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NASA astronauts and hippies at the Cadiz Carnaval, held in February. Kids love seeing all the crazy costumes!

With the impressive title of oldest city in Western Europe, Cadiz is a little-known yet beguiling historic treasure in the south-west of Andalucia, whose charming atmosphere and marine gastronomy will delight visitors.

With a different feel from grander Moorish cities in he region – it’s smaller, quieter, and has better succeeded in preserving its integrity and authenticity – this is a down-to-earth place with a welcome dearth of restaurant chains, and a thriving resident community. Famous for its beaches, seafood and annual carnival, the ancient port is well worth a visit when you’re in Andalucia.

This year Cadiz is in the international spotlight, thanks to its inclusion in the New York Times’ list of 52 Places to Go in 2019.

Cadiz is a small city, easy to find your way around.

The bijou seaside city’s distinct identity, uncommercialized and without being over-developed, is partly thanks to not having an airport, which puts off some visitors; but this makes it all the more rewarding for those who venture to explore its centuries-old streets and plazas. Also its unusual geographical situation – the old city is a peninsula, surrounded by the sea on three sides – has led to its fiercely independent character.

As a trading city, founded by the Phoenicians in 1100BC, Cadiz was a meeting point for many different civilizations, from the Romans and Greeks to the Moors (Muslims from North Africa). In Roman times its name was Gades – today, natives of Cadiz are known as gaditanos.

Columbus departed from Cadiz on his second and fourth voyages, and Sherry wine was shipped from here to England from the 16th century, when the city was regularly attacked by English pirates. In the 19th century it was Spain’s main port for trade with America – the monopoly was transferred from Seville. Its economic importance saw a rise in social status, with many magnificent mansions dating from this time. Spain’s first constitution, La Pepa, was drawn up here in 1812.

So what are the must-see points in Cadiz? Here are our suggestions:

The neoclassical cathedral dates from the 19th century, when the city was at its most powerful.

The Cathedral: with its striking octagonal towers and golden-yellow dome, this is one of the city’s iconic buildings. It is the resting place of Spanish composer Manual de Falla, who was a friend of Gabriel Garcia Lorca; Cadiz’s main theatre is named after him. De Falla is buried in the beautiful crypt – don’t forget to head downstairs to this circular underground chamber, with its fascinating acoustics. Plaza de la Catedral. More information here.

Erizos (sea urchins) are beautifully coloured…
and they make an unusual but tasty snack.
Fresh oysters and tiny shrimp, used for tortillas de camarones.

Mercado Central de Abastos: this fresh produce market with over 150 stalls has an extraordinary array of seafood, from tiny shrimps and sea anenomes, to clams and oysters. You can buy a little paper cone of your favourite mariscos and then eat them straight away – the freshest, healthiest, most delicious take-away meal! Also tapas bars serving sushi (obviously), vegan, and Moroccan dishes. Plaza de la Libertad. More information here.

Torre Tavira: the tallest of Cadiz’s viewing towers, perfect for getting your bearings, and enjoying fabulous bird’s eye views. Calle Marques del Real Tesoro 10. More information here

Roman Theatre: dating from the 1st century BC, built by a friend of Julius Caesar, this is the oldest Roman theatre in the Iberian peninsula. It is currently being renovated but some parts are accessible from the interpretation centre. Calle Meson 12. More information here

Sand sculpture La Caleta beach.

Playa de La Caleta: on the western side of the old city, this beach is popular with sunseekers of all ages. If it looks familiar, that’s because Halle Berry strode out of the sea here in Die Another Day, the 2002 James Bond film partly set in Havana. Castillo San Sebastian, the southernmost of the two fortresses, connected to the city by a tidal causeway, also makes an appearance in the movie, as a medical clinic on an island.

Other good places to sample the local seafood are El Faro (Calle San Felix 15; try the tortillitas de camarones, shrimp fritters), while Ultramar&nos (Calle Enrique de las Marinas 2) has a more contemporary take on gaditano cuisine with its renowned stews and inventive spins on traditional favourites – tuna tacos or grilled squid with seaweed salad – as well as plenty of meat and vegetarian options. Don’t forget to try a glass of Sherry, the dry fortified wine which is made nearby – start with fino or manzanilla, both dry and perfectly matched with fish and seafood.

While many people dress up for Carnaval, you can also just go and admire the costumes!

This is a guest post written exclusively for Spain Savvy by Fiona Flores Watson.

Carnaval is Cadiz’s biggest, most important annual event –Spain’s most colourful and outrageous carnival, held in mid to late February (2019 dates are 28 February to 10 March). During the two weekends, the streets are filled with people – Spanish and from elsewhere – dressed up as priests and nuns, astronauts, cavemen, chickens and more. Singing groups called chirigotas, also in fancy dress, perform bitingly satirical songs about topical issues, often featuring politicians of the day. It’s a great fun day out for all the family, a real visual feast; be aware that night time at weekends gets quite rowdy! Barrio de la Viña, between Mercado de Abastos and Playa de la Caleta. More information here.

Interesting fact: American Civil War Unionist General George Meade was born in Cadiz. His Irish father was a naval agent in Spain for the US government. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, defeating General Robert E Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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