Monday was one of those mornings that you dread as a traveller, when all the powers in the universe seem to be working against you, scuppering any chance of a smooth journey. Although I am a great advocator of hostels as a cheap and sociable accommodation option, there are definite risks to sleeping in an 8-bed room with a load of strangers. In Sevilla we ended up sharing living space with a textbook weirdo; he walked around the room with no obvious purpose, hugging himself and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like a satanic curse. Plus, he snored. Needless to say, we didn’t get the best night’s sleep and woke up on Monday morning grumpy and rushed for time. I somehow managed to lose my key card in the room whilst I was packing and ended up having to fork out for a replacement, despite knowing that it was hidden in my luggage somewhere (I later found it nestling in the centrefold of my Lonely Planet guidebook).
We rushed out of the hostel and spent ages searching for the right bus stop. When we finally got on a hot bus packed with sweaty commuters, it took us until 20 minutes into the journey to realise that we were in fact travelling the wrong way. Panicking, we jumped off the bus and –in our first piece of good luck that day – managed to grab the attention of a taxi driving past. Miraculously, we got to the bus station just in time to buy an overpriced, bland sandwich (having not had any breakfast we were starving by that point) and jump on the bus to Cádiz, feeling distinctly frazzled.
Luckily, once we arrived in Cádiz things started looking up. The directions I had from the bus station to the hostel were very vague, but after a short walk we found the place easily. It was smaller, cleaner and brighter than our previous hostel, with the added benefit of a roof terrace. The only other person in our 4-person room was an American girl who turned out to be very sweet (and a non-snorer).
After dumping our bags, we went to explore the city. Cádiz has installed an unusual aid to orientation, in the form of different coloured lines painted on the pavements, creating intersecting tourist trails around the city. We began by following the purple line, leading us towards the cathedral at the centre of the city. The building was lovely but temporarily shut for Semana Santa, so we didn’t look inside (if architecture is your thing, Semana Santa is probably the worst time to visit Andalusía, as most of the important buildings are closed to tourists whilst they prepare the celebrations).
As well as being a small city, Cádiz is a fishing port and almost completely surrounded by the ocean. A little known fact is that Cádiz is also the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe. Although at first glance the ancient landmarks are relatively well hidden, we stumbled across the Roman Theatre as we were walking along the southern coast of the city (incidentally, it is the second largest Roman Theatre in the world). The theatre was only discovered by accident in 1980, after a fire destroyed the buildings that had previously been constructed on the sight. Sadly, we weren’t able to explore the theatre as it was closed for excavation works, but we had a good peer through the fencing and caught a tantalising glimpse of the ancient architecture.
Our main mission that day was to find lunch, whilst having a nose around the city. My trusty guidebook recommended the Viña barrio as one of the best places in Andalusía for fresh fish. We strolled through the streets, battling the ocean breeze whilst attempting to read the map, which was constantly threatening to tear itself out of my hands and fly into the water. The streets were eerily quiet and we were a little disappointed with the lack of atmosphere in the city. We walked down a side street, and as we turned a corner we were almost knocked sideways by an eruption of light and colour. Calle Vírgen de las Palmas is one of the city’s most infamous streets; coloured cafés lead up towards a small church and the pavements are lined with families eating fried fish at outside tables and putting the world to rights. It is crowded, noisy and unmistakeably Spanish.
Lunch was chocos fritos (fried calamari pieces), gambas al ajillo (prawns sizzling in garlic), pimientos asados (peppers cooked in olive oil and garlic) and papas aliñas (potatoes with onion, garlic, olive oil and parsley), washed down with tinto de verano. It was absolutely delicious and so fresh that you could taste the sea salt.
As we were finishing our food, we noticed that tables were being cleared away and people were gathering on the side of the street. As we paid and moved closer, street vendors appeared out of nowhere, pushing small trolleys lined with snacks for sale. We pushed through the crowd and began to move down the street, trying to reach a turning back towards the city centre, but before we were even halfway there, the faces of the locals began to turn towards the left. Following their gaze, we peered down towards the church and saw a movement in the doorway. Moments later, people began to emerge. The Semana Santa processions were beginning.
We stood there for almost an hour as line after line marched past: children and adults in those strange robes and pointed hoods (this time in dark blue velvet instead of white cotton), an enormous marching band with tiny music stands clipped onto their instruments and their sheet music flapping in the breeze, women dressed in traditional mourning clothes, their faces covered by black lace veils, hooded figures dragging wooden crosses or bound up in chains, and giant altars bedecked with flickering candles and a model of Jesus on the cross. Underneath the altars it was just possible to make out the thirty pairs of shuffling feet belonging to the men whose task it was to carry the altar around the entire city, bearing its weight for over two hours. In typical Spanish fashion, the processions are conducted leisurely, with pauses every few minutes. This particular one took even longer than usual, as the narrow street posed a problem for the altar, which needed a 20-point turn to go round the corner. Eventually, the religious figures passed us by and we squeezed sideways through the still-watching crowd, back into the deserted surrounding streets.
Having explored the southern edge of the city, we decided to head north, towards Plaza España. The northern coast of Cádiz does not provide an attractive seaside walk; lest you forget that the city is also a working port, the view is dominated by ships and cement and the buildings become gradually more modern and less aesthetically pleasing. However, we persevered and in a moment of happy chance stumbled across a derelict and graffiti-smeared platform above the sea, which obviously used to play host to a variety of bars and cafés but which was now completely abandoned, save for a couple of tramps sitting on the narrow strip of beach directly below the platform, muttering inaudibly to each other.
We sat in the late-afternoon sunshine with our feet dangling towards the water and listened to the distant music of the on-going processions echoing across the bay. It wasn’t until the tramps wandered up onto the platform behind us, swinging plastic buckets filled with saltwater and unidentifiable fish, that we remembered our mission and continued towards Plaza España.
After that we found it quickly, but although the grand statues and pink blossom were ornate and pretty, they seemed unremarkable compared to our private ocean viewing point.
After a brisk walk back to the centre and a glass of sangria in Plaza San Juan de Díos (Cádiz’s main square), we headed back to the hostel to get ready for dinner. It was then that we met our roommate and fellow traveller, an American girl also living in Madrid. We invited her to join us for dinner and headed to an incredible place, also recommended in my guidebook and right around the corner from our hostel. We shared a variety of dishes, including spinach and pine nut crepes and seafood lasagne. It was just divine!
We walked back to our hostel along streets strewn with rose petals and spent the hour before bed taking turns to lie in a hammock on the hostel roof, sipping wine under the stars.
The next morning, we grabbed a free breakfast at the hostel and checked out. Our roommate joined us for a coffee at a local café and then we strolled to the beach and spent our last moments in Cádiz sitting on the sand, watching a group of boys playing football and dogs chasing the surf.
All too quickly it was time to return to the hostel, grab our bags and walk to the bus station. This moment was extra sad, as one of my friends was going to visit her family in Nerja instead of travelling on with us. My other friend and I waved goodbye as her bus pulled out of the station and then climbed onto our own, mentally preparing ourselves for the five hour journey to Granada.