Cádiz, Spain — It’s always been about the sea here. It was from Cádiz that Columbus sailed on his second voyage; from here the fleet departed to fight Nelson at Trafalgar; and in the 18th century, when the Spanish Empire was the largest in the world and had control of much of the American continent, over three quarters of Spain’s transatlantic trade passed through Cádiz.
There are older cities than the Spanish port of Cádiz. But Cádiz, situated on a peninsula jutting out into the wild waves of the Atlantic Ocean and part of the evocatively named Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light), is the most ancient city in Western Europe to still be inhabited. This rich and varied history makes the city difficult to describe, difficult to summarize and sell in a single sentence, but offers a lot to the curious traveller. Even on a winter visit where Atlantic gusts destroyed my umbrella and the rain turned every surface into a lake, it was impossible not to fall in love with this city and get some sense of its magic — some sense of why the gaditanos (citizens of Cádiz) stayed so long.
Above: There is no more glorious sight than seeing the sun set over Cádiz' ancient harbour.
In its more recent incarnation, Cádiz can offer modern high-street shops sitting snugly in the winding, narrow streets of its charming old town, bookstores and music, unique museums, ancient island fortresses doubling as modern lighthouses, beaches, and much more. At the end of February, the city goes crazy for Spain’s best known carnival.
The Phoenicians were the first to settle here, building a trading post they called Gadir around 1100 BCE, when their civilization was still in its golden age. Later, the Roman navy had a base here, and then the Muslim Moors from North Africa had their turn, although the city fell into obscurity during the reign of Al-Andalus, and so Cádiz lacks the same Moorish feel and impressive landmarks other cities in the region, such as Granada or Cordoba. Its own golden age came later, in the 1700s.
From the first sketches of ancient philosophers, fusing known terrain with imagined worlds, to a time where we can navigate using our phones, mapping has come a long way. The foundations of modern mapping were laid by the development of meridians, imaginary, semi-circular lines drawn on maps, connecting the North and South Poles and indicating longitude. Similar lines extending east-west are lines of latitude. Since 1884, Greenwich near London has been the Prime Meridian, the reference point for all maps by international agreement. Up to then, though, countries were free to set their own meridians, yet the bulk of global shipping was directed by just three meridians — Greenwich, Paris and Cádiz.
Greenwich has a national maritime museum, and you can actually stand on the famous meridian (when I was 18, I visited and actually set my watch by it, just so I could claim to have a more accurate watch than anyone else in the room). The Paris Meridian has been rescued from obscurity partly by the city’s own efforts – the bronze medallions marking the route — but largely by Dan Brown, who created a fictional “Rose Line” based on the Paris Meridian in The Da Vinci Code.
But the Cádiz meridian and all it represented about the city’s importance seems to have very nearly slipped out of memory altogether.
In Cadiz, always, history comes back to the sea. In 1717, the Academia de Guardias Marinas, one of the world’s most famous nautical schools, was established in the neighbourhood or barrio del Pópulo, on a site that is today home to the city’s Ayuntamiento (seat of local government). In 1753, Spain’s first royal observatory was built in Cádiz, and the idea of using that city as the reference point for the navigation of the Spanish navy was born.
Above: Cádiz' historic buildings blend in beautifully with its new skyline.
Having its own meridian really did put a city on the map — centuries ago, it was a sign of both power and scientific prestige. The Royal Observatory quickly moved to establish the Meridian of Cádiz for all military and civil cartography, and this honour was at the time well-deserved. Besides being the launch spot for half of Columbus’ voyages to the Americas, several scientific expeditions left from Cádiz, which was also a pioneer in shipbuilding.
More than anything else, the commemoration of this forgotten meridian appears to be a matter of pride for a very proud people. One editorial in the local newspaper, Diario de Cádiz, proposes a motto — “Cádiz yes, Greenwich no!” — and states that the Spanish should “take advantage of Brexit” to claim Gibraltar for Spain and to have Cádiz replace Greenwich as the prime meridian.
But leaving nationalist politics and political rivalries out of it, it doesn’t quite make sense that the meridian, which was once a symbol of this port’s international influence, should have passed so completely into obscurity. Now, a local historian, Miguel Ramos, is researching what the meridian meant to the city, and is involved in a project to resurrect its memory. In collaboration with mapping expert Manuel Marrón, he has managed to calculate the exact location of the meridian and hopes to raise funding from local businesses and institutions to mark the line, similar to the Parisian medallions. This line will guide visitors from the magnificent seaside avenue Campo del Sur, with views of Cádiz Cathedral on one side and the Atlantic on the other, through monuments such as the city council’s plenary room and the monument to the Cortes de Cádiz, the assembly which passed the first Spanish constitution, now regarded as a major step towards democracy in Spain.
The hope, eventually, is to place a bronze commemorative statue on the Campo del Sur. The sculpture will, of course, point out to sea. Because in Cádiz, now as always, it’s all about the sea. •