The city of Cádiz features in each of the novels in my Andalucían Nights trilogy. It’s such a vibrant, luminous city, it was an easy decision to set scenes there; this a thriving and beautiful place with a rich history and culture.
Here’s a glimpse of the city from the perspective of Alexandra, heroine of Indiscretion:
Not quite an island, it was a city of dazzling white houses set on a rocky peninsula, jutting into the sea with the sapphire-blue waters wrapped around it. A jewel that towered over the Atlantic, she well deserved her name. Brilliant and sparkling like a diamond in the sunshine, Alexandra found her beauty was just as arresting at night, under a velvet sky studded with stars, when the city was reflected in the almost unearthly phosphorescence of the ocean.
For me, travelling is all about the vistas: my memory is like a photo album packed with colourful, striking, beautiful scenes. Today I’m sharing with you ten unforgettable vistas in Cádiz city which, I hope, will make you want to travel there, whether in person or via one of my books:
1. Gran Teatro Falla
This theatre is one of the notable monuments of Andalucía, a lovely example of the neo-Mudéjar style. It stands in the Plaza Fragela, in the north-west quarter of the Old Town, a grand and historic theatre. Within, you find a handsome marble staircase, antiquated gold and claret décor, and ornate Moorish revival arches. The theatre is so-named in honour of Manuel de Falla, who is buried in the Cathedral.
The Cathedral de Santa Cruz dates back to the eighteenth century and is prominent in the Cádiz cityscape. It was built painstakingly, over more than a century, to exemplify all that is great about Cádiz and to put it on the spiritual map. It has an iconic gold-tiled dome roof, which gives it an exotic Moorish look. One of the towers is open to the public, and the views from there are spectacular, but quite honestly I find beauty enough in gazing at the cathedral’s façade.
3. San Sebastián Castle
On a little islet jutting out from the Caleta beach, the fortress dates back to the early 1700s and affords amazing views over the ocean and back towards the city. The tall tower within is a lighthouse, built a century ago. To reach the castle, you walk along the zig-zagging causeway, the Paseo Fernando Quiñones, and through magnificent old archways.
4. Roman theatre
The ancient theatre dates all the way back to the first century BC. One of the biggest Roman theatres ever discovered, it could hold an audience of 20,000. It was found in 1980, and is only partially excavated. On the steps, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the thought of who stood there before you.
5. Tavira Tower
The tower itself is quite beautiful, dating back to the eighteenth century when Cádiz was ‘a city of watchtowers’, with no fewer than 160 from which men would watch for merchant ships. But it is the view from the tower that is really special, a panoramic vista of the city in the cámaraoscura, a room in which the view is projected via a convex lens.
6. Monument to the Constitution of 1812
This monument is completely breath-taking, entirely dominating the Plaza de España. It is the combined work of architect Modesto Lopez Otero and sculptor Aniceto Marinas. It was commissioned in 1912 to mark the centenary of the Constitution of 1812, the country’s very first constitution, which established important principles, among them universal male suffrage, national sovereignty and freedom of the press.
7. Plaza San Antonio
The neo-classical and Castilian late Gothic architecture of the buildings on each side of this square is striking. Once, this was the place to live for the upper classes of Cádiz. San Antonio Church in the square dates back to 1669.
8. Genovés Park
With so many stunning buildings to admire, and bedazzled by the blue sky and even bluer sea all around, it is easy to forget that Cádiz also offers lush, verdant vistas. The Genovés Park is beautifully maintained, with many different trees and plants, plus a lake with a spectacular waterfall.
9. Centre for Subaquatic Archaeology
Not a place to visit, but to admire from the outside. The iconic white building is on Caleta beach, and was created in the 1920s. For some thirty years it was a spa, El Balneario de Nuestra Señora de la Palma y del Real, but these days it’s used by the university. Caleta is the smallest beach in Cádiz, but the most popular, and the houses behind give it a colourful backdrop.
10. The sea
Last, but by no means least, the sea. Wherever you go in Cádiz, you are quickly reunited with the ocean – the city is, as the Moors put it, a ‘dish of silver in a bowl of blue’. Whether you find a sea view soothing or stirring, you’re bound to be drawn to the waves lapping someplace nearby in their age-old rhythm.
Have you ever thought about the nationality of the authors whose books you read? Do you read books by writers from all different countries, or do you find you’re often lost in a story dreamt up by a British or North American author?
I was very inspired by a recent story in the news about a thirteen-year-old Pakistani girl who, having realised most of the books on her shelf were published by British or US publishers, has set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country in the world. Aisha Esbhani sent out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations, and she has received them from all corners of the globe.
Just imagine all that Aisha will learn, how these 197 books will educate her and inspire her, how enriching this multicultural journey will be. To quote George R.R. Martin: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’
Aisha will have such a broad knowledge of literature; the kind of knowledge, I think, to which we should all aspire. ‘Write about what you know’ is a common adage. But I don’t think it should follow that we read only about what we know. We need to read books that transport us to foreign places and make us think and feel; books that can change us.
I believe that we should read books set in all different countries. Take my own fiction, for example. When you read one of my books, you’ll be whisked away to Kenya (Burning Embers) or Italy (The Echoes of Love) or Spain (the Andalucían Nights trilogy) or, later this year, to Greece (the forthcoming Aphrodite’s Tears).
I also believe that we should read books by writers from all different nationalities. Perspective, depth and writing style are very much rooted in one’s nationality. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, speaking Arabic, English and French, and at university there I studied French literature. Certainly, my writing is influenced by my education; by the rhythms and poeticism of the languages in which I think and daydream; by the importance of history and mythology in Egypt; and especially by the beautiful and colourful scenery of that country.
But I no longer live in Egypt. After leaving the country in my early twenties, I travelled widely, before finally settling in Kent, England. My husband and I subsequently bought a mas (farmhouse) in the South of France and renovated it, and for many years that has been our summer home, and then in recent years we have lived part of the year in Ireland as well. So, as you can see, I really do ‘write around the world’, and my books are not only set in different countries, but they are written in them too.
If this article has inspired you to ‘read around the world’, a great starting point for your journey is Goodreads, where you can find groups devoted to recommendations on this theme. I have also found it helpful to use ‘translated fiction’ as a search term – you unearth a veritable treasure trove of books (sadly, often overlooked). In addition, you can support Aisha at https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries, and see which books she has picked to read and her thoughts on them.
I am a writer with a passion for travel, and the places I have visited and lived in are rich sources of inspiration for me when I put pen to paper. Often, my stories begin as vivid landscapes in my mind: Burning Embers, for example, grew out of the beautiful wildness I encountered in Kenya, and the spark for The Echoes of Love was ignited in the Piazza St Marco, Venice, where I first encountered the two sides of the city: that which the tourists flock to admire, and the other, darker side.
These are places in which I situate my stories, but there are so many other places from my travels that you won’t find on the pages of my novels so far, but nonetheless are very important to me: they make me the writer I am. Today, I am taking you to Aswan, Egypt, to share with you one of my favourite spots in the world which never fails to make me dream.
The Old Cataract Hotel stands grandly on a granite promontory in the Nubian Desert on the banks of the river Nile. Its construction – in the Belle Époque style – dates all the way back to 1899, and since that time it has welcomed all manner of travellers, including Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Margaret Thatcher, and Princess Diana. The writer Agatha Christie was so inspired when she stayed there that she wrote Death on the Nile, setting parts of the novel at the hotel.
The hotel is so beautiful, it is little wonder it attracts visitors from all over the world. They come to step back in time, to old world glamour and splendour.
For me, the highlight of a stay is to sit on the marble terrace overlooking the Nile and, beyond, the lush gardens of the historic Elephantine Island, home of the temple for one of the earliest Egyptian deities, the ram-headed Khnum, god of creation and the waters. There, on the terrace, I have a front-row seat to watch the drama of nature unfold at different times of the day.
In the early misty morning, the dominant impression is one of deep-abiding peace. Your view is that of feluccas, the romantic wooden gull-winged lateen sail boats used since antiquity, moored on the shores of the Nile; of endless fields stretching afar, peppered with tiny villages with their mud walls and winding ways fringed with palms.
At noon, under the high, scorching sun, the scenery is painted in vivid colours. You might see a barefoot woman in her flowing gown filling water jars at the edge of the river, a smiling man dangling his legs and oscillating on the back of a small donkey, a string of stately camels ambulating on a straight road bordered by cool and shady date groves. Each is a picture postcard depicting peace-abiding people living today as they had lived a thousand years ago.
And then, at the end of the day, the sunset: the hour when the countryside is wrapped in a glory of colour! One moment the scenery is a dazzling silvery blue, ochre, brilliant green and dappled shadows; the next, without warning, it is flushed to a wild crimson. In Egypt night comes quickly; the sun sets dramatically – bang – just like that below the rim of the desert. Feluccas draw in against the bank with a rattle of chains and the creaking of windlasses and the whine of great sails. The fields are empty and the smoke of little fires rises in the still air from the mud-houses.
Now, darkness has fallen and the air is hushed and breathless. The sky is a purple canopy, low hung, and the blazing stars are so close that you can almost pluck them from the sky. The shadowed paths, the flowers in the hotel’s garden and the slender masts of sailing ships loom motionless, ghostly white in the silver moonlight: the desert night delivers infinity, eternity, beauty – all those grand emotions that inspire romance.
One of my favourite television programmes at the moment is First Dates, a programme in which French maître d’ Fred Sirieix oversees couples dining together on blind dates in a London restaurant (and, more recently, at a French hotel). The focus of the show, of course, is an exploration of how attraction forms (or does not), but what interests me most is the setting: excellent haute cuisine food, enjoyed à deux, is what creates the mood for romance to blossom. Often the menu interests me as much as the couples!
I love to cook, especially for family gatherings and parties; it gives me an excuse to try out the recipes I collect on my travels. But before cooking comes shopping, and this, I find, can be even more pleasurable. I am not referring to supermarket shopping; there is little soulful about that. I am referring, instead, to shopping in the old-fashioned way, at a market.
In France, where I live in the summer, I love going to the market in my local village for fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and olive oil. It’s a social occasion, a chance to meet friends and neighbours, to talk to stallholders and try their new wares, and invariably I come home laden down with bags.
When I travel, often I am staying at a hotel and thus am unable to cook, but I still like to visit the market and browse, taking in the sights and scents and flavours, the bustling atmosphere. That is how I came to visit the covered market in Cadiz, while researching my Andalucían Nights trilogy. Such a vibrant place! It’s housed in a large, Neoclassical, rectangular building that teems with life – so many people, from housewives buying ingredients for meals at home to chefs stocking their restaurants, all talking at once, questioning, haggling. The moment I took in the scene, I knew I must bring one of my heroines here – for before me was everything I love about Cadiz in one place: light, energy, passion.
When Luna, heroine of Legacy, arrives in Spain, she is plunged into a strange new world. Although she is half-Spanish by birth, she has grown up in America and has few memories of fleeting time spent in Andalucía as a child. She comes across the covered market soon after coming to the city, and enters wide-eyed at the colourful, clamorous sight.
Today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the Cadiz market, as taken by Luna:
Stall after stall was heaped with fresh, colourful local produce from land and sea. Luna paused to admire the day’s catch of fish lying on slabs of ice, their silver scales glistening under the neon lights; some of which were specimens she had never heard of. She wondered how they were able to keep them looking still so appetizing in the heat.
‘We have the best red tuna in the world, fished locally in Tarifa,’ the fishmonger proudly told her. He grinned broadly. ‘Only for you, beautiful señorita, I will make it half price.’
Luna laughed. Even the fishmongers here turned on the charm. ‘I’ll come back in a few days, and you’ll have to tell me how to cook it.’
Then she sees eggs on display: rare large white organic eggs, and she decides to gather ingredients for an omelette. After purchasing milk and butter, she peruses the vegetables on offer:
These ranged from incredibly thin beans, tender spinach, young petits pois, baby carrots and globe artichokes, to large cabbages, enormous potatoes, oversized tomatoes that looked more like small pumpkins, and thick asparagus fingers, the like of which she had never seen before.
Luna settles for organic red vine tomatoes, crunchy yellow peppers, and wonderful spindly green chives.
As she moves on, Luna is captivated by the many foods on offer:
There were stores selling Serrano ham, chorizo sausage and the famous chicharrones – fried pork rind – from the coastal town of Chicalana. A woman nodded to Luna, gesturing at her to try a sample from a small bowl. Luna smiled and thanked her, popping a piece into her mouth. It was delicious, but rather heavy and rich. Maybe another day. Instead she chose a bunch of black grapes and a couple of juicy-looking peaches and nectarines, whose sweet fragrance filled the air…
She stopped at the dry foods stand that offered a vast assortment of nuts, glazed fruit and jars of cocoa and ground coffee, and bought a couple of jars and some pistachios. At the next-door counter, the region’s cheeses were on display, so she selected some queso de cabra. On the way out, she picked up a medley of olives, a bottle of olive oil, and a loaf of bread from the bakery.
Quite a shopping spree, I’m sure you will agree. It is inspired by my own visit to the Cadiz market, where I first tried chicharrones and I bought all kinds of foods for an impromptu picnic on the beach. I did not, however, sample the Albariño (a kind of wine) sold at the oyster stall, which my hero Ruy notes ‘can make you lose a whole afternoon’. Cadiz is too fabulous a city to waste a moment!
Do you visit a local market? Have you visited any abroad? I would love to hear about your experiences.
Of all the mythical creatures – and there are many – the nymph has always been one of my favourites. What image does the word nymph conjure up for you? Perhaps something like this vision, painted by John William Waterhouse:
A nymph is a female deity, but a minor one. She dwells in nature, is invariably beautiful and lives to sing and dance. No wonder, then, that she provided inspiration for the great and vivid carnival that is held annually in Cadiz, setting for my latest novel Legacy.
The nymph has particular significance for the city of Cadiz, because of its ancient connection to the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology). In an article I wrote last spring entitled ‘Hercules: An Andalusian hero’ I explain his connection to the city: he founded the city of Gadeira (Cadiz) en route to carrying out his tenth labour, to journey to the end of the world and take the cattle of the monster Geryon. The city had been named Gades, but by some it was called Erytheia, for one of the Hesperides – nymphs. The Hesperides were daughters of the night (from hesperos, meaning evening) who tended a garden near the mountain of Atlas where there grew an apple tree. This was no ordinary tree: it bore golden apples that bestowed immortality on any who took a bite. Stealing the apples was Hercules’ eleventh labour, which he completed successfully.
Nymphs, then, are beautiful, musical and interwoven with the legend of Cadiz’s foundation, and so they have naturally been part of the famous fiesta in the city that begins each year in February and runs for a fortnight. Until this year, that is, when nymphs are banned…
The drive for change began in earnest last year, when a core element of the carnival was altered. Traditionally, women of the city compete to become nymphs. Nine are chosen, based on their dedication to and knowledge of the carnvial, and their ability to dance the tanguillo:
Of these nine, one is crowned diosa, goddess, and she and her nymphs preside over the parade and the final of the singing competition at the Teatro Falla (for more information on the theatre, see my article ‘An inspirational composer: Manuel de Falla’).
Last year, however, Spanish News Today reported that having a female deity only had been deemed sexually discriminative, and that a male god would be chosen as well. This year, The Irish Times explains that concerns about discrimination have driven a more radical change to the programme: no nymphs at all.
According to the Times, ‘Cadiz’s leftist administration has outlawed the participation of the nymphs on the grounds that they are a chauvinistic anachronism that promotes gender inequality… The campaign’s manifesto said the parading of the nymphs and the goddess during the carnival risked generating “stereotypes, inferiority complexes and frustrations among our girls and younger women”.’
The nymphs were too passive, said those calling for change: ‘mute, quiet, a spectator, merely a beautiful figure on a float, a hostess handing out prizes, playing very much a secondary role’. They argued that the tradition, which dates back to the days of Franco’s right-wing regime, was part of the suppression of women.
Many citizens of Cadiz signed the petition to remove nymphs from the carnival, but not everyone was happy to see the end of this tradition, and a counter petition was launched.
While I can see the argument put forward by those working to ensure gender equality, it seems a shame to break with tradition so abruptly. I wonder whether instead there may be a way to empower these nymphs; to create new characters for them that are simultaneously grounded in mythology and yet also relevant for current times.
What do you think? I would love to hear your ideas and know whether, were you to visit the carnival this month, you would miss the mythological aspect.