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Guide to Cádiz the Oldest City in Europe

in Cádiz Municipality in Cádiz Province, Andalucia, Spain
By Nick Nutter | 26 Oct 2019
The Cathedral Cadiz Santa Catalina, Cadiz Fig Trees in Cadiz Roman Theatre, Cadiz Aqueduct, Cadiz Aqueduct, Cadiz

Cádiz is reputed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Iberian Peninsula and probably in Western Europe. The date of the founding of the city is disputed since there were no written records at the time. Later Roman historians put the date as early as 1014BC although the earliest archaeological records only date from about 850BC. The city has since been occupied by its founders, the Phoenicians, and later by the Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Spanish.

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The Old City - Puertas de Tierra and Baluarte de la Candelaria

The fortifications that surround the city were started in the 16th century as a direct result of raiders. As you enter the city from the isthmus you pass through the massively built Puertas de Tierra, the only road access to the old city, and appreciate the strength of the walls themselves.

In addition, the Spanish built the Baluarte de la Candelaria, a fortress guarding the sea passage into the port of Cádiz situated on the northern point of the ‘star’. Again it is massively built, definitely not something even Nelson would have liked to challenge.

Castillo de Santa Catalina and Castillo de San Sebastian

On the southern tips of the star, at either end of the Playa de la Caleta, guarding the sea approaches to the city there are two more solid castles, the Castillo de Santa Catalina built in 1598 after the sacking of Cádiz and the Castillo de San Sebastian built in 1706.

The Castillo de San Sebastian is on a small island at the end of a one-kilometre isthmus that joins it to the rest of the city. The walls that totally encompass the old city between the castles are themselves a formidable obstacle to any would-be attacker. In fact, the old city of Cádiz could be described as a fortress in itself.

Passing Families

Amongst its claims to fame is the Barca family. The father, Hamilcar, was a successful Carthaginian commander during the First Punic War 264 to 241BC; there is a street in Cádiz bearing his name. The son, Hannibal based his army, including the elephants, at Cádiz during the Second Punic War, 218 to 201BC, before marching the whole lot into Italy where he put the fear of God into the Romans.

Much later Columbus travelled the other way, west. His second and fourth voyages to the Americas set off from Cádiz. The port itself became the home of the Spanish treasure fleet and, when the Rio Guadalquiver started to silt up in the 18th century, Cádiz replaced Seville as the centre of trade with the colonies. Unfortunately for Cádiz, its wealth made it a target for passing raiders. The sixteenth-century saw many attacks by the Barbary Pirates. So prolific were these raids that watchtowers were built all over the city, 160 of them, since each merchant built his own from which he could watch out for his own ships. Only one survives or the Cádiz skyline would look like a pincushion. The Tavira tower is now open to the public and contains a camera obscura from which you can spy on the surrounding city.

A lasting legacy of Columbus’s discoveries are the fig trees brought back from the Americas as saplings and planted on the promenades. They have grown into massive, magnificent specimens.

Inevitably one of the most daring pirates of his day heard about the treasure ships at Cádiz. In 1587 Francis Drake occupied the city for three days capturing six ships and a great deal of booty and destroying a further thirty-one ships. The event became known as ‘The singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’. Drake was by no means the only person to be attracted by the lure of gold. The Earl of Essex and Lord Howard sacked part of the town in 1596, the Duke of Buckingham had a go in 1625 and, during the Anglo-Spanish War, the British blockaded the port from 1655 to 1657. In 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the English returned but on this occasion, they were beaten back.

Undeterred the British came back in 1797 to blockade and lay siege to Cádiz. It was a costly failure. Two years later Nelson, nursing a wounded arm after his defeat at Santa Cruz, in a fit of pique and with no military objective, bombarded the city as he sailed north on his way back to England.

Cadiz at War

During the Peninsula War Cádiz was one of only a few Spanish cities to hold out against the French armies, sheltering the Cortes or parliament that fought against Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s elder brother who was put on the Spanish throne to replace the legitimate monarch, Charles IV, and it was from Cádiz that the first Liberal Constitution was drafted and proclaimed.

It was left to the canny Irish to conquer Cádiz. During the late 18th century they became the richest group of trading communities in the city taking a major role in its civic and ecclesiastical life. Today their presence is remembered, seen and heard in many Irish bars. Much more practical than just having a street named after one.

The walls and castles are just the highly visible part of the long history of Cádiz. Beneath the pavements and in the cellars of its buildings there is a continuous archaeological record spanning 3000 years. The place to start is the Casa de Obispo near the cathedral.

Once the Episcopal Palace, the Casa de Obispo is now an archaeological site open to the public. In the lower parts of its cellars are the original Phoenician and Carthaginian walls. Huge ashlar blocks interlock to form a cavity wall which was then strengthened by infilling with rubble. These are in turn on top of the foundations of a Punic clay, timber and mud wall dwelling that dates back to the 9th century BC. Each succeeding century is then recorded in no less than ten archaeological layers right into the modern-day. This extensive site, all beneath the ground, is very well explained in Spanish and English with elaborate pictorial and textual displays. Apart from the history of Cádiz, it helps explain how succeeding centuries buried and hid the evidence of the past beneath its own buildings, a modern example of which awaits as you leave this exhibition.

Roman Remains at Cadiz

The streets leading away from the sea descend steeply in this area back to approximately sea level. This is a fairly modern development. In the 19th century, the sea broke through the defensive and seawalls and started to reclaim the land. A mound of debris along this part of the city coastline prevented further ingress but had to be laid at such a thickness that part of the ancient city was buried. Leaving the palace you will see one of the very few monuments on the surface dating back to the Roman era, the Roman Theatre, which is also open to the public. You will also notice that on the seaward side of the cathedral the street level had been raised until it not only buried the theatre, it also half obscured the original ground floor windows in the cathedral itself.

Antigua Factoria de Salazones Romana

Our next destination is the Antigua Factoria de Salazones Romana, the Roman salt factory. The entrance and first impressions are not imposing, a small door alongside the Andalucia Bingo Hall, but appearances are deceptive. Inside are the remains of the Roman salt factory. In themselves not remarkable, there are better examples at Castillo de la Duquesa and Baelo Claudia, what makes this exhibition come alive are the displays. Here you learn that the original land on which Cádiz was built was actually two islands separated by a narrow sea channel. On the westernmost island (right in the picture) the Phoenicians built a temple to their god, Melqart, and the first small settlement called Gadir that, by the time the Romans arrived, rivalled any contemporaneous Roman city with paved streets, plumbing, villas with tiled roofs, street fountains and a surrounding city wall. The exhibition at the Casa de Obispo suddenly makes much more sense. The Romans established their settlement that they called Gades on the easternmost island and the two existed together for hundreds of years until the sea channel gradually disappeared and the two parts merged. The salt factory was positioned on the banks of the sea channel inside what must have been a well-protected haven. The whole process of fishing, salting fish and manufacturing that famous Roman delicacy garum is explained with the help of a 3 D film. Products from this factory were exported by sea all over the Roman Empire.

Cádiz Archaeological Museum

As the city expanded and the population grew, the water supply, exclusively rainwater collected in large underground cisterns, became insufficient. The Romans built an aqueduct from the mainland, across the isthmus to the city. A section of it is still preserved above ground in Plaza Asdrubal in the new part of the town. Asdrubal, by the way, was Hannibal’s brother who was left in command of Carthaginian forces in Spain when Hannibal hiked across the Pyrenees on his way to Rome, those elephants must have really made a lasting impression.

Finally, and to fully appreciate it, a visit to the Archaeological Museum should be left until last. Within you will see statues recovered from the Temple of Melqart and two sarcophagus. These were made in Greece and shipped to Cádiz for a wealthy Phoenician merchant and his wife. Other exhibits trace the history of Gadir to 500BC when it came under the control of the Carthaginians and 206BC when the Romans arrived. The Visigothic period is well documented as is the period from 711 to 1262 when the Moors held sway. They called the city Qadis, which is where the modern name of Cádiz originates. Strangely, considering Cádiz’s importance during that period, the Age of Exploration after 1500 is not well recorded here. For that, you have to travel to Seville.

The museum is in Plaza Mina, the main square in the old town.

As you leave the museum just walk down Calle Zomilla opposite. On the left is a tapas restaurant called Cumbres Mayores. Between 2 pm and 4 pm every day this place is full to bursting point. The food, tapas and raciones, all chosen from a menu, is excellent with strange but tasty delicacies like bull’s snout, as well as the more usual dishes featured. Your only problem will be finding somewhere to perch your dishes and plates to allow you to eat. In this frenetic atmosphere, it is a wonder the staff keep track of who has had what but they do. The format is simple. First find a place to stand or sit with some sort of platform nearby, table, bar, shelf, barrel, whatever. Then find a menu. Choose your dishes and drinks and attract the attention of somebody behind the bar. You are likely to be two people away so you have to shout your order. Drinks arrive immediately. Then keep your eye on whoever took the order. In due course, he will put it on the bar and nod in your direction. It is up to you to either shoulder your way through or negotiate with people between to have them pass your meal back to you. Good fun.

Cádiz Carnival

Cádiz Carnival is, justly, famous. It was influenced by the carnival at Venice, with which city Cádiz had much trade during the 16th century and is now considered the premier carnival in Spain. It is a party that officially last ten days but often carries on for up to three weeks and it normally starts in February. Even before the official start, you will find ‘rehearsals’ on various streets with bands practising, bars overflowing onto the footpath, roads closed using impromptu barriers and costumes being tried for size. The Police cheerfully ignore such innocent fun, after all, this is the only carnival in Spain that Franco could not ban.

Today the old city is pretty well as Drake would have seen it. With no further room for expansion, the newer part of the city was built on the isthmus. Walking back through the Puertas de Tierra is almost like walking through a time warp. From the narrow, crowded confines of the old town, you are at once transported forward five hundred years into a modern city with wide roads, speeding cars and innumerable shops.

The main road is a busy thoroughfare taking you directly back to the mainland but on the seaward side is a long paseo that is a favourite promenade for the citizens of Cádiz. Smart hotels intersperse with cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants opposite an almost white sandy beach onto which the Atlantic rollers pound to the delight of the surfers.

Beaches at Cádiz

Cádiz has no less than six beaches, all facing the Atlantic. Three are in the old city and three along the isthmus. The northern beach between the castles of Santa Catalina and San Sebastian is La Caleta beach, it is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in Cádiz. The most southerly before you enter the new city is La Victoria. This beach has everything you might want including, during the summer, an outdoor cinema and its own tourist information office. The two beaches on the isthmus itself are wide, wild, windy expanses of white sand backed by sand dunes with plenty of off-road parking.

Find Cadiz, the oldest city in Europe on the map

Return to: Cádiz province

Museums in Cádiz

Guide to Cádiz Archaeological Museum

About the Author

Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.

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