This moment is an apt one to begin writing about San Fernando, Cádiz. I apologize for the temporal jump, but with Camerón music playing in the background, his wailing, nostalgic voice has made me miss San Fernando in an inspirational manner.
Camerón is a gypsy flamenco singer from San Fernando, the town I stayed in for 6 days, located just 15 minutes from the city of Cádiz. Camerón is so famous that his first name has become obsolete, because just with the last one everyone knows who you are talking about. On the Friday I was in San Fernando, one of Paula’s, my host sister, friends dragged us all to the town cemetery to show us the tomb of Camerón. He sits, long and straggly hair reaching past his shoulders, on a simple chair, dressed in worn formal flamenco dress, the whole statue made of bronze. He shares San Fernando’s musical fame with Miguel de La Falla, a classical composer buried in the cathedral of Cádiz city.
The reason I found myself in San Fernando, population 90,000, located in the autonomous community of Cádiz, perched on the southern Atlantic coast just a few miles from where the ocean waters mix with the Mediterranean Sea, was a school-wide exchange program. Each student found themselves in a different Spanish city, with a new temporary Spanish family. Six of us went to Cádiz, with one other girl staying in my city. However, since our host sisters weren’t particularly close friends, I enjoyed a week being the only American and speaking exclusively Spanish.
I arrived, after a long train ride with a change in Madrid – Cádiz is as far away as you could possibly get leaving Zaragoza in a southwestwardly direction – on Tuesday afternoon, in time for a spin around San Fernando. Waiting for me at the top of the escalator were my host sister, Paula; her older brother; his girlfriend, who was practically part of the family; and my host father, who worked for the military. Once “home” in their 7-floor apartment I met my host mother, anxious about what to prepare me for dinner that wouldn’t include meat. However, she had little cause for worry: my first comment upon entering was how delicious whatever was in the oven smelled.
We still had a few hours before dinner, however, so Paula took me into the city to see a play one of her friends was in. After the performance, they toured me around their city: to the big park, the main shopping center, the duck-less Duck Park, the main street, and ending in the long and narrow park, where we sat on a bench for a while. Her friends took me in as though I had known them for years, and I felt completely comfortable in a way I haven’t felt with youth in Zaragoza. It was a general difference we who went to the South noticed: an openness and welcoming attitude, an immediate confidence harder won in the North.
However, after the sun had set and a slightly cold wind had come on, we went home for dinner. The father was from Santender, a city on the very northern Cantabrian coast of Spain, and two of his friends were visiting and joined us at the table.
That meal was one of the most enjoyable I’ve yet had in Spain. We laughed our way through the red pepper soup and vegetable pizza, and even through the strawberry dessert. I felt immediately at home, and knew that leaving after so few days was going to be extremely difficult.
The next day, the majority of Paula’s classmates had a field trip that she wasn’t a part of, so she got permission to miss school and take me to Cádiz and Vejer de la Frontera. Her brother and his girlfriend accompanied us to the capital city. Founded in 1011 B.C., Cádiz is Europe’s oldest city. And it feels ancient: all the buildings, most of the older ones built with a porous rock taken from the sea, look as though they have been worn by centuries of wind while watching the port attentively. However, they retain a noble and regal feel, like widows who continue to scan the sea with a never-dying hope that a long-lost sailor will return home. Cádiz’s new publicity campaign is “1812: When Spain was an Island”, referring to when the French officially took over all of Spain except Cádiz. Technically, Cádiz is connected to the mainland by a long, thin strip of beach, now shared with a road and train tracks, but the truth is that the isthmus feels like a tiny thread. San Fernando was the site of the signing of the first Spanish constitution that year.
We passed through the tall, narrow streets of the oldest walled part of Cádiz – the city’s walls were oft-expanded through the years. My favorite plaza was the Plaza de las Flores, where flower vendors sell their colorful, lively wares. We entered the austere cathedral, which seems to defy gravity with its huge rock ceiling being among the highest I’ve seen, and descending to the crypt where La Falla, along with various rich, famous, or religious figures (or any combination of the three), is buried.
Cádiz was filled with unassuming but beautiful plazas and streets, which I visited a couple times more during the week. However, this day we had to return home for lunch before a drive to Vejer de la Frontera…while I’ll write about tomorrow.