The Italian writer, Tiziano Scarpa, once compared Venice to a fish. It is, Scarpa suggested, like a large flat sole, which on close observation of the map appears to be caught on the rod of the inappropriately named Via della Libertà. Cádiz, more of a seahorse, is equally tenuously attached to the mainland by its tail which forms the Playa del Chato, a ribbon of bleached sand that seals the city’s bay. The seahorse is reined in by two bridges that span the only entrance bay and prevent Cádiz from breaking free into the Atlantic.
The Spanish city’s geographical position as a semi-island has had a profound effect on its outlook and culture. Like all ports, the fortunes of Cádiz have waxed and waned with the vagaries of trade, international alliances, politics and migration. In order to understand the Cádiz of today, we need to take a short detour into its history. In 1874, the writer Benito Pérez Galdós included Cádiz in his National Episodes, a series of novels focusing on key historical moments in Spain. The Cádiz episode centres on the Cortes — the parliament set up during the Peninsular War, otherwise known by the Spanish as the War of Independence, that released them from French domination. The Cortes led to the 1812 constitution which historians mark as a significant moment in Spanish liberalism and democracy. Crucially, this moment also resonated throughout Spanish America.
Galdós, whilst recognising the hardships of war, nonetheless had this to say of Cádiz: “there weren’t so many ragged and half-naked beggars as in the cities of Aragón and Castille […] A commercial centre of great riches and culture, Cádiz lacked this pitiful lot.”
The riches undoubtedly constructed a city of architectural note and the culture he mentions has a vibrant modern equivalent, which is not to say, however, that the city has always been able to maintain Galdós’ powerful assertion. When Spain has experienced modern crises such as the financial crash of 2008, Cádiz has often been significantly affected with spiralling levels of unemployment and all the ensuing problems. Most cities in the face of such an onslaught would turn inward and indulge in a degree of self-examination, yet, at the same time, Cádiz has always looked to the sea and wider horizons.
Our most recent visit to the city coincided with the Feria del Libro, the literary festival held in the Baluarte de la Candelaria, a former 17th-century fortress incorporated into the northern seawall and now an exhibition centre and concert venue.