The Pleasures of an Ancient Port City

Traders have sailed from this Spanish harbour for three millennia

Cadiz's jumbled roofscape

Cádiz’s jumbled roofscape pierced by watchtowers, as seen from the top of the Torre Tavira, the highest of them.

JOHN FERRO SIMS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE CITY OF Cádiz is spectacularly sited on Spain’s Atlantic coast at the tip of a long peninsula at times barely wider than the highway it carries. Founded by Phoenician merchants about 1100 B.C., it guards the entrance to a tightly enclosed, perfect natural harbour, from which Spanish galleons once set sail for the Americas and the Far East. Its original rounded shape has been made into an irregular polygon by the fortifications of successive rulers, which enclose densely packed ancient low-rise brick and stone housing, rarely more than three or four storeys high. The old town is fissured with narrow stone-paved alleys, all kinks and sharp turns, in which it is a pleasure to get lost.

Everywhere there’s evidence of overseas connections, such as in the former mansions of wealthy traders. The finest, painted in pinks, creams and yellows, are in the city’s largest square, San Antonio, along with a church whose 18th-century baroque frontage owes something to South American sensibilities—a style exported, adapted and then re-imported.

The mansions sport balconies with iron balustrades that bow outwards to accommodate ladies’ billowing skirts, a 19th century architectural fashion imported from Havana. Indeed, parts of Cádiz so resemble the Cuban capital that the one city is sometimes a Hollywood stand-in for the other. Interior squares and parks on the city’s perimeter feature palms and other trees imported from Spain’s once vast empire, such as giant, densely-canopied dragon trees, natives of the Canary Islands.

The best view of the city is from the Torre Tavira, a tower that upon its completion in 1778 became the highest point in Cádiz, 45 metres above sea level. It’s a stiff climb to the top, but worth the effort. From here the old city looks more North African than European: a tight, uneven jumble of flat roofs concentrated on a balloon of land almost completely surrounded by sea, at the end of a string-like isthmus occupied by the modern city.

The tower also offers a more intimate point of view with the assistance of what was Spain’s earliest camera obscura. A pinhole camera, lens and mirror combination projects live images of the city onto a large concave surface, revealing rooftop sunbathers, washing swinging in the breeze and other domesticity hidden from the street.

The operator points out some of the city’s other 126 towers from which merchants once kept an eye on their vessels, and other historic links to maritime trade: an old tobacco factory, shipbuilding facilities, the vast yellow dome and white stone towers of the Cathedral, funded by trade, and 116 years in the building before its completion in 1838.

The city’s splendid museum houses much on early Cádiz trade and traders, included the sarcophagus of a Phoenician male, discovered in 1887, and later joined by that of a female companion. The 2,500-year-old caskets’ owners are visible, since each is strikingly carved in relief on the lid—possibly by Greek artists—the man holding a knife and the woman a perfume bottle.



For more information on Cádiz, city and province, visit the Andalusía Tourist Community website at