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CADIZ, Spain (Reuters) - Not as famous perhaps as other cities in the south of Spain such as Seville, Granada and Cordoba, and not as frequented by foreign tourists, the coastal fortress city of Cadiz is one of the country's most attractive destinations boasting a history of almost legendary proportions.
Founded more than 3,000 years ago, it is the oldest city in Europe and was home at different periods to an astonishing variety of civilizations from the times of the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Visigoths, Romans, and Moors, up to the modern day.
A relatively small city of 125,000 it is almost entirely surrounded by water and shaped like a hand at the end of an arm-like spit of land at the entrance to one of Europe's most famous bays, a major staging post for the Spanish crown during its colonial heyday in the 16th century.
It was from Cadiz that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, and his voyages of discovery made the city one of the richest in Spain, as major trading families built palatial homes, many of which still stand today.
From Madrid, Cadiz is a roughly 4 hour 15 minutes train journey via Seville, with the first leg of the journey aboard Spain's high speed ‘Ave' train.
From Cadiz station it's an easy walk to almost anywhere in the city, so long as it's not too hot a day. In July and August the temperature can easily head up towards 40 degrees Celsius. But even then the city's narrow streets lined by four-story high buildings with windowed balconies, provide plenty of shade. Its colonial streets appear unchanged from centuries past and are so narrow there's little room for cars, and most people get around on foot. That's why the makers of the James Bond film ‘Die Another Day' used Cadiz as a surrogate to shoot sequences set in the old city of Havana, Cuba.
11:30 a.m. - Start the visit a short walk from the train station in the Plaza de San Juan de Dios. If you need an infusion of energy have a quick coffee in one of several outdoor cafes from where you can admire the impressive town hall, or 'ayuntamiento'. Its famous bell-tower chimes on the hour to the tune of Manuel de Falla, the famous Cadiz-born classical composer.
12:30 p.m. - Walk down the narrow San Francisco street to the Plaza de Espana, which is dominated by a monument to Spain's first constitution of 1812, affectionately known as ‘La Pepa.' The city is celebrating the 200th anniversary of ‘La Pepa,' which was modeled in part on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and included the abolition of the notorious Spanish Inquisition and the establishment of freedom of the press for the first time.
At that time all of Spain, except for Cadiz, was occupied by Napoleon's army and the Spanish parliament took refuge in the city. The constitution did not last long but it made Cadiz a center of liberal thought, honored today as the birthplace of Spanish democracy.
If you follow a blue line painted on the city sidewalks throughout the old city it will take you to all the historical sights, including the history museum and the baroque-domed San Felipe Neri church where the parliament of Cadiz met to debate the constitution in its unusual oval interior with a large painting above the altar of the Virgin Mary by the 17th century Seville painter, Bartolome Murillo.
From there walk to the impressive sea wall fortifications which helped protect the city from Napoleon's conquest of Europe. The superior French forces were never able to conquer the city despite a two year siege and heavy bombardment from land and sea.
1:30 p.m. - Lunch options include outdoor tapas bars or more formal restaurants such as Balandro near the Alameda park where you can sample local delicacies such as a refreshing white garlic and almond gazpacho soup, scrambled eggs with sea anemone and prawns. Wash it all down with a refreshing local white wine, Tierra Blanca from the nearby Arcos de la Frontera region.
3:30 p.m. - As you take in the sights you might want to visit the Plaza de San Antonio, the grandest in the city where wealthy trading families built their palatial homes. On one side-street is where the Duke of Wellington lived while leading British troops against Napoleon (#3 Calle Veedor)
Pop into the Tavira Tower the biggest watchtower in the city which houses a Camera Obscura, a large lens at the top which projects a 360 degree moving image of the whole of Cadiz onto a large dish shaped screen. The top of the tower also affords a spectacular view of the bay of Cadiz, including the city's yellow-domed cathedral.
For some relaxation it's only a short walk to the beach of La Caleta at the northern tip of the city with a view of the impressive castle of San Sebastian, the city's main fortress.
8 p.m. - Cadiz's restaurants offer a wide range of casual outdoor cafés to fine dining where you can sample regional dishes. El Faro on Calle San Felix is one of the best known fresh seafood restaurants.
1 a.m. - While in Cadiz you might want to explore the bay which can easily be done using the half hour ferry service from Cadiz to the town of Rota, which is also home to a major U.S. Navy base.
From Rota it's a short taxi ride Sanlucar de Barrameda at the entrance to the shores of the Guadalquivir river.
Sanlucar is a major wine producing town with half a dozen important ‘bodegas' (wineries). One of the oldest and most highly regarded is Hidalgo-La Gitana. Tours can be arranged, or visit the store to purchase from its selection of different sherries, from the lighter manzanilla or amontillado, to the darker, aged Pedro Ximenez.
1 p.m. - Outdoor lunch options include Café Balbina in the Plaza de Cabildo, where you can try such local favorites as the crispy shrimp tortilla, cuttlefish eggs, or filleted salt-cured tuna loin. Alternatively head over to the elegant Casa Bigote by the river's edge and try the tiger shrimp, carpaccio of white prawns, or clams in garlic sauce.
This region of Andalusia produces some fine white wines such as Barbarillo Castillo de San Diego. End the meal with a vanilla ice cream and raisins topped with Pedro Ximenez.
3 p.m. - Provided you didn't over-indulge at lunch, take the Real Fernando ferry up the river Guadalquivir delta to visit the Donana national park, one of Europe's most important wetlands and home to all manner of migrating birds as well as wild boar and the shy lynx.
6 p.m. - In the summer months the sun doesn't set until almost 10 p.m. so strip off and take a dip in the ocean on the sandy beach at Sanlucar which stretches for a couple of miles. Take in the glorious sunset from one of the tented beach bars, known as ‘chiringuitos,' such as El Inesperado where locals gather for refreshments.
Editing by Paul Casciato