The crowd roared. The artificial light blazed yellow off the sandstone of the cathedral illuminating thousands of faces. Every person was focused on a slight figure on the balcony overlooking the plaza, commanding the attention of everyone present.
Have I just described a scene from the Vatican? A Papal address perhaps? No, this was Cadiz Carnaval, one of the biggest parties in Europe. The figure on the balcony was a resident of Cadiz, braving the scenes below her apartment. She was an old lady, probably seventy years old and wearing the traditional black and white colours of grandmothers throughout Spain.
“Dance!” shouted the crowd. And she did, tapping and clapping to a rhythm from her past. They cheered like animals. We all did. She took a bow and went back inside. It was ten thirty in the evening and this party was just getting started.
A few days before I had been enjoying the morning offshore breeze at El Palmar, to the south of Cadiz. I knew it was time to leave the area. I’d spent six weeks here, during the peak season for surfing, but the forecast was not good. Spring was coming and the northerly swells would be blocked by Portugal. Meanwhile I had to plan some work for the summer and that meant heading back to the UK or to France.
I’d woken early and driven to the beach, pulling up on the side of the road when I saw some shoulder high waves form perfectly over a low tide sand bar. I’d caught a few waves but the surf was inconsistent, and the water chilly in the weak light. I noticed a wide set of waves from the north, looking like they would peak in front of the old watchtower. I paddled towards them, letting the first one go and paddling into position for the next. I felt like I had moved to far to one side of the peak so paddled hard to my right, catching the next wave. I dragged my hand as I stood and crouched into an open tube of water for a second or two, before being pushed out of it and onto the shoulder. This was the best barrel I’d had all trip, better still for being witnessed by a couple of other surfers who cheered as I made it out.
I thought about paddling back out for some more waves, but somehow it seemed right to finish on such a high. I walked up the beach, feeling the sun warm the back of my wetsuit. During my six week stay in the area I’d surfed long rocky pointbreaks, heavy beach breaks and fun reefs. The friendly local surfers were happy to share their waves; apparently it had been an excellent winter season for them. Meanwhile the van parking spots had been free, the Guardia Civil reasonably relaxed, and some early morning beach walkers had found several kilos of hash on the tide line; six more months travelling or six months behind bars depending on how you played it.
I arrived in Cadiz a day ahead of some friends I’d met surfing. I’d thought about an early night, then thought better of it and decided that I’d probably meet some people if I just walked into the centro historic from the campervan car park outside the city walls. Forty five minutes later (it was further than I thought!) and I was stopped by two guys asking directions. Giles and Jouen were from Portugal, and had driven down to Cadiz on a whim, but had no accommodation for the night having only booked a hotel for Saturday, not Friday. They were looking for the carnival, but didn’t know where to go.
We teamed up and walked the remaining mile into the old town of Cadiz. It was strangely empty. Perhaps the narrow, twisted streets were soaking up the noise of the carnival. We walked on, past plazas filed with ghostly stages and steel work, expecting to stumble upon huge crowds of people. Instead it seemed like Tunbridge Wells on a Tuesday evening, but with fewer tramps.
Eventually we found, of all places, an Irish theme bar called O’Connells, complete with a drunk Irish man from Wexford. I wondered if he was hired by the owners to provide authenticity to the place, but my cynicism was forgotten by the pints of beer. I even forced a pint of Murphy’s down my Portuguese friends, but they retaliated with tequila. We asked some girls at the bar about the carnival. They were from Madrid, but told me that the party had moved to Puerto Santa Maria for the evening and that the main event was tomorrow night. Apparently there were plenty of people hadn’t moved to the new venue, and we soon found a square filled with temporary bars, fast food stalls and music.
I woke up the next day at three in the afternoon and opened the curtains of the van. The first thing I saw was a pair of men dressed as leopards with bottles of Cruzcampo in their hands. I decided that the right way to deal with the situation was to go back to bed.
Later on I was sat on the promenade of Cadiz beach having my face painted. I was with some friends who were dressed as blue Navee from Avatar. Fancy dress is the order of the day for Cadiz Carnaval and it gets taken seriously. Groups of local men and women dress up in a theme and perform satirical or traditional songs as part of a competition that has been held for centuries. Groups of people, young and old, dressed as anything from devils, pirates, flamenco dancers, to two guys who came as showers, and one as a bedside cabinet with working lamp. Despite the range of ages, everyone gathers to watch the groups perform. I couldn’t think of an English gathering where such traditional entertainment is appreciated by all generations.
The musical highlight of the evening happened in the main cathedral square. After a performance by some local groups, four men took the stage, one dressed as Elvis, the others looked like they’d just finished work in the docks. They played a few songs before launching into an energetic version of “It Ain’t Unusual” by Tom Jones. The crowd loved it, a team of girls dressed as American football players danced like they’d scored in the Superbowl. Ten minutes later, having run out of other songs, the band played it again, and it had the same effect.
The maze of Cadiz old town was a riot of colour and noise. People crushed into small plazas and narrow cobbled streets. As a newcomer to the city I really didn’t know where I was going, and would reach the end of fairly quiet street to find another hidden square or park full of revellers. I think I spent most of the evening just looking around, trying to comprehend the visual and aural assault that was taking place.
The mood was very welcoming and friendly, and I started several conversations with people that I could not finish due to my lack of Spanish. They all ended with a handshake and a smile and with me shouting something like “Cadiz esta el major”. Several people approached my friend, who was dressed in old military parade jacket and a Latvian army officer’s hat. They all commented that he looked like an officer from the Guardia Civil and expressed their dislike of that particular law enforcement organisation with a variety of interesting gestures and phrases. I think he might have had a better night dressed as a can of worms...
I left the party fairly early, around three, assured that it would be going on till late the next morning, and then most nights for the rest of the week. Two days was plenty for me, as I was planning finally leaving Andalucia. If Cadiz would let me go.
The next day I left the car park at eleven, weaving in between some erratically parked cars, and groups of people who were still hard at play. I had a five hour drive to Algarve, and nearly every half an hour someone I’d met at the Carnival texted me or called me to see how I was or what we were going to do that night. I felt guilty for leaving, for being a quitter.
Cadiz is one of the oldest settlements in Europe; people have been living there for 3000 years. It seemed to me that the success of the city, and its longevity might not be purely based on its natural harbour and fortifications, but on the determination of its residents to enjoy every minute they have. Don’t be put off by the number of people that go mad for the week of the Carnaval. There may be ten thousand people in the streets, but if you’re there with them, then you have ten thousand new friends.