31 JANUARY 2004, Page 85

A Classified View

Cadiz and Puerto de Santa Maria

Alyson Hunter writes:

If you look at your left palm. Cadiz is situated on your thumb, a peninsula into the surging Atlantic, and Puerto de Santa Maria nestles high on the apex of the thumb and palm. At the water's edge is Rota and then Chipiona, then lastly, at your fingertips, is SanlOcar de Barrameda, situated at the edge of the Rio Guadalquivir, a great expanse of water surging out to sea under such a clean light it is as if one was blinded by the English fog, and now one can see, flinching at the pure brightness.

Back at Puerto de Santa Maria, the siesta is over and the buzz of scooters and the noise of crawling cars awaken the narrow streets. The little bars fill up. Cnezcampo is pulled up frothing into straight glasses, the tapa plates clatter on the zinc bar top with ham, bread, octopus, anchovies, The fish restaurants along the front fill with the holidaying locals; El Puerto is a much-loved destination for the townspeople who need to escape from the hemmed-in, gorge-like streets of the city of Cadiz.

The cream beaches of Playa Puntilla and Playa Valdelagrana straddle the sides of the little resort town. Canopied restaurants along the promenade serve sea-breeze lovers desperate to cool down in the African heat; the sea a flat silver, perfect bathing for young families.

Take the Vapor (named after her steamship predecessor) against the Atlantic swell, taste the salt as it chops and turns into the waves, heading for the magical Phoenician city of Cadiz. The little wooden prow chugs into berth between vast ocean-going liners, dwarfed by the white cliffs of iron studded with portholes, their enormous bulk fatly squatting in the Puerto Comercial, cut square into the Estuary of Rio Gautlete.

Once in the city, walk down through the coot green spaces of Almada de Apodaca and Parque Genoves at the water's edge, where twisted trees and chequered pavements create a fantastical feeling, as if the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland might appear from behind a tree. In February, you may well see apparitions evoked, as the inhabitants of Cadiz turn into gaditanos at their wild Carnival, an orgy of self-expression and revelry which lasts a whole ten days, a bacchanalia with no bounds, when the dark canyons of the streets fill with noise from the mw-gas (bands of drunken revellers) until the dragons of solemnity are chased down to the beach and out into the Atlantic.

Visit the Catedral Nueva, started in 1772 but always feeling half-finished, with it's enormous interior a cavern of crumbling stone and scaffoldine, a giant's church, as if built for his kneeling body, the dome reaching remotely above to fifty-five metres.

Check out the paintings of Zurbaran at The Museo de Bellas Artes y Arqueologico in the Plaza de Mina, and then saunter down to Calle Sacramento, walking up the high steps of the Torre Tavira with its camera obscura, for the best view of black gashes of streets cutting out to the industrial port in the hazy distance; look down at its saucer lens to see the people walking through the city and consider its uses as the first CCTV camera.

In March, the penitential month, long processions of hooded men, women and children pace the streets, sheaves of corn waving above them; chains, bare feet sway to the funeral beat of ancient instruments, discordant, clashing, a wail of noisy grief crashing up to the frilled balconies. Cadiz becomes a city held together by the noise of drums and horns. The warm winter sun glints off the jewelled effigies swaying on the shoulders of her stoical inhabitants and the penitents lead, with their hoods high and pointed. Two holes are cut into these, and behind them the eyes, some stern, some smiling, search the silent watchful crowd, and, as the hooded figures weave through the teeming flock, you experience the somewhat unnervine spectacle of both the humility and the authority of Christianity.

Wonder, then, how anybody born here could ever leave; this city has the power to tie you to it forever. As a tourist, gently moving around with the purposeful crowds in the streets, politely accepted, a part of modern life, you remain aware that the great energy of Cadiz will beat on with or without you; a city where the past feels like the future, such is the enduring potency of its ambience and people.