In Cadiz, Tapping the Treasures of the Sea

Mona Molarsky is a freelance writer who lives in New York City

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.

At 3 o'clock, the Spanish lunch hour, we headed for El Faro with our friend Sean O'Brien, an Irish expatriate who lives in Cadiz. El Faro, one of the finest restaurants in the city, is in Barrio La Vina, the old fishermen's quarter and a short walk from La Caleta. Besides an impressive bar where a cornucopia of seafood just plucked from the water is displayed, there's a handsome dining room with heavy wood beams. Seated in a quiet corner, we began with crema de camarones-- a cream soup of tiny shrimp--and a bottle of white Rioja. The soup, everyone agreed, was superb. Next we ordered ensalada mixta , a typically Andalusian mixed salad with tiny quail eggs, tuna, tomatoes and hearts of palm. But the tuna was canned and ordinary, and herein lies an irony.

Since Phoenician times, Cadiz has been one of the world's leading tuna fisheries. Vast schools of giant bluefin swim past its shores each spring on their annual migration to the Mediterranean. Flavorful bluefin meat has long been a sought-after delicacy. But today, Japanese dealers buy up most of the giant bluefin that swim into Gaditano nets and ship them home for sushi.

So here we sat in the best restaurant in the seafood capital of Spain, eating the same canned stuff you find in your supermarket.

The grilled shrimp, gambas a la plancha , made up for everything, though. Cooked in their shells, Spanish style, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt, they were as fresh as a spring sunrise. We shelled them with gusto, popping the pink morsels into our mouths until the plate was empty.

It had been a long, lazy Spanish lunch. The talk was of fish and bullrings, wine and music. Juan Silva, a Gypsy singer who lives nearby, is planning a big wedding in the fall, Sean said, and the party is likely to go on for days. Silva is master of the alegrias , a joyful flamenco form that was born here and often celebrates the spirit of the city. "How my Cadiz shines! / See how beautiful! / On a little piece of land / stolen from the sea," goes a traditional verse that Silva sings, as generations have before him.

On our American vacation of two brief weeks, there was no chance we'd be around for the wonderful wedding fiesta. We sighed enviously, convinced there could be nothing more perfect than to pass the autumn here, floating on a wave of alegrias . But now it was late afternoon, and we ambled back to the parador for a siesta before the long Andalusian night began.

Any tapeo in Cadiz would do well to start at Casa Manteca, in Barrio La Vina, and that was where we launched our evening around 9 o'clock. This little bar was opened in the 1950s by a bullfighter called Manteca. Faded photos of matadors cover the smoky walls. Casa Manteca doesn't serve seafood; its specialty is ham and sausage. Tomas Ruiz Febrellas, Manteca's son, brought us little slices of jamon serrano , the wonderfully cured Spanish ham that has more personality than any other ham I know.

It was served on squares of wax paper at the old marble bar, where patrons share local gossip. We sipped manzanilla , the delicate, dry sherry that comes from nearby Sanlucar de Barrameda--the perfect wine for tapas .

Then we ambled down the street to Taberna El Albero for a few bites of marrajo , a kind of shark that resembles monkfish. Prepared in olive oil with fresh parsley and garlic, it was utterly delicious.

We lingered while Marina nursed her Coke and peanuts. Laughing patrons came and went, and I held my empty manzanilla glass to my nose, letting the feathery fumes waft upward.

The moon rose as we strolled toward Plaza de San Juan de Dios near the harbor. There are many cafes on the plaza, but we were headed for the less touristy side streets. First, Bar Las Nieves, founded in 1819 and occupying the ground floor of a lovely old stone building. Carlos Hidalgo Hernandez, the owner, was in a jovial mood. He brought us slices of sheep's milk cheese and picos , Spanish bread sticks.

In Barrio Populo--what remains of the medieval Muslim city--we stopped at El Duende, the smallest bar in Cadiz, for a bite of palometa , a lovely, salty, pink fish that tastes something like smoked salmon.

From there we meandered east of the golden-domed cathedral, where composer and native son Manuel de Falla is buried, and into Barrio Santa Maria. Here Gypsy families living in crumbling tenements managed to produce some of the finest flamenco of the 20th century. Today many of these families have moved to nearby Chiclana, and gentrification is whispering through the old patios.

For our final gastronomic splurge, we walked down Calle Sopranis to La Rambla, an unassuming neighborhood seafood bar. The thing to order here is surtido de pescados fritos , a platter of fried seafood that might include cod, sole, sardines, squid, grouper or anything else from the day's haul. Every piece is quickly cooked in olive oil and has that rich Gaditano flavor. Though we barely had room left in our bellies, we indulged in one last plate-- pimientos verdes fritos , fried green peppers with sea salt.

"Muchas gracias. Que sabroso!" we thanked the owners as we headed out into the street again.

Sated with tapas and manzanilla , we crisscrossed the city just for the pleasure of walking. Then, before heading back to the parador , we wandered along the Alameda Apodaca, a gracious palm-lined park above the water. A flamenco concert had just let out from a nearby theater. Gaditanos drifted in groups toward the Alameda, enjoying the summer air. Far off, a singer's voice floated along the sea wall: "Vamos viviendo! Ole! Ole!" Let's go on living! Ole!

Guidebook: Relishing the Flavor of Cadiz

* Getting there: Restricted round-trip fares from LAX to Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the nearest airport to Cadiz, begin at $1,263. All flights involve a change (from Air France, Air New Zealand, American, Continental, United or US Airways) to Iberia airlines in Miami, London or Madrid. From Jerez you can take a bus or rent a car and drive to Cadiz.

* Where to stay: The modern, four-star Hotel Atlantico is ideally situated near La Caleta beach, and all rooms have views of the water; Avenida Duque de Najera 9, Cadiz 11002; telephone 011-34-956-22-69-05, fax 011-34-956-21-45-82, e-mail cadiz@parador.es . There is a restaurant, bar and pool. Doubles about $110 with breakfast.

Paradores can also be booked through the New York agency Marketing Ahead, tel. (800) 223-1356 or (212) 686-9213, fax (212) 686-0271.

The three-star Francia y Paris is centrally located on a lovely square near the museum; Plaza San Francisco 2, Cadiz 11004; tel. 011-34-956-22-23-48, fax 011-34-956-22-24-31, Internet http://www.hotelfrancia.com. The modern rooms are airy and cheerful. Doubles about $55.

* Where to eat: For lunch, dinner or tapas at the bar, you can't go wrong at El Faro, in Barrio La Vina at Calle San Felix 15, Cadiz; local tel. 956-21-10-68. Lunch for two, $40 to $80.

Tapas bars: Casa Manteca at Calle Corralon de los Carros 66, at the corner of San Felix, tel. 956-21-36-03, recalls the atmosphere of old Andalusia. Photos of matadors and bulls cover the walls. A drink and a sample of serrano ham about $5.

Down the street is Taberna El Albero, at the corner of San Felix and Calle Virgen de la Palma; tel. 956-22-08-38. A tapa and beer about $4.

Off Plaza de San Juan de Dios is Bar Las Nieves, at Vargas Ponce 4; tel. 956-26-57-35. Cheese and a drink about $3.

El Duende, at Calle Meson 15, is said to be the smallest bar in Cadiz. A tapa and drink about $3.

Bar La Rambla, Calle Sopranis 11, serves platters of fried seafood. About $10 for two.

* Museum: Museo de Cadiz, on Plaza de Mina, tel. 011-34-956-21-43-00, has a wonderful archeological collection including Roman and Phoenician artifacts and sculpture, as well as paintings by Zurbaran, and an ethnographic division that features traditional puppets from Cadiz. Open Wednesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* For more information: The Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 956, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (323) 658-7188, fax (323) 658-1061, http://www.okspain.org.

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