Cadíz, Spain

Visited 10 October 2008

The island at the end of the world

Cadíz's old city is technically an island but it's connected to the Iberian Peninsula by a long causeway built on a sandbar. This sandspit creates a harbor so good that the founding Phoenicians used their word for enclosure to name the town Gadir and after centuries of sanding by Romans and Arab tongues we get today’s name: Cadíz. Many unenlightened Europeans thought this to be the end of the world until Columbus proved them wrong. His second expedition left Cadíz in 1493. Contrary to popular myth today, educated Europeans at that time thought the world was round -- but small. So small that China and Japan were only a few weeks sail away if only one knew the right direction.

Founded by Phoenicians around 1100 BC, Cadíz may be the oldest continuously inhabited Western city. The Carthaginians took over about 500 BC, followed by the Romans who made this their 2nd busiest port (after Ostia which served the city of Rome itself). map

If you had a fleet, you’d base it in Cadíz as did the Romans and the Spanish Bourbons. Because its wealth-laden ships were attacked by pirates, (aren’t we glad those days are over), Spain ran two protected convoys a year in a combination of merchant and warships called the Treasure Fleet or West Indies Fleet – which they headquartered here.

Long before that the natural harbor attracted commerce and military interest; today over 2500 ships rest pickled in the anaerobic mud that makes the sea around this town one of the most archeologically rich spots in the world. 

The trade center of the world

Unfortunately, Cadíz’s sea exposure on 3 sides makes it inviting to whatever other navy happens to be in the area. With Spain's wealth and power, many enemies attacked including Barbary Pirates from the south and the English from the north who all but leveled the place in 1596. Because of Cadíz’s naval exposure and its distance from the rest of Iberia, the larger city of Seville became the focal point for Spain’s trade with its huge New World colonies.  Inland Seville was more protected and its long Guadalquivir River and fertile valley gave it great position for importing gold and exporting Andalusian products.

But then the Guadalquivir silted up. So in 1717 the monopoly in the institution of the La Casa de Contratación (The House of Trade) moved to Cadíz – and with it the huge wealth that made merchants rich. In those days, any Spanish colony could trade with only one European city. Spain was by far the largest empire and Cadíz was the place for merchants to become rich.

Despite 3 millennia of Cadíz history, much of the old town appears to be the work of one very prosperous century: the 18th, when the Casa de Contratación monopoly funded the rebuilding of a town that the Brits had leveled a century earlier. By 1790, the Casa was disbanded. Cadíz never recovered – its loss but our gain, as monies were not available in future generations to tear down the beautiful Baroque and neo-classical structures and replace them with Wal-marts.  The old town Cadíz we see is pretty much what we’d see in 1850.

San Sebastian fort

Forts and walls

After the British wiped out the place at the end of the 16th century, Cadíz upgraded its walls and defensive castles. Since then, most of the walls have been torn down to make room for housing and other developments. But several of the castles remain.

Fortifications such as pictured above on the Caleta beach started after the Anglo-Dutch fleet destroyed the place. They were substantially upgraded in the 17th and 18th centuries when the City became the only port where any of the Spanish colonies could trade. In those days, Spain then had the greatest empire in the world -- and Cadíz was booming. If this island-fort looks familiar to you, it may be that you saw James Bond invade it. It's really the Castillo de San Sebastián, accessible only at low tide until the footpath you see in the foreground was added in the 18th century.

Why would anyone name a fort after the first Christian martyr (especially one often depicted with multiple arrows sticking in his torso?) No one did. Long before this was a fort, the island confined Venetian sailors during a plague outbreak. They built a chapel to San Sebastian and the name stuck like arrows in flesh. (Cadíz and Venice were two great trading cities that got along well; Cadíz eventually copied the Venetian Mardi Gras festival which is among the best in Iberia today.)


Beach Goddesses

Today the fortifications are attacked only by tourists and beach structures such as this modernist building on sticks at Playa de La Caleta were built for the natives. Does every building in this neo-classical town get a dome, even the changing rooms on the beach? Spa

Unfortunately, this building fell on hard times before being restored in the 1990s. Today it serves as the headquarters for underwater archeologists -- a busy group as over 2500 ships have sunk into (and are well preserved by) the anaerobic mud in Cadíz harbor and bay.

Although the smallest beach on the island, Caleta is the most popular and witnessed knife-bearing and bikini-clad Halle Maria Berry emerging ala Ursala Andress in a 2002 James Bond film where Cadíz impersonated Havana. (If you’d rather your mythology came from the Greeks instead of Bond movies, you may argue that Halle rises ala Aphrodite who wore even less than Ursula did in the 1962 “Dr. No.” Cadíz, founded within a century of Troy’s destruction, needs no modern heroes, especially from the Brits.)


At right is a bit of tile by Justo Ruiz de Luna honoring our Lady of Palma who greets bathers at La Caleta's beachhouse. This 1920s reinforced concrete structure replaced two previous wood buildings, one the Royal Spa (hence the REAL) and the Palma Spas. Nice of Mary to stop by for naming rights. She was not the first as the Phoenicians who came around 1100 BC had a temple here to their virgin and mother goddess Astarte (whom the Greeks renamed Aphrodite.) Halle, Mary, Astarte, Aphrodite -- this is a beach for goddesses!

Party on

In Roman days the town, thought to be at the edge of the world, was a lively harbor for the Roman fleet and had a bit of a party reputation. It was also known for its Temple to Hercules who supposedly founded the city. Temples are still attractions here. Both the old (rebuilt after 1586) and the new (1722 -- 1838) cathedrals back up to the water on the small island that holds up the old city of Cadíz.  Let’s visit them on the following page (Please click here).

Please join us on the following slide show to give Cadíz the viewing it deserves by clicking here.

Cadíz, Spain

Next: Cathedrals

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