The Tri-millennial City

Creative non-fiction is a genre that I don’t often enjoy to write in, but I know that it has helped my writing seem more real in my novel. Below is a submission of an assignment I had to do for my “Imagining the Real” class back in 2014, which was all about creative non-fiction.

The Tri-millennial City

To get out of Cadiz station you must first let yourself be carried slowly along by the crowd through a dark brick passage. There is an iron gate at the end that allows people to pass one at a time, hauling and heaving their trunks after them.

 (Howson, 1965)

 

We left the air-conditioned train station and finally set foot in the oldest city in western Europe, the dry Spanish sun glaring down upon us. The air permeated with the acrid smoke of tobacco as passengers sparked cigarettes, having deprived themselves of their self-medication for the five-hour journey from Puerto de Atocha, Madrid. As we crossed the Plaza Sevilla, my sister smiled.

“It feels like I’m home.”

Chantal had spent the last three months tirelessly travelling the countries of Europe, from the high-end streets of London City, to the green canals of Venice, and further, to the white sandy beaches of Mykonos. From what she had told me so far, her endeavours were a rough hazy blur, and she was looking forward to regaining the roots she had attained in her first semester, here, in the port town of Cadiz, Andalucía.

Cadiz is approximately five-hundred kilometres south of Madrid and is situated at the southern tip of Spain. The city sits on an extended thin peninsula that is almost an island, joined to mainland Spain by a thin causeway, allowing access for cars and trains. The city is split into two towns. The old town, or Casco Antiguo, is the heart and soul of the city. The new town has nothing of historical intrigue except for its beach, Playa de la Victoria. It is a typical modern conglomeration of block upon block of flats, a three-kilometre strip of high-rise buildings. The old town sits at the end of this strip, roughly circular in shape and measuring about one kilometre across. It was within these ancient buildings I would be living for the next two weeks.

I had unjustified high expectations for this city. For the past six months, I had heard countless tales from my sister, stories of drunken nights in Flamenco bars, of sleepy siesta’s spent bathing in the sun and, of course, delicious food. When I had planned the overseas trip, it had felt an age away. Now that I was here, I could barely withstand my excitement.

The train station is positioned on the northern edge of the old town and as we crossed the square, and ventured our way towards the ancient rows of tall townhouses, the air cleared and I smelt the salty scent of the North Atlantic Ocean.

As we walked up Calle Plocia, our luggage pulled behind, my eyes took in the scene around us. The buildings that soared above were a mixture of white, sandy and pink hues. The alley street was clean yet slightly decrepit, the stone houses crumbling just a little, their paint peeling in the heat. Most of the doors were made from huge slabs of wood, each door embellished with its own unique brass handle.

We briefly stopped at the intersection on Calle Flamenco, allowing a sleek four-wheel drive to slowly slip past. It seemed almost unnatural to see cars manoeuvre their way through the cobbled streets, travelling no more than thirty kilometres an hour as to avoid hitting the ambling people cutting across each alley.

As we crossed into Calle San Francisco we entered the commercial streets of the old town. A bright clinical Mac store shone from the windows of a rough stone brick shop corner. A little further on, a Zara department store, with its latest lines of fashion, was situated in a faded terraced shop front. This fusion of the contemporary and the ancient is a unique paradox that is seen throughout Cadiz.

 

We passed into a square and were dazzled by the light reflected from an immense yellow wall, windowless and all of sixty feet high. Buttressing a bell-tower. It was the monastery of San Francisco. Opposite was a café, two corpulent customers, in broad-rimmed hats, sat at a table and watched us in silence.

(Howson, 1965)

 

The apartment we were residing in whilst I was here was situated on the Plaza San Francisco. The owner, Ricardo, had organised to meet us in the small square at six-thirty. It was only ten-past, but we found him, sitting against the decorative garden, sucking on a cigarette, a scooter helmet positioned next to him.

Ricardo? Hola.”

My sister and Ricardo greeted each other in Spanish as I acted a mute, unable to speak or understand the language of the city. I realised I would have to get used to this sensation during my stay here. Ten minutes later, Ricardo and I were shaking hands in silent awkwardness, as he handed the keys to my sister and left the fourth-floor apartment he had just shown us.

My room overlooked the square. Exactly opposite was the Hotel Francia y Paris, the clock tower situated on top, and the monastery slightly to its right. Time is a crucial commodity to the culture of Cadiz. Trade opens at nine in the morning and remains open till two in the afternoon. Then from two until five-thirty, most shops are closed, in respect of the tradition of siesta. In this period of the day the locals retire to their homes and rest. For those that have no desire to fall asleep in front of their television sets, make do by sunbaking under the hot Andalucía sun. After siesta, shops re-open at nine at night, restaurants and cafes staying open until midnight, Sunday through to Thursday. On Friday and Saturdays however, they remain open past four o clock in the morning, with booming business until they eventually shut their doors.

The square, at that moment, was a hive of activity. The clink from glass cups and the scraping of wooden chairs drifted up from the café’s below. Children played in the decorative garden, chanting Spanish rhymes, and imitating the sirens of a passing police car. Animated street performers shouted, trying to gain the interest of passers-by, whilst artists, silently scattered on the square’s fringes, attempted to illustrate the bustling scene. We settled within the apartment for a couple of hours. When we left at eight-thirty for dinner, the sun was only just sinking below the flat, sun-bleached rooftops of the old city skyline.

My sister led me down Calle Rosario, walking past numerous restaurants and cafes. They all seemed appetising to me.

“These places are all touristy. I made the mistake of coming to them in my first few weeks…I didn’t realise how expensive they were compared to the local spots.”

After about five minutes of strolling down the cobbled street, we reached Plaza de San Juan de Dios. The square was one of the few wide-open spaces within the old town, and slightly more modern. The pavers were smooth and clean, palm trees (that were not native to this area of Spain) swayed in the mild night air. Jets of water sprung up from metal grates, lights underneath slowly making them change from red to purple to blue. It lacked some of the quaint and ancient feel of other squares within the town, but right at the end, sat the elegant Ayuntamiento, the town hall, it’s 19th century neo-classical style accentuated by the metal street lamps illuminating it.

After a few quick snaps, we ventured into one of the small alleys leading off the broad, busy square, soon realising it was in fact the first alley from my arrival, Calle Plocia. Halfway down the street my sister stopped at what she said was one of her favourite tapas restaurant.

It was a small place, a local spot for the finest and cheapest Spanish food. I looked at the menu, feigning concentration, my eyes skimming the Spanish writing.

“Should I order? I think I’ll know what you’ll like,” Chantal smirked, as I put down the menu.

I sat silently, once again a mute, as she ordered our food in what I thought was flawless Spanish, the waitress pouring the house wine before she walked away.

“Blah, my Spanish has gotten horrible over the break.”

It seemed only a few moments before our tapas arrive. Glimmering pale red in a glass mug was what is called Gazpacho, a specialty of southern Spain, a chilled tomato soup. It was one of my sister’s favourite. As I took my first sip I could see why. Blended with basil, vinegar, salt and oil, the cooling drink was refreshing in the humid air. It tasted more like liquid Bruschetta than any tomato soup I had ever had.

The second dish I tried was another of my sister’s favourites, dates wrapped in crispy bacon. I had always been sceptical of mixing sweet and savoury, especially fruit with meat (I had never sympathised with the heresy which was pineapple on pizza). However, as I bit into the snug date, I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong. The salty tang of the meat mixed with the sugars of the date, blended in to one another so perfectly, it was hard to distinguish whether, indeed, it was sweet or savoury.

As more and more simple but succulent dishes arrived at our table, I soon came to realise my sister’s songs of praise of Spanish food were indeed founded. It was only my first few hours in the city and already I was indisputably satisfied, but overwhelmingly yearning for more. It was a sensation I wasn’t accustomed to.

 

***

 

Flanked by bell towers, the shallow dome of the New Cathedral blazed with golden light in the evening sun. Far below, at the base of the wall to protect it from the fury of winter storms, were immense cubes of concrete, thousands of tons of them thrown down higgledy-piggledy. Tiny figures crawled about on them, sat holding fishing rods, their legs dangling, or squatted round picnic baskets, tablecloths and bottles of wine.

(Howson, 1965)

 

My sister and I had decided to spend one morning walking the perimeter of the old town. We strolled down the tiled promenade, the Atlantic to our right and the Parque Genoves, one of the local parks, to our left. Exotic dragon firs and strangler figs rustled in the brisk morning wind, and spouts of water lapped softly from wide fountains. Every so often we would past a azulejo bench, tempting us with its blue and white mosaic design.

As the promenade slowly curved to the left, we left the small park and reached the town’s most southern beach, Playa de la Caleta. Nestled in between the two fortresses, Castillo de Santa Catalina and Castillo de San Sebastian, it is Cadiz’s smallest beach, but one of its’ most popular. A wooden platform is constructed against the concrete wall, allowing even the disabled locals of the town to enjoy the cooling sea breeze under giant sun umbrellas. My sister and her friends had nicknamed it “The Halle Berry” beach, due to its feature in the 2002 James Bond film “Die Another Day”.

We continued our walk, now turning north, back towards the city centre. To our right, against the sea wall sat gigantic blocks of concrete, the choppy seawater sloshing roughly in-between them. Standing bravely upon them were the occasional fishermen, pulling on arching fishing rods. Grey seagulls, which were gigantic here, swooped overhead, attempting every so often to snag some of the men’s bait.

I noticed, however, that the birds weren’t the only creatures that the fishermen had to be wary of. Stalking upon the cubes of concrete, their prying yellow eyes glaring at the piles of rancid bait, were feral cats. Occasionally one would bother to glance up at the people walking on the promenade, but with little interest.

Los Gatos of Cadiz,” my sister said. She pointed down at the unnatural concrete blocks.

“People live down there as well. There are caves that they can sleep in. Only when the sea isn’t too rough though.”

I couldn’t fathom what it would be like, sleeping in the small crevices of concrete, the dark Atlantic surging aggressively beneath, shivering in the icy sea spray, the hisses of gatos permeating in your ear.

As my gaze slowly returned to the cityscape, I noticed the Catedral de Santa Cruz, its golden dome shining bright above the sandy panorama of three-thousand-year-old buildings. I recall that the immense cathedral was the resting place of praised flamenco composer Manual de Falla.  I had yet to experience the intensity of a flamenco bar, but I was anxious to experience the Spanish folk melodies. Could they really be as beautiful as my sister had promised?

 

***

 

The tent began to fill up with English, French and German tourists and their wives and mistresses and girlfriends. Through the crowds wandered some gypsy girls, stupefyingly beautiful, long flowing black hair and skins of deep olive-brown. They walked slowly and haughtily, their bare arms folded and their great eyes flashed contemptuous glances upon the revellers about them.

(Howson, 1965)

 

We saw the flamencos on a hot humid night with Chantal’s friends, Alex and Jose. Like my sister, Alex was a student from Sydney, whereas Jose lived in Santa Luca, a town north-east from Cadiz.

We entered the dimly lit, almost cave-like flamenco bar, filtering through the already packed room, to find a spot at the back. It wasn’t until we had ordered drinks, and I was sipping on a crisp cider, that I noticed the woman. The dark yellow spotlight shone on her, as she sat on a tall stool. She wore a vibrant dark dress, and her hair was brown and frizzy, flowing past her shoulders. Just beyond the spotlight I noticed the silhouettes of men, both holding guitars but as I looked around, I saw that everyone’s eyes were on the woman, waiting.

Finally, the two men started to clap on their guitars, urging the crowd to follow suit. This type of clapping is named palmeo, and has a certain rhythm to suit the style of the flamenco ballad. The locals clapped along eagerly; creating autonomous harmony, whilst the tourists, including our small group at the back, only watched on, not yet brave enough to master the skill.

“TAca-taca-taca-TAca-taca-taca TAcatacaTAcatacaTAcataca.”

The rhythm flowed and changed and it reminded me of a train speeding over junctions, rapidly picking up in speed until it would come back down to a steady pace. Then the woman started to sing.

Her voice was so deep it seemed to permeate through the room with such intensity, even with the absence of a microphone. Like the clapping, her ballad would rise and lower in force, one minute calm and haunting, the next, piercing and fierce. Whilst singing she would point to people in the room and it seemed like she was chanting to them alone, the people swarming the room just a backdrop. I could feel myself longing for her to point at me, her voice drawing to me.

But alas, after what seemed like forever and no time at all, her voice rose into one final piercing note and abruptly ended, echoing in the shallow bar. A round of applause broke out and the crowd shouted in Spanish, which I could only presume was a chorus of encore, but the woman only bowed, and with one last knowing look at the beaming faces, sauntered into the back room, out of sight.

I turned to my sister, my face pulled up into a mixture of awe and longing. “Is that it? Isn’t she going to sing more?”

My sister smiled. “Too much of a good thing, you know? Besides, you’re here for another week, you can come back here every night, if you want.”

I could feel my mouth curl up into a smile at the prospect. It might have been the heat of the humid air, but I had felt something unimaginable when the woman had sung. It wasn’t just the woman’s talent however, it was something melancholier. It was the raw passion of the woman’s voice, the unwavering appreciation of the crowd. They were an organic reminder of the vibrancy within this small city.

Cadiz: the three-thousand-year-old civilisation that still lived on, rich in culture as it always had been. It was at that moment, I realised I was proud to be part of the tri-millennial city.

 

The first view of Cadiz is something that should be remembered for the entirety of one’s life.

 (Howson, 1965)

Let me know what you think in the comments below! Is non-fiction creative writing something that you find interesting?

 

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