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In Cadiz, Tapping the Treasures of the Sea

Savoring a city whose famed \o7 tapas \f7 showcase the catch of the day.

July 08, 2001|MONA MOLARSKY | Mona Molarsky is a freelance writer who lives in New York City

CADIZ, Spain — It was midafternoon, and, just beyond the beach at La Caleta, fishing boats bobbed at their moorings. The day's catch was in. The fishermen had gone home and were dozing in shuttered rooms or eating the seafood soup they call caldo . On the beach, children ran into the salt spray.

It has been this way in Cadiz for a long, long time. Three millenniums, in fact.

Cadiz can lay claim to being the oldest city in Western Europe. Founded by the seafaring Phoenicians in 1100 BC, it's been a working port ever since. Its fishing fleet was known far and wide when Julius Caesar served as Roman governor here in 61 BC.

Built on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic, the city of Cadiz is still renowned for its seafood. In summer, people come here from all over Spain, lured by golden sand, waves and the tapas to be had at myriad little bars tucked away in the narrow streets. After a day at the beach, nothing is as pleasant as joining the crowd of gaily chattering Gaditanos, as residents are called (from Gades, the name bestowed on the city by the Romans), who drift from bar to bar, sipping the local wines and sampling the ocean's delights.

Sea, sand and tapas first lured me to Cadiz 20 years ago, and they have lured me back. In the years after my first brief visit, I often found myself thinking about the city's long jetties and high sea walls, its narrow alleys leading to glassed-in courtyards. There is something powerful and seductive about Cadiz--something that gets under your skin.

I first glimpsed the city from the other side of its wide bay. Standing on the beach at Rota, a little town long dominated by its American naval base, I saw the white towers of Cadiz shimmering on the horizon. By nightfall my cousin and I found ourselves wandering the alleys of Cadiz, past families eating shrimp in pocket-sized bars, Gypsies selling almonds, sailors on the arms of black-eyed prostitutes, and laughing groups of Gaditano men and women out for their evening paseo , or stroll. That night we checked into an ancient hostel that cost us $5.

This time I returned with my husband, Frank Beck, and our 8-year-old daughter, Marina. We checked into the elegant and modern Parador Atlantico; our balcony opened onto the bay.

Spain has changed in the past 20 years, and so--in some ways--has Cadiz. Many of its lovely 18th century buildings have been restored. The mansions, with their towers for scanning the sea, look better now than they have in decades.

Thanks to the European Union, in less than a generation a large class of the upwardly mobile has emerged in Spain. Well-heeled couples in resort wear stroll the Paseo Maritimo by Victoria Beach and crowd into its restaurants for impeccable lobster lunches.

But the old Cadiz lives on too--the city of net-hauling fishermen, sailors and flamenco singers, day laborers, prostitutes, guitar makers, shopkeepers and poets. And it is that salty, textured world, with its sea, sand and savory tapas , that drew me back.

In Cadiz, summer evenings are structured around the tapeo , or tapas bar-hop, something no sensible Andalusian would begin until at least 9 p.m. That left us with a wonderfully long afternoon to enjoy the sights. We swam at La Caleta, the city beach favored by locals. Though Victoria Beach in the new city is longer and cleaner, when you come to La Caleta you can be nowhere but Cadiz.

After toweling off, we walked out on the jetty to Castillo San Sebastian, a fort that sits on a tiny island off the beach. For generations, Gaditanos believed this island was the site of a temple dedicated to Hercules by the Romans. Earlier, in the same shrine, Phoenicians worshiped the god Melqart, the prototype for Hercules. In later epochs, Cadiz would be conquered by the Visigoths, the Muslims and at last the Catholics, whose feasts still echo the rites of the early pagans.

In the museum of Cadiz, two Egyptian-looking sarcophagi left by the Phoenicians suggest that even Egyptian influences may, in one form or another, have reached this port.

In recent years archeologists have suggested that the temple of Hercules wasn't at La Caleta but on the island of Sancti Petri, some 18 miles up the coast from the city of Cadiz. On days when the water is calm, local fishermen say, you can see the stone columns of the old temple lying on the ocean floor. Yet the exact location of the famed shrine somehow matters less than its legends, which seem to have imbued all the people of the region with an almost animistic worship of the sea.

The Virgin Mary, Muhammad, Hercules, Melqart, even the goddess Isis--somehow every saint, god and prophet seems right in Cadiz. This rich palimpsest of cultures has become as much a part of Gaditanos as the anchovies, mackerel, clams, shrimp and swordfish that they consume so copiously.

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