Wandering through the lanes of Cádiz, the smell of frying fish was impossible to resist. I dived into a tiny bar and ordered a glass of chilled manzanilla sherry, made just down the coast in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Soon I was devouring tortillitas de camarones – feather-light fritters made with the tiniest shrimps. A man came in with a large saucepan, which he placed on the counter while he had a glass of wine. The barman filled it with snails from a bubbling cauldron on the stove. The man toddled out, carrying his unusual takeaway back to the family.
The old town, shaped like a clenched fist, is at the end of a long peninsula.You are never more than a mile from the sea, which is always discernible in the pale gold light shimmering at the end of the long, straight streets. The grid pattern dates back to the early 18th century, when the Chamber of Commerce of the Americas was transferred from Seville, bringing with it wealthy merchants who built lavish homes and created a prosperous, glamorous society.
I saw dozens of these mansions, built in the porous local stone and painted ochre, pink, pistachio green and duck-egg blue, some faded and decrepit, but many newly restored and pristine. Glassed-in balconies sparkled in the sunlight, framed by dainty wrought-iron balustrades painted silver or white. Many of the houses are topped with turrets, where the merchants installed telescopes to spot their ships returning from the New World.
In the traditional neighbourhood of La Viña, I was amazed that groups of people were practising songs for the city’s famous carnival, which takes place in February. I asked Jésus, who works at the Peña el Charpa bar (Vírgen de la Palma 24), what was going on.
“The songwriters come up with new material every year, based on what is happening in Cádiz and the whole of Spain really. We like to make fun of our politicians and celebrities. The groups have to learn a lot of new songs every year, ready to perform during the carnival processions, which takes months of rehearsals,” he explained. “It takes a lot of hard work to have that much fun.”