, Passages and fashions © Sam
And now, after dinner, back to the cell or another coffee? Sleep will
be impossible, no doubt doors will slam, toilets will flush. Of all the
things I hope we don't get as Euro culture slowly assimilates us is Euro
plumbing and building standards. You could argue that everything has been
standing for years, but it has also been terrible for years. The Spanish
live with a noise pollution that would drive the most northern Europeans
crazy. The showers either work fantastically well or not at all, but the
fittings are always in the wrong place. The sewers are suspect everywhere
and if a hole can be left a year or two, another ten wont hurt.
Broken tiles stay broken and a bit of pavement can be missing for decades.
On the long journey between Sevilla and Jerez, one constantly saw new
housing developments in the middle of nowhere with not a tree to moderate
their starkness. All that space and all they can do is replicate the same
overcrowding. Around it, in the fields lie broken beer bottles, abandoned
farm machinery or industrial debris. New housing beside garbage dumps.
The environmental movement is not even a concept in modern Spain.
There is an extreme to the simplest things. In the Park in Cadiz there
is the quaintest of duck ponds with waterfalls and Japanese bridges. But
the ducks are so overcrowded, some are so pecked they're bleeding and
some lie emaciated and deformed dying. Perhaps the children dont
notice these things, just the over sensitive English eyes.
The heart of Cadiz is crossed by Calle Sacramento. A narrow artery bordered
by shops that cross every economic divide, some could have been open for
business a thousand years ago. Carpenters workshops in narrow slits,
men working vertically on different levels. Plumbers, glass makers, glaziers,
the inevitable cafe, some so small three would be a crowd. There may be
high unemployment in Cadiz, but the ones with jobs dont seem to
work so hard either. The cafes are filled with city types grabbing their
cafe con leches and dry toast (with the option of olive oil or chocolate
paste) at all hours. My advice is, if you have business to do in Cadiz,
the best time is between ten and twelve when you may have their complete
Looking at dead castles in Northern Europe and Spain, we get an idea of
what life was really like living in such a closed society five hundred
years ago or more. Here not even the Royals or businessmen had a moments
peace from the public or even their own families. The noise,
the smell and sounds of animals and carts, men building, digging, the
sweat of crowds all talking, the yells of young men as they call up to
their friends on the fifth floor at any hour; Cadiz, like many medieval
cities that survive resounds with music, traffic, people, the stench of
cooking or sewers that hangs heavy. Look around more carefully and see
the starving cats, hear the hum of machinery and as each home has an inner
courtyard, the sound is magnified, made all the worse by the use of marble
or concrete. To be rich in silence and privacy in Cadiz youd have
to own a whole city block or retreat to the mainland and build your castle
As I leave Cadiz, I have a memory of a beautiful young French watercolour
artist painting a naked girl nailed to a cross. Her warm inviting smile
contrasting with the bloody feet she was painting. I can see the Japanese
girl Midori watching fascinated as the fishermen gathered in their catch
of octopus on the dockside and my hostel owner standing like a statue
in his pyjamas at three in the morning waiting for the last of the guests
to come back from a night on the town.
Tonight I shall be in Jerez.
© Sam North 2000
Prices change, hotel ownerships change, stations and train times change.
This piece reflects a time and place in October 2000. Your experience
may be different to mine and of course in the present tense. Is Cadiz
a place to go back to. Certainly. But book a hotel first - with a window.
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