On the one hand, you couldn’t really blame Christopher Columbus for spending almost four years looking out on the sparkling waters of Cadiz Bay before embarking on a voyage to a place his friend Amerigo Vespucci would later lend his name to.
But, even allowing for meticulous preparation, four years sounds a little excessive. Then who wouldn’t be reluctant to leave the Bay of Cadiz with all that wine, sherry, seafood, dancing and sunshine?
At least Columbus’s navigator, Juan de la Cosa, used his time wisely. Paving the way for fellow conquistadors, he drew the first global map to include the New World in Cadiz Bay in 1500.
Magnificent: Cadiz town hall. Mal discovers ‘an irresistible sense of “apartness”‘ in the old seaport
So there was Cadiz, just five centuries ago, the fulcrum of the known world — and today you can’t even get a direct flight there. Which, with Spanish serendipity, has granted this old seaport a sense of ‘apartness’ that is utterly irresistible.
Winter can be a lean time for festivities in Europe, but I struck lucky in old Cadiz.
After a swim in the still-warm waters lapping the charming town beach, La Playa de la Caleta, I strolled back to my hotel via the Avenida Duque de Najera.
The big event of the day (actually one of two big events) was just kicking off. An elderly lady had opened her car door into the path of a bus. Somehow the door was now embedded in the bus.
Everyone had an opinion — the lady, the bus driver, all the passengers, the Guardia Civil officers, the woman who sold wine on the beach, a man on horseback, a family on a Honda 50cc motorbike — and me.
The other big event of the day was scheduled for that evening. La Patrona de Cadiz — Our Lady — was on walkabout through the old town. And when I say old I’m using that word with some precision — parts of the city stretch back 3,000 years.
Mounted on a huge wooden platform, the statue of Nuestra Senora del Rosario was being paraded along the cobbled streets. The parade was accompanied by uniformed brass bands, town bands, church bands.
Cadiz musicians like to keep their hands in on every available occasion — this one, as well as honouring Our Lady, was rehearsing for next February’s carnival.
After a lockdown lay-off, the pre-Lenten carnival is back from February 24 to March 6.
Revellers at the city’s famous carnival, which are reckoned to be the wildest in Spain, according to Mal
Given that we’ve missed a year, it’s likely to be even more outrageous than usual. On Shrove Tuesday we in Britain make pancakes. But elsewhere in the world carnival reaches its crescendo. Music, carousing, general licentiousness and extravagant firework displays — these sum up many pre-Lenten festivals in southern Europe.
I need only say that the Cadiz celebrations are reckoned to be the wildest in Spain. And in a country where there is a noticeable lack of words for ‘calm down’, that’s a reasonable boast. Just bring your own flame-retardant gear, as one Cadiz friend told me.
The carnival lasts two weeks, but as the bands and the choirs, the theatre groups and flamenco dancers are practising every week — there’s a carnival atmosphere all year round.
Meanwhile, back in town the Patrona swayed through the tight alleyways. I watched from an old tapas bar as she made her sedate way back to the massive baroque Cadiz cathedral.
Cadiz, pictured above, will host its annual carnival from February 24 until March 6 next year
Hotel Boutique Convento Cadiz (hotelconventocadiz.com) has double rooms from £49. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Jerez, a 30-minute drive from Cadiz, with fares from £59.
The carnival festivities, just like the Easter fiesta processions and the La Patrona walkabout, follow a road map begun by those indomitable traders, the Phoenicians.
Should you wish to worship Mammon after your brush with spirituality, it’s a short walk to the shopping district round la Plaza San Juan de Dios. From here, stroll up to Plaza Libertad, home of the oldest indoor market in Spain. Life in Cadiz is a communal affair, carried out in the streets, in bars, and in the squares under the lemon trees. In the Plaza de San Antonio, as the sun set over the Atlantic, I drained my glass of cava and watched garrulous Cadiz life taking place around me.
Nearby an elderly gentleman was gesticulating wildly into a phone, shouting at 120 words a minute, with occasional gusts maybe up to 160.
Probably saying: ‘Madre mia! What do you mean you opened the car door into the path of a bus?’