Travel: Spain - A long-suffering survivor of British hooliganism

Battered by the Atlantic and razed by English pirates, the port of Cadiz has a turbulent history - and a seductive charm. By Richard Warren
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IT IS easy to forget that English hooliganism is nothing new. Indeed, during their heyday in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, cutlass- wielding rogues, led by the arch rabble rouser, the Earl of Essex, ruthlessly razed the Spanish port city of Cadiz to the ground and, while they were about it, stole 3,000 barrels of the locally made sherry.

Cadiz has always been a popular port because the bulbous shape of the peninsula upon which the old town is built makes it supposedly defensible from attack. The peninsula is bounded by the sea on three sides, connected to the rest of Spain by a narrow neck of land, and it acts as a giant break against both waves and wind for ships sheltering in its harbour.

Deterrence has not always been overwhelmingly effective. Sir Francis Drake floated fire ships in to the harbour of Cadiz to destroy the Spanish galleons anchored there.

No wonder the Spanish sent out an armada to frustrate the English villainy. These days, however, the old sea walls simply stand as a barrier to the corrosive effects of the Atlantic Ocean rather than to the mayhem caused by visiting Brits.

Indeed, the British are now as welcome as anyone else to walk along the wall-top promenade and scan the sea views. That said, walking amidst the decaying 16th-century buildings and gardens that border the promenade, it is easy to imagine the ancient hooligans running amok here many centuries ago - and a poignant reminder that most of these buildings were erected to replace those destroyed by the English pirates.

Another reminder of the turbulent history of Cadiz is the small turrets built along the wall. Just big enough for one person to stand up in, they would once have been vital lookouts on to English ships for furious Spaniards.

More peaceful relics are the three picturesque Renaissance gardens nearby which, like so much of Cadiz, are gently being allowed to go to seed. At the Alameda Apodaca gardens, a green canopy of branches hung heavily over the ornate benches, giving them a secretive feel.

After the light and breeziness of the gardens, the darkness and noise of Cadiz's old town comes as a surprise. Cadiz claims to be the most venerable city in Europe, founded by the Phoenicians more than 3,000 years ago.

The current state of some of the buildings in the old town could easily leave you thinking that these were the original Phoenician homes. But in reality, apart from having to rebuild the old town after the Earl of Essex paid a visit, Cadiz's citizens have reconstructed their city many times since the Phoenicians lived here, and sadly none of the buildings from this first settlement remain.

Even so, Cadiz is essentially the same sort of city as it would have been then. Like so many other cities in North Africa and Southern Europe, it consists of a series of canyon-like, dark narrow streets and alleyways, bounded by window-shuttered four- and five-storey buildings, and filled with the lively sounds of human daily life. The streets are so crammed with buildings that the oppressive summer sunshine is stubbornly blocked out, leaving them both dark and cool.

Occasionally, a street leads out to the bright light of a square. The tree-lined Plaza de Espana is one such open space, with a mammoth stone Monument to the Constitution. Cadiz was the city from which seekers of gold and glory set sail for the New World in the 16th century. Riding high on two of the monument's plinths are equestrian statues of a couple of likely looking conquistadores. Many of the streets around the square are named after Spain's former colonies.

If you want to get an overall feel for the city though, head to the top of its tallest building, the Torre Tavira. Walking round the roof of the Torre, handily close to the centre of the old town, the city and the harbour draws your eye towards the mists of the Atlantic.

It is also a good spot to pick out some of the city's more distinguishing features, its turreted merchants' houses.

Traditionally, each of Cadiz's big New World traders would build a house with a tall watchtower, whence lookouts could gaze over the roofs of the other buildings towards the sea. As soon as a scout spotted one of his employer's ships arriving home, he would sound the alarm so that preparations could be made to collect its booty at the dockside.

At the end of the day, I sat at a cafe at the Plaza San Juan de Dios, opposite the town hall. Unwinding with a coffee, I heard the sound that so many Europeans have come to dread, the ominous noise of a gang of youths chanting football songs in English.

The group sat at a table not far from mine, knocking over a couple of chairs as they did so. With morbid fascination, I listened to what they were saying. They spoke the same language as me, but their accents were Irish. For once, it was somebody else's turn to disturb the calm of Cadiz.