Western Europe's oldest city, Cadiz is the heart of Spain

A visit to the port city of Cadiz is vital to understanding the history and culture of Spain.

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Why Cádiz?

I have a theory that some countries have a kind of centre of gravity - a certain corner, perhaps not always the most visited, where many iconic themes of the national culture were either born or took root. If, for Italy, this is Sicily, then for Spain it is Cádiz. It is the most ancient surviving city in western Europe at more than 3,000 years old, was supposedly founded by Hercules, and is close to one of the supposed sites for Atlantis. Indeed, there is a theory that the name the invading Moorish forces gave the Iberian Peninsula - Al-Andalus - derives from a mispronunciation of this legendary civilisation.

Then there's the Moorish influence itself - the first decisive battle against the Visigoths, after which the Islamic armies quickly took over the country, happened just a short distance away, near Medina Sidonia. In addition, Cádiz and the surrounding area is one of the birthplaces of flamenco music, of modern bullfighting, of Spanish democracy and the main launch pad for the Spanish conquests of the New World. In fact, take away this small port city, jutting out into the Atlantic on what is virtually an island, and much of what we think of as "Spanish" would disappear. So, to know Spain, a trip here is essential.

A comfortable bed

Cádiz is known for many things but, in the past, the general standard of its hotels wasn't high on the list. Thankfully, that is now changing: a luxurious, brand-new parador (state-run hotel), with excellent views out over the Atlantic, offering spectacular sunsets, is due to open in spring next year in time for the new season (www.parador.es/es/parador-de-cadiz; 00 34 902 547979).

If you're looking for something more traditional, set right in the heart of the labyrinthine city streets, then the best option is the Hospedería Las Cortes de Cádiz on Calle San Francisco (www.hotellascortes.com; 00 34 956 220 489). The rather grand building dates from the 19th century and has been decorated to commemorate the Cortes de Cádiz, the Spanish democratic movement of 1812. There is also a small gym, roof terrace and jacuzzi. Prices for double rooms start from €85 (Dh450) including taxes.

Outside the city, an excellent option is the picturesque whitewashed town of Vejer de la Frontera, where the Hotel La Casa del Califa has been done up in Moorish style (www.lacasadelcalifa.com; 00 34 956 447 730). A double rooms costs from €82 (Dh430), including taxes.

Find your feet

Cádiz is a place to wander and get lost in, which is quite easy because the streets are so narrow and winding. That said, it's almost completely surrounded by water, so if ever you do get stuck, simply keep going straight (or as straight as you can) until you reach the sea and take your bearings from there.

The cathedral is a good place to start and is supposedly where Hercules himself is buried. The square in front (Plaza de la Catedral) is one of the city's major gathering points. If you come at Easter, colourful processions of worshippers with tall, conical hats pass through carrying devotional icons.

From here you can go in any direction you choose in search of some of the quiet, pretty squares that seem to appear from nowhere as you meander down the alleyways. Try to look for the Plaza Candelaria, with its cool gardens; the Plaza de San Antonio, home of the Baroque church of the same name and the city casino; and the Plaza Falla, site of the theatre named after one of Cádiz's most celebrated sons, the composer Manuel de Falla.

Meet the locals

They spent a long time doing it up, but now the central market place, with its classical columns and built on the site of a former convent, is up and running again and is a great place to soak up the local atmosphere. Gaditanos, as the people of Cádiz are called, have a distinctive sing-song accent, which is at once innocent, jokey and street-smart. Listen out for the much-used word picha or pisha - essentially mate, or pal - which tends to prefix most utterances.

Shopper's paradise

Near the market, the Calle Columela is one of the main shopping streets, with many of the high-street clothing chains and plenty of cafes to stop off at for a rest in-between purchases. Likewise the Calle Ancha, traditionally viewed as Cádiz's high street, is packed with all kinds of shops, from touristy places selling "I love Cádiz" T-shirts, to furniture, books and almost anything you can think of. Look out for the Salón Italianos ice-cream parlour for a good place for a break mid-shopping.

Meanwhile, if you're feeling romantic, or simply want some colour in your life, the Plaza de las Flores is filled with boutique stalls selling all manner of seasonal blooms. Even if you're not going to buy, it's worth visiting just to breath in the wonderful aromas.

What to avoid

Stay in the old part of the city and you can't go far wrong. Some of the streets are less picturesque than others, and a large part of the city's charm comes from a sense of genteel decay. But whatever you do don't visit the suburbs. Few Spanish cities have outskirts of note, but Cádiz's are among the worst.

Don't miss

Cádiz is home to Spain's most spectacular Carnival fiesta. During the dictatorship, Franco successfully banned these raucous, colourful midwinter celebrations in all Spanish cities… except Cádiz. A 10-day riot of fancy dress, eating and dancing is not to be missed, although you may need a week to recover afterwards.