Cádiz at night is the 18th century through a film noir looking glass. At every intersection in the old town the antique street lamps line up in all four directions, their light rising to illuminate the upper floors of the terraced town houses. Oddly uniform facades of cluttered little ornamental balconies – most glassed in to form protruding, paned windows – recede symmetrically into the distance on all sides. It’s a vertical world – the tall houses, the litter-strewn triangle of the retreating street, the mirror image funnel of sky revealed at roof level – in the form of a slender ‘x’. You might reasonably expect Mozart to walk around the next corner. In a trilby. Hands deep in the pockets of his overcoat, a gitanes dangling from his lips.
At street level the light of the lamps falls on cobbles, on ground floor walls whose colours daylight will reveal: the characteristic shades of the city – wine, champagne and salmon pink, pale blues and the ubiquitous brown of wet sand. All of them a little washed-out, as if the residents of this sea-locked city have grown so used to seeing their handiwork bleached by the sun and salt that they now paint it that way to begin with.
Some of the street level facades are left unpainted, exposing the mottled grey and sandy colours of the stonework and giving rise to the impression that this whole city grew organically from the waters that surround it; a close look at the big blocks reveals a surprising texture – they are comprised of shells and must be made of material gleaned from the sea bed. Neptune’s own bricks – a spellbinding detail.
I’m on my way to extricate K from the shops. She’s in the changing rooms of Papaya or Tara or whatever it is and has a poor signal. We’ll go for tapas, but for now I have this precious time to wander alone and pretend I’m a tragic figure in a film by Orson Welles. I reach a corner that opens out onto a small, three-sided space from which springs an incongruously large and muscular building – a baroque oratory which turns out to be that of San Felipe, the place where in 1812 the Cortes of Cádiz declared the first Spanish constitution. I’m not alone; a huddle of Spanish visitors to the town look up at it with me and photograph each other below the carved scrolls that adorn its walls, representing the various deputations – Asturias, Barcelona and so on. This is how this city’s larger buildings present themselves: by surprise, around some unremarkable corner, and squeezed in improbably.
In the neighbourhood of El Mentidero even the ordinary little shops seem to partake of the general air of anachronism. Grocery stores and alimentaciones spill their light onto the street, shining on the advertising placards (fruit, bocadillos, household detergent) of the businesses opposite, bolted to the old walls between windows and doors. You couldn’t pedestrianise this place – people wouldn’t be able to live. Nevertheless, cars are few and far between; I imagine there is some limited permit arrangement for residents and besides, you’d need to be heavily incentivised to drive in here. I’ve seen even experienced taxi drivers need two or three attempts to get round some of the tighter corners.
We drop K’s shopping bag back at our hostal and head out. Even more than in Tarifa – a town known for registering a degree or two lower on the celsius scale – it’s fresh and breezy, almost cold. We pull our jackets tighter around us as we run out of street at the north western end of town and the lights of El Puerto de Santa Maria wink at us from across the black bay. I drive K to distraction by stopping at every new view and bidding her stand and look with me. Apart from Granada, there is no other city that has this effect on me. I get drunk on it.
And in it – it’s good to get out of the cold and into each bar. We come to Cádiz often but this is the first time we’ve stayed, not counting Carnaval, and we have the chance to see the city through the lens of night. Beautiful plazas present themselves to us that we haven’t stumbled upon before, planted with species from the tropics and the Americas, the seeds brought back by ship no doubt when this was the gateway to the New World. Bright green birds flit between the palms and the pines. We tuck into a mousse of goat’s cheese and tomato marmalade in some slick place and I resist the temptation to steal the slate platter it comes on. Then a more down-to-earth place with tastier food and then a couple of bars in the El Populo neighborhood as our evening gradually loses focus.
We yawn over our drinks at times and it isn’t the disgraceful night we’d foreseen, but subdued as we are it’s good to get to know the city better. We finish up in some funky place with a couple of surprisingly cheap cognacs and walk back through the chilly streets to our bed, navigating our way past the adorable couple who run the place and want to talk to us all the time. At length.
In the morning we stroll and as midday approaches the place is busy with others on their Sunday paseo, particularly along the streets that surround the cathedral where young African men set up their portable kerbside emporiums – blankets laid out with fake designer handbags and underwear, drawstrings attached to the four corners for a quick getaway. I pay a euro for some camarones – miniscule shrimp eaten whole and unpeeled from a paper cone – and then, observing so many others at tables with coffees and beers, we go to the Café Royalty.
On a corner of the Plaza de Candelaria, the great, grand old café sits – all gilt-framed mirror and trompe l’oeil scenes on the ceilings. A fin de siècle feast for the eyes. Waiters in floor length aprons and fussily presented food, we stick to coffee and thoughts of the great and the good who would have patronised the place when it was new at the end of the 19th century– the usual motley crew of high society, intellectuals, writers and musicians.
It occurs to me that, as obnoxious as they may well have been, reflected in all this ostentatious harking back to an earlier age, they were still somehow attached to the rest of us. Still on the same side of the looking glass. You could find them in a café around the corner from your own. These days, that would be considered a security risk. Our rich have retreated behind high compound walls and out to private islands. They are rich and nothing else, no longer engaged with the world and its tribulations. Our tribulations. Tacky oligarchs who justify their 70k dresses with some tax deductible charity cheques.
Nice coffee though, and the gracefully curved wooden coat hooks above the marble-topped table in the corner, overlooked by an enormous mirror, it’s surface a little worn, would make a perfect place for Mozart – fresh from some sharp-tongued, criminal underworld intrigue – to hang his hat.