The most important thing I put in my suitcase before a trip to Cádiz, the Andalucian port city I’ve been to many times through the years, is my knife roll. This is because I go there to cook, which also explains why my iPad carries a variety of favorite Spanish cookbooks and a couple of recipes photocopied from books that pre-dated this cyber convenience—Janet Mendel’s irresistible Andalucian red-garlic and fish soup from her great 1996 collection Traditional Spanish Cooking, for example. Let me explain.
Built at the end of a long, narrow peninsula that sticks out into the limpid green waters of the Atlantic like a cooking spoon, Cádiz was founded by the Phoenicians around 1100 BC and claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe.
This estimable historical pedigree to one side, Cádiz is also surely one of the happiest places in the Old World, because the primal brininess that hovers over this town is as comforting as it is invigorating. Even when it’s out of sight, the sea is always present. The sunlight reflected off its waters brightens the narrowest alleys in the Old Town and the mouth-watering smells of seafood-centered Gaditana cooking hone your hunger from dawn to dusk.
Everyone is welcome in this big-hearted place, which is always up for a good time and a story or two told over a coffee or a pour of xeres (sherry). There is a frank and friendly curiosity about new ideas and faces, which comes from the town’s ancient vocation for receiving strangers who arrive in boats from faraway places.
Aside from the occasional brief surge of visitors brought on by docking cruise ships, Cádiz is also one of those delectable European destinations where life has not been jarred by travelers. Instead, it remains a confidential place to be discovered on foot and savored as much for its atmosphere as its sights. The one time of the year the town gets busy is during its famous carnival, which runs from February 28 to March 10 in 2019; although the actual festivities begin three weeks before this official opening date.
Though carnival in Cádiz is a pageant of colors, floats, processions and fireworks, what makes it fascinating is that it has an important satirical side linked to contemporary events and expressed through song by the chirigotas, singing groups that work on their themes all year long and convey them via words set to simple melodies. This literary edge reflects the reputation of the Gaditanos as being the wittiest people in Spain, with a famously sharp sense of humor, and it also explains why carnival was banned by the Franco regime.
The first time I visited Cádiz, it was an accidental trip made in flight from a Spanish Mediterranean beach town where a love affair had gone off the rails. “Go to Cádiz,” a close friend in Madrid advised when I called her stricken from a phone booth. “Spend a few days there and let the hurt fade a bit before you go back to Paris.” So without asking her why, I did, and coming out of the train station on a quiet August morning, the cerulean skies and soft saline stink of the sea immediately unknotted my shoulders.
Walking to the seaside parador where I’d booked a room, I found myself in front of a beautiful café, the aptly named Café Royalty, an elegantly ornamented 1912 spot I later learned is one of the swankiest watering holes in the city. So I stepped inside and sat at a gray marble-topped table. “Good morning, and welcome to Cádiz,” said the freshly shaven waiter in English, eyeing my luggage, when he came to take my order. He smelled pleasantly of the cypress in Agua Brava cologne and also the strong Ducados cigarette he’d probably smoked while shaving in a hurry, late for work. All I wanted was a coffee and some cold sparkling water, but he insisted I try some picatostes, too. Covered with confectioner’s sugar, these golden lozenges of fried bread were delicious. Fleetingly, I was distracted from my sadness by some new happiness, and then it only got better.
I liked the anonymity, beautiful sea views and swimming pool of the very comfortable parador, too, and happily spent the next four days nursing my blues by eating and drinking incredibly well and doing and seeing everything a first time visitor to the city should do, which, happily, didn’t take that long. I loved the ruined Roman ampitheater by the seaside, and the sounds of waves slapping the crumbling sea wall built after a 1596 raid led by the Count of Essex at a time when the city was the home of Spain’s “treasure fleet,” the galleons bringing gold and silver home from new colonies in Central and South America.
I also visited the cathedral (climb the Torre Tavira for stunning views of the city), the jaunty red-brick neo-Moorish Gran Teatro Manuel de Falla, and the oil paintings of distraught-looking saints by Zurbarán in the Museo de Cádiz. But it was the hours spent day-dreaming and swimming at La Caleta, one of Europe’s best urban beaches, and the drowsy pleasure of reading in the jasmine-and-orange-blossom-scented shade of the palms and topiary in the gorgeous Parque Genovés that I liked even more.
Best of all was the food. I ate constantly, made gluttonous by the ecstatic discovery that Cádiz is one of the world’s best seafood cities and also has a thriving tapas culture—I ate my own weight twice or thrice over in such local delicacies as tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters), cuttlefish meatballs and tiny flash-fried fish at my favorite tapas bars, La Tabernita and the bar at El Faro, the city’s fanciest restaurant, where I find the tapas better than the white-table-cloth dining. And to whet my appetite every day and learn more about Neptune’s bounty—Cádiz is supplied by fishing boats that ply both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—I visited the city’s Mercado Central de Abastos, one of the great food markets of Europe (open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 3pm) and the oldest covered market in Spain.
Here I spent my mornings so assiduously studying the different catches of the day displayed on beds of crushed ice that I eventually became friendly with several stallholders, including Dolores, a food-loving Spanish woman with an English father. She tipped me off to some of the best places to eat and also jotted down a recipe—sea bream baked on a bed of fresh bay leaves with garlic and xeres, that I’ve since made dozens of times. My Spanish is elementary, but almost every time I bought a fish or some shellfish—maybe some of the famous fire-engine red carabineros (Cardinal shrimp) from nearby Sanlúcar de Barrameda—the vendor volunteered a recipe, which I always understood.
“Next time you come to Cádiz, we’ll cook together,” Dolores told me, and though I never had the pleasure of sharing a kitchen with her, I’ve spent many happy hours cooking with friends in the kitchen of the best rental flats I’ve found there at El Armador Casa Palacio. And when we’re feeling lazy or want some inspiration, we hop on the ferry across the bay to one of the most exciting restaurants in Spain, the Michelin three-star Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa Maria where Ángel León, who’s often lyrically called “the chef of the sea,” does spectacular dishes like plankton paella with aioli tartare, or we head for a favorite local restaurant like Sopranis for red mullet with clams and rice with seaweed emulsion.
Whether I go there for its great seafood, to make new friends or just for the gentle mental scouring that’s the whole point of a holiday, Cádiz always does for me what it did the first time I visited, which is hone my appetite for all of these great reasons to travel, including love affairs and new recipes.
Alec Lobrano is a James Beard Award-winning food and travel writer and author based in Paris.
He is the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 110 Best Restaurants, and a Contributing Editor at Saveur Magazine. His second book, Hungry for France, was published by Rizzoli in April 2014. He has won several James Beard awards, and in 2011, he was awarded the IACP’s Bert Greene award for culinary writing for his article “Spirit of the Bistro” in Saveur magazine.