Sparkling, dreamy Cádiz versus upbeat, hipster Jerez? A tough call, but as these contrasting cities are barely half an hour apart, it is a cinch to visit both. Between the sea-sprayed port and land-locked sherry capital lie nature reserves, salt-flats and pine forests, but it is the streets and plazas of these small-scale towns that reflect the quickening pulse of western Andalucía, as both have experienced huge regeneration in the last few years.

The Cádiz metamorphosis was thanks to national celebrations of the bicentenary of the Spanish Constitution, drawn up here in 1812. Yet even without the recent facelift, this, the oldest city in Europe, has a mythical fascination second to none. Like a punctuation mark between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, it thrusts into the ocean, a fist of land crammed with narrow streets encircled by walls and bastions. To stop it floating away altogether, a slender arm of sandy beaches topped by 1960-70’s high rises links it to the mainland, soon to be seconded by the long awaited La Pepa road bridge. La Pepa, the affectionate nickname for the Constitution, crops up repeatedly. Towering lookouts That Atlantic light washing the ice-cream coloured façades is incomparable, only rivaled by Lisbon to the northwest, and somehow triggers visions of centuries ago when galleons rocked back over the ocean from the New World. The goods they brought home to the traders of Cádiz financed large plazas of ornate baroque mansions with curvaceous balconies, as well as 160 watchtowers from which merchants scanned the horizon for their returning bounty. Amazingly, 129 of these survive, extraordinary structures resembling giant arm-chairs or sentry-boxes that sit incongruously on rooftops like some child’s building bricks. They are best seen from the rooftop of Torre Tavira (, a baroque tower where 173 steps spirit you up through a camera obscura demonstration to finally survey the urban jigsaw below. In 1969 Cádiz was described by the acclaimed British writer, Laurie Lee as “a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass” also as “a Levantine ghetto … of squat cubist hovels”. He clearly did not climb a watchtower. Gadir and Phoenician treasures Tavira is one of the highest points in the old city, yet just a street away you can descend into what seems the lowest, and is certainly the earliest: Gadir (www.turismo.cadiz .es). These archaeological excavations of the original Phoenician settlement lie deep beneath (ironically) a brand new theatre. Here, in a timeless penumbra, survive walls of millennia-old dwellings, a bread oven, Roman vats for fish-salting and even, touchingly, the skeleton of a 2,800-year old cat. It took eight years of excavation for this evocative time-capsule to open to the public, in 2014, enhanced by an impressively high-tech, interactive presentation. Yet it seems those Phoenicians from Tyre (today’s Lebanon) will not go away. Just two years ago a hoard of over 300 items of Punic jewellery was discovered in tombs during construction work by the city gates. Exquisitely crafted and North African in style, a selection is now displayed at the Museo de Cádiz ( This treasure-house stands on one of the loveliest and leafiest of squares, the Plaza de Mina. Inside, beyond the jewellery, lie arguably Cádiz ’ most famous artefacts: two male and female marble sarcophagi that have slumbered for 2500 years. Upstairs, the prolific art galleries contain Zurbarán’s exceptional series of monks, as well as several Baroque masterpieces. Into the 21st century Outside along the breezy northern seafront, strolling past lofty palm-trees or colossal centennial ficus-trees, you can easily find originality closer to our time. Architecturally speaking, the parador leaps out, a striking glass replacement of a dreary 1970s predecessor. Designed by Madrid architects Aranguren + Gallegos, it pays homage to the luminosity and sunset views of an exceptional site, and again opened for the symbolic date of 2012. Soon to appear beside it, a raised seafront esplanade will extend the lush, tropical gardens of the Parque Genovés where, during the sizzling mid-summer, flamenco concerts take over an open-air theatre. Contemporary art joins this push to the future at ECCO (Espacio de Creación Contemporánea; in its spacious, light-filled galleries converted from army barracks. In contrast, a black-walled penumbra houses the permanent exhibition. Ironically entitled El Valle de los Caidos in reference to Franco’s infamous monument, it is a vivid body of 1980s Pop-art by two artists with the collective name of Costus. Their collaboration ended tragically in 1989 when one died of AIDS, inciting his partner’s suicide. Art is also periodically exhibited at the Castillo de Santa Catalina, beyond the parador, but better still this 16th century fortress overlooks the gorgeous La Caleta beach. FIONA DUNLOP    

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