TP32 Header sunsetI know there are those who believe that an early flight is the way to go so that you can ‘make the most’ of your weekend away. For Mrs. Panda and I, it is a gruelling trial by ordeal which we will undertake only when no other options are available.

That said, our Ryan Air flight touched down in Jerez just ahead of time and with minimal fuss. The flight had not suffered the ‘United’ curse of being overbooked and no one was dragged bruised and bleeding from the aircraft by security before we departed. I had indulged in a passable cup of Lavazza coffee and a cheese and ham croissant delivered by a cheery flight crew (probably at the start of their shift). Despite the early hour, I’d even managed to keep my eyes open for a whole episode of Bates Motel on the old iPad. Possibly the most trying part was the seating of the Essex equivalent of ‘Family Guy’ behind us and his relentlessly crying and complaining offspring, but even that could not temper the excitement of our forthcoming excursion!

Jerez is the land of sherry and one of my favorite tipples – Carlos I Brandy, but no time to hang around, Cadiz awaits. We had already established a small wrinkle in that Mrs. Panda had intended to be chief hire car driver but forgotten her driving license –  so I would be drafted in. By the lengthy queue at the car hire booth we should have got an indication that the ‘jobs worth’ factor was pretty high. If you have ever wondered why anyone would go to the famous, more expensive car hire firms when the local ones which are so cheap – well THIS is why! Turns out that despite the fact she is standing right next to me (with a passport to prove it) it was impossible for them to handle that my wife had made the booking but that I would be the main driver and apparently, we would need to completely rebook on line. While she told them politely but firmly to ‘get stuffed’, I wandered off to see what a taxi would charge, quite relieved that even the most sporadic and occasional driving wouldn’t in any way interfere with my wine, sherry and brandy consumption over the weekend.

TP32 Playa VA pleasant taxi driver ferried us the 30-minute drive to Cadiz, imparting nuggets of wisdom as they do and in a jiffy, we were pulling up outside the Hotel Playa Victoria Palafox. A couple of kilometers from the Old Town of Cadiz, yes, but placed squarely in front of one of the best stretches of sandy beach I have seen within the confines of a European city. Even though it was a mixed sky of cloud and the occasional sun beam, one could imagine that  expansive golden sand on a day of blistering sunshine. Being only April, we could only hope we would be lucky enough to see one.

13 kilometers. That’s what we walked on that Friday and it set the pace for the whole weekend. After a trouble-free early check-in to the hotel, we set off in search of…. well Vino y Jamon (wine and ham), which if you believe my friends and family is the main reason I go to Spain (and they are not entirely wrong). We satisfied our immediate hunger with authentic tortilla patata, jamon, olives and sliced manchego over a glass of house red in an understated locals’ café, before seeing whether we would reach the old town on foot.

Fortifying ourselves along the way with the odd café con leche, vinto tinto and as the temperature heated up, cerveza, we began our exploration of the old port town of Cadiz which was to last for the next 3 days.

Immediate observations were that it was a city with pride. Clean and well kept. Even the windswept sand is painstakingly returned to the beach and levelled every day my municipal workers. The old town is charming with a mix of quaint shops, cafes, bars and restaurants filling its narrow cobbled streets, which open up into impressive squares and patches of small organized open space with gardens and children’s playgrounds.

Being situated on an jutting strip of land, walking in any direction other than back to our hotel would eventually lead to the coast and a breathtaking view of the Atlantic.  Cadiz doesn’t strike you as a tourist place and nothing like the ‘Costa’ culture of the Mediterranean coastline. There are a spattering of tourists from Britain and Germany, but most of the time you are sharing the city with local people either going about their business or taking time out in their hometown. The result is that the place doesn’t seem like it’s ‘trying too hard’ as many tourist traps do. The pricing and quality of food and services pitches itself toward locals who are likely to be far more discerning than tourists!

TP32 TeatroI haven’t got on to the gastronomy yet, but before that there is a visual feast to enjoy. From the grandeur of the twin towered cathedral that is certainly worth a visit, to the Moorish architecture of the ‘Gran Teatro Falla’ theatre and the old cannoned port walls to the remnants of a Roman amphitheater, your cultural appetite is sated. Heading to the sea-facing tip of Cadiz, the old town has its own cove beach, sheltered and calm with an imposing pavilion where you could imagine the ‘well-to-do’ would have frequented in days gone by. Just down the road and facing out to the ocean is the Hotel Parador. A modern five-star hotel set next to the Botanical Gardens, which looks much more impressive in real life than in the rather dour and clinical website photos. There was a slight moment of ‘look what you could have won’, but to be honest, I’m not sure the extra star could make up for the view and access to Playa Victoria that our own hotel had to offer.

I have made no secret that our Cadiz trip was predominantly food inspired and we owe considerable thanks to celebrity Padstow chef Rick Stein for showcasing it on his ‘Long Weekends’ TV series. Based on Cadiz, when it comes to my stomach and taste buds, wherever Rick’s going – I’m going!

Of course, as a port town, seafood is top of the menu. I could not have been more delighted when my humble glass of beer at the nearby beach bar was accompanied by a generous plate of Boquerones (plump, battered and fried anchovies) on the house. In England, I’d have been lucky to get a well fingered half bowl of peanuts if anything at all! Ice cold beer, a crisp and fresh anchovy and my toes in the warm sand. I’m not sure how I was ever dragged away!

We enjoyed our share of cafes and restaurants, but when it came to shining a spotlight on the gastronomy of Cadiz, the Central Market is not to be missed. I have never been to a market that so deftly represents the commercial centre and social hub of a small city. Even if markets are not your ‘thing’ I would highly recommend a peek at this one. The covered centre is a traditional commercial food market with venders selling fish, meat, cheeses, fruit and vegetables. The variety left nothing to the imagination with huge tuna and swordfish laid out across the ice and glistening jumbo shellfish ripe for the picking. However, for the casual market explorer greater delights lie just outside the covered area as it is literally ringed by a corridor of food stalls – all naturally relying on the market for their fresh ingredients. We visited on a Saturday afternoon and there was this great feeling of community. It was as if the population of Cadiz has popped out to catch up with friends and family in the shadow of the market.

TP32 marketDotted through the corridor of vendors peddling their gastronomic delights, were tables, stools and benches. where if you were quick, you could grab a seat to enjoy your latest mouthwatering bite with a glass of crisp sherry or luscious red wine. On that subject, it’s a joy to be a country that realizes that there is a huge difference between being served your wine and sherry in plastic cups and goblets (as so often happens at outdoor events and markets) and enjoying it in a proper glass. Here the market bars simply charge you a Euro deposit for your glass and give it back when you return it. Alfresco dining with class!

Gadisushi, mentioned in many online reviews, is one of the most popular market vendors. Cadiz is renowned for its fresh Tuna, particularly in May. We were a little early, but it was still plentiful and delicious. The Japanese influenced Tuna carpaccio was sublime. I could have eaten it all day if there wasn’t just so much else to choose from (and if the empanada stall wasn’t calling to me from across the way!)

For our final eating experience before leaving we chose Casa Manteca. Again, its referred to in many an online review with good reason and was a stop along the way for Mr. Stein in his TV show. It’s very much an old traditional Tapas Bar on the corner of two narrow old town streets, a block or two back from the sea. Founded by a retired bullfighter, the wood panelled walls are coated with photos, posters and memorabilia of a life in the arena. On a Sunday, like many watering holes in Cadiz, the doors will not even creak open after lunchtime until 8.30pm in the evening. The barmen/waiters are an engaging breed who will serve you an impressive house red while you ponder the small but perfectly formed tapas menu and give you excellent recommendations of its highlights. Enjoy some fresh boiled peeling prawns in a paper cone bursting with the flavour of the sea – no seasoning required, while you consider theTP32 Boquerones various Pork dishes. Pork or ‘chicharon’ is big in Casa Manteca. Delivered in amazingly marinated wafer thin slices on greaseproof paper (as are all tapas dishes) the serving is over far too soon. However, I think my favorite must be the small raw Tuna and cheese skewers (yes, it’s that Tuna again!). Those and the complimentary marinated anchovies (more Boquerones!), this time not fried, but in oil and vinegar which is offset by the sweetest of tomatoes, diced and juicy. They were so good that when Mrs. Panda ordered dessert, I jokingly ordered more Boquerones and they dutifully arrived along with the most deliciously sweet fortified prune wine (again on the house). Thank you Casa Manteca, for a last supper worthy of your town!

Our prayers were answered on the last day of our long weekend with a cloudless sky and temperatures hitting 25 degrees. The beach which had so far looked impressive but a little windswept and deserted erupted into life! Tourists grossly outnumbered by local families and friends by enjoying the start of the what is likely to be a long warm summer. Beachside restaurants which had looked to hold promise but thus far seemed a little forlorn and empty, had customers spilling into the streets, enjoying their fried dogfish, shrimp fritters and ice cream to finish.

TP32 RumAfter a doze in the sun plus a brave and (extremely!) quick dip in the still rather icy Atlantic, we found ourselves again equipped with massive Cacique rum and cokes watching the sea lap on the sandy shore at Potito Beach Bar. Anyone who has visited Spain will know how generous the measures are when you order a drink and the waiter will generally keep pouring until you tell him or her to stop! In front of us a group of friends, clearly locals, had gathered for a drink and a chat, knocking back spirits and mixers encouraging more friends to join them and arguing over where the cheapest parking nearest the beach was. As the most vocal and jovial of the group had his glass topped up with whisky, the waitress paused just a little too soon and he encouraged her to keep going “Give me more happiness, more happiness!” he begged.

With the sun on my face, the sound of the ocean in my ears and the old town of Cadiz on the skyline, I was confident that my happiness had been topped up quite sufficiently already!

Still, another rum and coke couldn’t hurt, could it?