During the days, we walked in the shadowy streets or strolled through gardens along the water’s edge. The water kept pulling me back to it, the gem-clarity and sky-blue color so inviting on a warm day. I peer into it, looking for silver glints of fish or at the sandy bottom for treasure, just like when I was a kid. I have always been fascinated with the sea. I can imagine the many ships setting sail from this gorgeous city for thousands of years, hoping to return laden with cargo. Like those hopeful ships, we already plan our return in every conversation.
On our last morning, I go to a café by the central market for hot chocolate and churros. This is not a hot chocolate like you are thinking – the thin, brown water with a few sad marshmallows bobbing in it produced by a Swiss Miss Packet. Instead, this is a hot cup of rich, thick chocolate sauce to dip your churro in, like a deep-fried donut stick. The café is busy, and locals are packed into the tables, eating their churros slowly, taking their time to visit. The service is also slow, something many Americans struggle with. Maybe they don’t like the look of us as tourists in their space? Most likely, we are experiencing the Iberian crawl, the pace at which services are rendered, because nobody is trying to kill themselves just because you demand a churro or another glass of wine. They also don’t expect tips, especially not on a small item.
The waiter is hustling between the tables even so. While we listen to the chatter of other diners, small birds flit around the high ceiling, the windows and doors thrown wide to the beautiful day. My husband didn’t want hot chocolate but wanted to accompany me. He doesn’t have a taste for sweets, and neither do I after a few bites. It is too rich and sugary for my breakfast, but delicious nonetheless. I would want this on a cold winter evening, tucked in by a fire, but the Spanish dig into these first thing in their late mornings.
We walked past stalls of fresh fruit, iced fish, and some serving platters of paella in different styles in the market. We stopped there on our first day to slam sangrias and try each paella. They looked so enticing, and we craved anything new. The oily texture of the rice combined with shrimp and mussels to create flavors that varied according to the base.
Black paella, for example, uses squid ink to create the color and flavor, giving it a gummy appearance. If I’m being honest, on a plate, it looks a bit like something you would be served in prison in hell. Like a demon shat it out to order. If I am continuing to be honest, the paella we made in Valencia was superior in taste, texture, and consistency (but that is where it was invented) compared to what we had at the Cadiz Market. This isn’t about how fantastic Valencia is, though. I celebrate Cadiz.
We ate it, initially excited about the opportunity, then tongued the roofs of our mouths to try and remove the oily residue.
Do you ever get so excited by the idea of something that when you are there, you have to pretend it is as cool as you hoped it would be? It is like you spend six hours driving with someone to their grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. They are describing their favorite dishes and you begin to share in their anticipation, only to find chopped-up Wonderbread stuffing with apples and raisins and a thin, brown gruel from a can they call gravy. But, you shut up, eat as much as possible, and declare it wonderful. Upon arriving in many beautiful cities, I felt that way after sitting down to the wrong first lunch.
I didn’t finish my paella. “There’s the food tour,” I said, as an excuse, like I was saving room.
On my birthday the next day, we cycled around the entire city. This is not a long journey because the town is small, but on this ride we saw stone walls of forts, sculpted topiary gardens, a blaring speaker at the entrance to the city for some event that had already occurred, docks, tumbled blocks of retaining walls, the cathedral with its faux gold dome of yellow ceramic tile, and the city readying for holy week with stands for the devoted to sit in and watch the processions.
Before the church, people bottlenecked due to the added seating, and a woman blew bubbles and enticed children to pose for money with a giant teddy bear. As we stood beside our bicycles, a passing man muttered at us gruffly as if he wanted to walk right through us in the large square. Our guide shrugged. “We are not in his way,” she said and smiled.
In an enclosed street nearby (El Callejón del Duende – Goblin Alley), so narrow you can touch either side, we learn smugglers and lovers used to meet. Now it is decorated with potted plants and garden gnomes, preserved from the curious by a gate.
Next door is apartments, a weeping virgin displayed on the wall, and a free entry to the Roman ruins of a theater revealed after a building burned and the city decided not to rebuild over it. The tunnel beneath is strangely beautiful; you can almost imagine the crowds cheering above you.
At candy shops, we see the penitent displayed on tins; the colors of their capes defines the brotherhood they are affiliated with. The sweets seem menacing, but it is a style of dress that’s been around since the 16th century, ripped off later by the KKK. The hoods (capirotes), originally used during the Inquisition as punishment, are meant now to ensure attention is not drawn to the penitent as individuals but rather to their public act of piety and atonement.
We stop at cafés for cold, crisp wine or chilled gazpacho and grilled fish. For our remaining time, we wander and taste, dipping into inviting pubs with darkened doorways for a beer and trying to greet mostly indifferent dogs, hoping they will want to be friends. Before the crush of the holy week crowd, we see families enjoying the beach, photographing their children in dresses and playing soccer, seeking the perfect picture to commemorate this time in their daughter’s life.
It has only been a few months since our visit, and I want to return to Cadiz for more than five days. I want to stay for months, a year, maybe the rest of my life. You cannot visit Cadiz without wanting to stay longer, without imagining yourself on that beach, in that café, greeting the bartender at the pub, getting to know the name of neighborhood dogs. You cannot see that glorious gin-clear water without hoping the currents bring you back again and again.
- Add smaller, less-frequented cities to your travels. You never know where you will fall in love with next.
- It is OK if something you have been anticipating turns out not to be that awesome in person. Chuck the disappointment and move on to new discoveries.
- In case I have not yet made it clear, I love Cadiz. I hope you get the chance to visit it and fall in love as well.