Cadiz & Puerto de Santa Maria: The Oldest Cities in Western Europe

The Cathedral in Puerto de Santa Maria. Photos by Angela Doherty.
The Cathedral in Puerto de Santa Maria. Photos by Angela Doherty.

Cádiz & Puerto de Santa Maria: The Oldest Cities in Western Europe

By Tristan Cano

Having been founded by the Phoenicians as a small seasonal trading post in the 12th Century BCE, the Spanish city of Cádiz is the most ancient still-standing city in Western Europe.

It was originally known as Gadir meaning ‘enclosed,’ which refers to the fact that the old town is almost completely surrounded by water. It is this geographical anomaly which has been key to Cádiz’s success throughout the centuries and made it a sought-after prize for army upon army of attacking invaders.

Hannibal used it as a base for his attempted conquest of Iberia and the city went on to become an important commercial base during Roman times. It then became the principal sea port of the Spanish navy and was the disembarkation point for the ill-fated Spanish Armada that sailed against England in 1588.

Despite a turbulent past, the local Gaditanos now prefer to concentrate on some of the more important aspects of Andalucian life: excellent food and fine wine and long hours spent relaxing on the beach.

Seeing the sights

The relaxed local attitude does not detract from the way the city tastefully displays its well preserved historical sights. The Teatro Romano, located in the Barrio del Pópulo, was built during the reign of Julius Caesar, but was only rediscovered by chance in the 1980’s when the modern construction built around it burned down.

In fact it’s a wonder that any visible remnants of Cadiz’s past remain, considering the number of times the City has been burned to the ground. Notably, for example, by the British during the Anglo-Spanish war in 1596.

The Plaza de Espana in Cadiz
The Plaza de Espana in Cadiz

Much of what does remain was constructed during an 18th Century ‘golden’ era during which the city flourished as the country’s main commercial port for trade with Spain’s colonies in the Americas.

Cádiz even stood as Spain’s capital between 1810 and 1813 and a grand monument on Plaza de España commemorates the country’s first Liberal constitution, which was drafted and proclaimed in the City.

There are many fine baroque structures built during this epoch such as the Casa del Almirante and the Hospital de las Mujeres and it was during this time that the City’s unique green area, the Parque Genovés was laid.

Cádiz Cathedral is perhaps the City’s most stunning building. Built on the site of an older cathedral which had unsurprisingly also burned down. The existing construction was commenced in the 18th Century and took numerous architects and no less than 116 years to complete.

By the Caleta beach in Cadiz City Center
By the Caleta beach in Cadiz City Center

Although largely it was built in a neoclassical style, there are obvious baroque and rococo elements reflecting the earlier architectural techniques employed.

There are excellent views to be had from the Cathedral’s North Tower and the crypt contains the remains of several prominent Gaditanos including famed composer Manuel de Falla.

The Gran Teatro Falla is named after him and, located just a few streets from the Cathedral, plays host to classical recitals, theatre as well as pop and rock concerts.

When should I visit?

Though Cádiz is great to visit at any time of year, there can be no better time to stop over than during the Carnival, held annually in February or March depending on the date of Shrove Tuesday.

The central market in Cadiz
The central market in Cadiz

It is based on ancient Catholic traditions and was first celebrated in the 16th Century as a tribute to the Carnival of Venice. It has since grown into one of the largest and most famous carnivals in the world, supposedly outdone only by the carnivals in Rio de Janeiro and Trinidad.

Cádiz’s carnival is famous for the amusing costumes and the satirical song groups known as Chirigotas who compete against each other to be the best in the city. The Gran Teatro Falla hosts the official ‘Chirigota’ finals which are broadcast live on regional television and radio stations in Andalucía.

Feeling hungry?

Like most Andalucian cities, Cádiz has no scarcity of high quality restaurants and tapas bars and you can barely turn a corner without chancing upon another great eatery, inevitably packed to the brim with noisy locals.

As can be expected, pork is very much on the menu, usually washed down with a locally produced fino sherry. Seafood is a particular speciality of the region and the quality increases if you venture further up the coast.

Most of the region’s fishing industry is based near Puerto de Santa Maria and this city has more than your fair share of marisquerias offering only the freshest seafood and shellfish.

Fishermen in Puerto de Santa Maria
Fishermen in Puerto de Santa Maria

Although there are plenty of great restaurants on the Rivera de Marisco, the well-known Romerijo chain has something of a monopoly in the area with four establishments each with their own fresh fish counter. You simply point out the seafood or shellfish which takes your fancy and it will be cooked and delivered to your table or served in a paper cone to eat ‘on-the-go’.

Puerto de Santa Maria

Puerto de Santa Maria is situated at the heart of the Bahia de Cádiz Natural Park and just a short drive from Sierra de Grazalema and Coto Donaña making the area a perfect escape for lovers of the great outdoors.

There are sparkling white-sand beaches which resemble perhaps what the Costa del Sol might look like today had it not been for the arrival of the tourist hoards and its overexploitation by greedy developers.

The town of Puerto de Santa Maria is itself worthy of mention for its charming and well ordered cobbled streets lined with sweet smelling orange trees.

There are some interesting sights such as a bullring which is one of the oldest in Spain and a majestic cathedral with belfries and towers which home stork nests.

Be sure to visit the Osborne or Terry bodegas (wineries) in the town centre if you want learn a little about local production methods and have a few tasters along the way too.

Caleta beach in Cadiz, Spain
Caleta beach in Cadiz, Spain

How to get there

There are no regular scheduled or charter flights into Cádiz airport, so your best bet is to fly into the airports at either Jerez or Seville.

Malaga Airport is the main connecting hub for the region but is an approximate 3 hour (250 km) drive from Cádiz.

The AVE train runs direct to Cádiz from Seville (1 hour, 45 mins) and Jerez (45 mins) although you will need to change trains at Seville if journeying from Malaga.

You can check RENFE train schedules at their website.

To drive from Jerez or Seville take the AP-4 motorway.

From Malaga airport take the AP-7 motorway in the direction of Algeciras followed by the A-381 towards Jerez before finally taking the AP-4 to Cádiz.

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