Darkness has fallen though the night is soft and warm – we watch the world turn around us as the ferry floats slowly up the mouth of the river Guadalete and then shimmies round to dock on the riverbank at El Puerto de Santa Maria. The pin pricks of a thousand night lights are reflected vertically, the white and orange lines that fall from them interrupted gently by ripples on the surface of the water.
It’s our second time in the town; the first was this morning when we arrived by car, seething with the arrival-rage that has become customary for us. It’s as if we deliberately don’t write down the addresses of our hostales these days, or the phone numbers. I think it’s K’s fault but she thinks it’s mine. But it’s hers.
We can be so thoroughly put out that the first hour or two of a visit are ruined, but not today. Firstly, we more or less anticipate it these days, and laugh at ourselves sooner rather than later. Secondly, the hostal. We came on a whim at the last minute and have paid thirty-five euros for our bed, so I’m expecting a rickety one, the smell of stale tobacco and a fly carcass or two. What we get is something else entirely.
We’re early but greeted warmly by C once we get through the wrought iron gate at the street and another door into an open courtyard. He shows us straight into a room that would grace the pages of any interiors magazine you might think of. The most unlikely things, from children’s puzzles to books and boxes, have been nailed to the wall in delightfully artful formations. Oversized bulbs hang pendulously from the high ceiling to waist level at either side of the bed, over which the snow white window curtain billows.
There’s a little transistor radio on the table which is made out of cardboard and beside it a couple of paper cups. They contain coffee pods and, since I’m particularly partial to a complimentary coffee, necessitate a trip across the courtyard to the little guest kitchen. It’s a wonderland: a fairy-lit hodgepodge of vintage furniture and kitchen clutter, mismatched crockery and cinnamon sticks, yet somehow sparse and simple. The fridge is an honesty bar and there are a number of tins full of complimentary cake and biscuits. A crack in the wall above them has been made beautiful by the artistry of the owners’ graffiti-like doodles. By the time my eyes come to rest on the coffee machine I’ve forgotten it’s what I came here for.
I don’t believe I’ve ever been lifted out of a foul mood so quickly. Certainly not by décor. It makes me better company for K as we walk along the few streets that separate the hostal from my main reason for coming here.
Bodegas Obregón is the oldest bar in town and is in fact a barrel room – a despacho de vinos – where the customer can enjoy a glass of various proprietary sherry wines or buy them by the bottle. Or indeed bring along an old plastic coke bottle and have it filled. It is predictably adorned with bullfighting memorabilia and men of a certain age but is otherwise unlike any bar I’ve seen before. There are no tables or chairs so one simply stands there amid all the barrels and gawps. Today is Saturday, the only day of the week when the little kitchen is open. It’s run by an abuela of a woman, her nietos milling around her ankles as she cranks out the berzo, menudos, pollo al Jiménez and papas aliñadas.
Home cooked food como antes but it doesn’t stop us dropping into to C’s recommended fish bar at the waterside for a plate of short fin shark before we get on the catamaran for Cádiz. It’s bright and the water sparkles beneath the windsurf rigs and bobbing tugs. As the skyline of the city bounces closer the glittering dome of the cathedral reveals itself. It might be the most beautiful city in the world and is certainly one of the oldest in Europe.
The quick crossing, just a water bus really, brings home just how connected Cádiz is to sherry country. I have never thought much about the wine while here but today, having arrived from El Puerto, another dot is joined. The handsome 18th century city’s streets are more numerous, the stately terraces of town house taller, but all of a sudden a place I know quite well is perfumed with palomino and Pedro Jiménez.
I sit in a little plaza below a church whose bell tower is bathed in the last honey light of the day as it shades me. K is shopping. So far October has been hot to the point of silliness and the cool in the shadow of the church is welcome and welcoming. I can see one of the old towers (a hundred and twenty or so of them survive) that the city’s merchants built on their roofs when Cádiz was perhaps the most cosmopolitan place on earth, not to mention where all that New World booty came in.
It’s not a city that will ever expand, hemmed in as it is on its narrow spit of land, and the price of beds reflects the limited space. Back across the water in the gathering night, the sailing smoother now that the wind has died down. We disembark and drop our bags back, head out to see what Santa Maria offers at night. Plenty, it turns out – even now that the tourist season has come to a close a strip of restaurants a street away from the water is heaving.
Later as we stroll back to the room we will watch amused as young revellers teeter on their heels and baseball caps sit sideways on shaved heads. For now though we sit outside the fish shop to end all fish shops: the town’s famous Romerijo, where on one side of the street you can have a paper cone filled with fried fish and on the other with all manner of seafood, sitting down to order a drink at the tables in between, each one equipped with a plastic-lined bin for shells. K sits patiently but uncomfortably and waits as I tuck into some puntillitas, looking with disgust over my shoulder as nearby patrons yank gelatinous whatevers from shells with their teeth.