Stranger In The South
My former agent lived in a small town called Gaucin in Southern Spain, and from her window you could see the coast, the rock of Gibraltar and beyond to Africa (she’s in my short story ‘The Caterpillar Flag’). I’ve arrived in the ‘island’ town of Cadiz, a place I’ve visited a couple of times before but have never quite got to grips with. The views here are similar to those from my agent’s home, with Tangier forming a backdrop.
Given that the rest of Europe is suffering a heatwave coming up from Africa, it’s odd that this Moorish-influenced town is not the hottest of all, but it’s pleasantly warm, sometimes wreathed in soft damp fog. Famous for its extraordinary light, its ancient cross-streets carry warm breezes, yet the squares are lush and verdant, the exotic trees trimmed into fantastical whirls and twists.
Cadiz has a lantern-topped rampart running around the edge and 19th century houses with windows of curved glass, my favourite being the House of the Five Towers. I’m staying in one of the towers for a few days, letting the first draft of the new Bryant & May novel settle before I return to London to tackle the next draft.
The old Cadiz’s street plan consists of narrow winding alleys connecting large sunbathed plazas that remind me of the paintings of Georgio de Chirico, with sharply delineated shadows. This marshy Andalucian area with its flamingo-filled flats appears the excellent cop thriller ‘La Isla Minima’, and has widescreen vistas unlike anywhere else in Spain that I’ve visited. My literary knowledge is too limited to think of writers similarly drawn to this landscape, but I feel sure I’ve read a couple.
It’s a short ferry ride to the African coast from here, and the African influence can be seen in the town’s red and white painted turrets and minarets. The great cathedral looks more like a mosque than any Roman Catholic building. The old and new barrios are now connected by a modernist bridge linking the flatlands to the fortress island, which is home to the Spanish Navy. There are cannons everywhere, set in the ramparts and upright on street corners to stop vehicles clipping buildings. Far from being a museum piece, the old town is lived in by multi-generational families, strongly bonded by year-round church activities.
There are relatively few tourists here beyond an enclave of Germans at properties gifted to Germany by Franco. My internal flight from Barcelona is longer than a flight to the UK. If you haven’t been before to this corner of Europe it’s well worth it, and can be combined with side trips to Jerez and Seville. Like many towns here you hear more birds than cars; it’s a major migration stop-off point.
I suspect one is either a Romanophile or a Hispanophile, and for the British this is a class issue dating back to the Grand Tour, when one would finish an education in classical Italy and overlook Spain. But where Italy seems to have retrenched into the past Spain has moved on. Having lived under Franco’s fascist rule for 35 years, the Spanish miraculously emerged as Europe’s liberal Catholics, whose embrace of gay people feels more integrated than Italy’s grudging acceptance.
While it’s not as gastronomically advanced as San Sebastian, the food still surpasses expectations; there’s a swathe of locally sourced fine restaurants at temperate prices. Beaches are wide and windswept, the countryside open to grand skies.