I boarded the early morning bus in Estepona, sorry to be leaving however, it was only going to be a short break from Nina and it was on the route she took from Malaga to Cadiz. It is a pity she didn’t stop off at Estepona but I suspect it was nothing more than a fishing village in 1934. On her bus ride Nina describes – at length, the beauty of the Spanish landscapes. The colours, the flowers, the hill sides. Turns out eucalypts were her in Nina’s day. She writes “Outside of Marbella to my surprise Australian eucalypts line the approach, growing very splendidly and making a most decorative avenue. Indeed, the gum-tree is an example of the prophet who lacks honour in his own country, for Australia has not made such ornamental use of it as Spain, where as time went on I was to see many more avenues and groves of eucaplyts”. Nina saw cane-fields outside of Malaga as well but I did not see any. Either they are long gone or the road now takes a different route.
The bus takes us both back through Algeciras, where our original journey began. We have done a big circle for Nina to save money and continue in the same direction. On reaching Algeciras, the bus driver gets out of his seat and yells something to the passengers in Spanish. Many of the passengers start to bustle about with bags, yelling in conversation to each other. Those of us with little Spanish sit and look trying to work out what is going on. I understand one word “todas”, all of you. The bus driver makes his way down the aisle of the bus, still yelling Spanish words at us. He says “commer”, food, raising pinched fingers to his mouth. Finally, with the help of my limited Spanish, I work it out for me and my non-English speaking companions. I tell them the bus takes a break here for half an hour and we are to get off. One woman asks me if she is allowed to sit on the bus during this time. I tell her that does not seem possible and to take the opportunity for a rest break and to stretch her legs. The driver seems happy we have finally get the picture and are moving off the bus.
Back on the bus, the route now turns away from the Mediterranean and we now head inland. First we must travel travel through the ugly outskirts of Algeciras. Algeciras is a port town. Its large 1960s apartment blocks are a decaying eye-sore. Once in the country again the Spanish landscape is beautiful and we have left the over-development of the Costa del Sol behind us. At Tarifa, we begin skirting the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The coast here is known as Costa del Luz, the Coast of light. It is not difficult to understand why. It is raining yet the sun turns the ocean silver against the bruised, grey sky. The light and colour play magic scenes on the ocean, on the paddocks and on the forests. Sometimes it looks like you can see rainbows on the ground. There are paddocks with donkeys in them. Just as Nina witnessed on her travels. I see the same landscapes entering into Cadiz as Nina described. “From all this beauty of meadow and wood it was strange to come at last in the late afternoon to the low-lying salt-marshes that surround the rocky island on which stands the naval town of San Fernando. From these marshes the salt is obtained by evaporation. The whole locality is cut up into square depressions where the waster gathers and dries. It is a curious white countryside, flat except for the white houses and white pyramids of dried salt”. This area remains unchanged except I suspect the road is much wider now. The bus bumps along it, for although the road is now a modern, newish four lane highway, any road built over a marsh will bump and buckle and rise and sink with the marsh.
Entering Cadiz is on a “narrow, flat, sandy spit, after which you arrive in Cadiz through the most satisfyingly impressive entrance, driving under an ancient gateway, with old bastions six feet through crowing about it. Some of it crumbling. But they are imposing, picturesque; right for a place with the history of Cadiz. Cadiz that was well-known in King Solomon’s time, and is so ancient a site the Greeks declared Hercules to have built the first city founded there”. My bus runs along the same sandy spit with the Atlantic Ocean on your left, then the road, then the train lines and then the Bay of Cadiz to the right. I enter through the historic gate just as Nina did. I smile to myself, it is no longer crumbling but ask myself if, and how, it has changed.
I start to make my way on foot to my accommodation, Case de Caracol – the snail’s house. So called after the monchillas (shells) or backpacks. I take a wrong turn out of the bus terminal and come across two men. The young one is holding what I think is a replica gun – I hope it is a replica because it looks awfully real – behind an older man’s head. The older guy is kneeling on the ground with his hands behind his head. In careful, slow, precision movements, the older guy kneeling takes the gun from the young guy, explaining each of his slow actions. Ah, grasshopper! It is obviously a self defence/krav magna tutorial for the younger guy. I stay to watch them for a while and to pick up some free useful tips. Although I hope not to be held up at gunpoint.
Nina is in love with what is left of the ancient history of Cadiz which began in around 1,100 BC but she laments the lack of evidence of the Phoenicians . She says “except for those bastions and a few fragments of the old harbour-works, remain to draw the attention of the casual visitor”. For this she blames the English, Sir Frances Drake and English Lord Essex of “plundering the town so savagely it had to be rebuilt”. It is still a nice town with impressive buildings from the 17th – 20th centuries. It simply is just not the ancient town it could have been today. I visited the old Roman ampithetre today – or what remains of it. The theatre was only discovered during excavation in the 1980s. Nina would not have known or seen this. Yet it was something extraordinary just below the surface of Cadiz.
Nina’s experience was that the people of Cadiz “accept strangers casually, and beggars are rare”. I have found the Spanish people here a little harder to deal with and there are now beggars everywhere. It is a city that fills up during the day with three or more cruise ships in the port. It is also a haven for backpacking surfers chasing the last of the summer sun rather than tourists wanting to see and learn of it ancient history. I walk around feeling the sea breeze slip up the streets from the Atlantic so that it calls me to its fortifications along the ocean. I walk until I can no longer find shade to walk in as the sun is now high and hot. I scurry off to the cool laneways to find my way back to the old centre of town.
I visit the Cathedral, as Nina did. Although she visited when the ‘cannons’ were at their singing and there was no-one else in the Cathedral apart from two little girls. There were no priests or canons singing on my visit, the choir seats were empty except for the tourists listening in on their audio guides to the information about the 41 seats, the type of wood used, the carving and the architects. It is a fairly boring and bland Cathedral compared to most others I have seen. It is a huge, cavernous structure with what looks to be like fishing nets stretching below the vaulted ceilings and archways. I figured the fishing nets were to catch any falling bits and pieces of rock and mortar from falling on the tourists that walk around its cavern by the dozens.
Nina spent just a day in Cadiz but she wrote that she will always remember “the touch of the sea-wind blowing up a narrow street that I feel upon my cheek”. I am still unsure if I like Cadiz or not but I know one thing – I too will remember that sea-wind on my cheek.