The south of Extremadura was African in nature. A dreamlike Serengeti of yellow plains dotted with the occasional pearly white finca or sapphire blue reservoir. Sometimes a hill or ancient-looking ridge, dry and bullet-pointed with olives trees, sailed past along roads alive with oleander and broom. Seville went by in a soft-blur of spires and dockyards and then the world flattened out into a land of crops, sunflowers, humid salt marshes and ethereal cattle walking the marisma.
Cadiz was not quite as pretty as I remembered. The western flank of its old town is a warren of faded and somewhat disparate apartments that didn’t quite have the charm that my memory said it had. Yet the Havana promenade, looking out onto the bluest of blues and excited by the somewhat Middle-Eastern bulk of that golden-domed cathedral was undeniably attractive.
The spit of Cadiz bulges out like a finger, surrounded on three sides by water, and the streets crisscross it in a vaguely grid-like fashion. The light is different in Cadiz; milky and glowing. Whenever the streets give way to a square, which is not often, one meets palm trees. Your head tells you you’re in Andalusia, but you could be in the Caribbean. Little colonial era forts jut out into the water where fisherman stand on sandbanks hunting with their sons and locals with no work spread out on the beaches while their dogs run around like the endearing simpletons they are.
After a disappointing lunch of fried fish near a pretty square filled with kiosks selling flowers, I headed up the Tavira Tower to survey the cityscape. And there it was: the Moroccan cheat, the tricks of Arab culture. White, cuboid flats sprawling out to the sea in every direction. In place of terracotta tiles there were towers; 126 of them. I had to shield my eyes as the town shone. Some Spanish Tangiers; some azure Berber dream. Everything always had a sense of the epic when viewed from above. All the little ugly smudges of reality were blurred out by height. Everywhere had a chance at being pretty from up on high.
Then back into the streets, the pretty ones of my memory, the east side. Locals had started to come out for their evening paseo. Old ladies sat clucking in groups on the cafe terraces whilst men chatted about whatever gaditano men chat about. Children ran around like mad things, kicking balls and playing with hula hoops. There was hardly a car anywhere, which lent a lazy carefree air to the centre. The smells of hot coffee and frying garlic lingered in the wind-less lanes and inspired hunger.
For dinner we entered the Tapería de Columela. More modern. The food was good: a confused plate of avocado, salt cod, octopus and caramelised apple was followed by the more focussed plates of deep fried aubergine sticks served with salmorejo and honey, delicious chicken in a pepitoria sauce and fried balls of local cheese with a mango dip. The wine was local and deadly drinkable.
The light had left and the moon had come out to throw its heavenly spotlight on the surf. I decided to walk back alone. The streets were lit only by old lamps and hummed with the sound of houses and flats as opposed to bars. Inside life. Through an open window I spied a man in a flannel shirt with a bristly moustache in a 70s-style lounge, sitting with friends and smoking cigars and watching the football. In the dark streets old ladies regarded their grandchildren as they played with dogs and bicycles. On the beach I put my feet in the sand and gazed at Cadiz’s skyline reflected in a noisy sea. The lighthouse flashed and fisherman bid me good evening as they stood patiently by their sea-cast lines.
Cadiz was a shimmering and grand start to the southern coast but there was another day to play with before taking the road east.