Postcard from Cadiz, Spain: Water-locked ancient stronghold

Water. No matter what direction you walk, you quickly encounter it. It’s visually stunning and soothing, with ever-changing colors depending on the weather, time of day and whether you are on the east or the west side.

Geographically termed a peninsula between the Atlantic and its bay, Cadiz seems more an island. The thin band connecting it to the Spanish mainland is narrow to the point it feels but a fragile manmade thread that could easily be severed by an Atlantic storm.

This isolated location made it an ideal stronghold for early Phoenician explorers from Tyre to establish a stronghold on the Atlantic in 1104 B.C.  Gadir, as it was called then, is considered Europe’s most ancient city still standing. The city is associated with the slaying of the three-headed monster Geryon by Hercules in Greek mythology.

Cadiz has been ruled by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines and the Moors. Christopher Columbus set sail from the port during his second and fourth voyages to the New World. When sandbars made navigation of the Guadalquivir River to Seville no longer possible, Cadiz flourished as the center for trade with the Americas. The fleet based in Cadiz invited frequent attacks and pillaging by Spain’s enemies through the centuries.

Today, the population of Cadiz numbers about 100,000. With much of the peninsula occupied by its industrial port, the actual residential area covers less than two square miles. There is no land for the city to expand in size, and, because of the city’s historical importance, buildings in the historic center are restricted in height. Unemployment is fairly high, which means the port still welcomes the arrival of cruise ships disgorging huge numbers of people for several hours at a time. Those temporary invaders were easy to avoid, however, as they failed to explore more than a quarter of the city.

The city is laid-back, and its narrow, mainly pedestrian streets, are pleasant to wander. Boardwalks skirt the water on all sides.

The island-like setting attracted the attention of 007. In 2002, Cadiz starred as Havana in the James Bond film, Die Another Day. I share this for one of the above views shown in the background of the film, not the non-subtle sexual interaction between Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan.


Instead of being catty about the film, I will switch to the topic actual cats. The most surprising inhabitants encountered is a large feral cat colony perched on rugged boulders on the Atlantic side. Tender-hearted residents provide the felines with boxes and crudely constructed shelters, and fishermen toss them scraps from their catch.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Failed again to spy the Holy Grail

Two years ago, we missed the clues secreted in the cup of the 12th angel over the 12th gate in the Cathedral in Cuenca.

But wait. Maybe Cuenca is not where the chalice was at Jesus’ place during his Last Supper was hidden away by the Knights Templar. Some claim it to be sitting right there in plain view in a chapel in Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Valencia where all can visit it.

An entrance fee replaced the mystery surrounding the Holy Grail hidden in Cuenca. We paid, but once again were as deprived in our quest as the knights of King Arthur. The chapel was closed temporarily.

Consecrated in 1238, the cathedral was built upon the remains of a Visigoth church that had been turned into a mosque. Although primarily Gothic in design, lengthy construction and additions led to portions spanning styles from Romanesque to Neoclassical.

While much of the interior is somewhat plain, the church does include two paintings by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), including the pictured one of an exorcism in progress.

Oh, and then there is an arm. The arm purportedly was attached at one time to Saint Vincent, Martyr, the patron saint of Valencia. Imprisoned in Valencia, the archdeacon of Saragossa faced his test of faith in 304. After stretching him on a rack, Vincent’s tormenters were frustrated by his calm and even joyful countenance despite the pain they inflicted. His flesh was torn by hooks, and he was tied to a red-hot iron grate. As if that was not enough, they rubbed salt in his wounds before he succumbed to the multitude of his injuries. His mangled body was thrown in the sea but washed ashore where his relics were guarded by a raven until retrieved by the faithful.

Two-hundred and seven stairs ascend the interior of the tower of the cathedral. Two family members elected to climb, while one volunteered to stay at the base in case they needed her for scale in photos.

So, maybe are destined to never find a trail to the Holy Grail. That is, unless we travel to Leon in northern Spain and pay the entrance fee to the museum in the Basilica of San Isidoro, where another “real” grail is housed.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: Gossipy stories behind ancient mosaics

It’s not surprising that Empress Theodora (about 500-548) merits the chalice full of wine in the mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. (Warning: this post contains rumors passed down the grapevine for centuries.)

The daughter of the keeper of the animals at the Hippodrome of ancient Constantinople, a monumental center for circus-like entertainment and chariot racing, Theodora learned her beguiling ways early as her mother promoted her as an “actress.” According to ancient gossips, actresses during those times entertained publicly and privately to earn their keep.

Although not the first man to claim her for his mistress, Justinian (483-565) was smitten with her. Justinian’s origins were far from royal as well. The son of peasants, Justinian was adopted by his uncle, Justin (450-527), a member of the imperial guard. As the commander of troops in Constantinople, somehow Justin managed to be elected to rule the Byzantine Empire in 518.

While Justinian was keeping company with Theodora, their marriage was blocked by law. Rulers were prohibited from marrying actresses. Shortly before senility overtook him completely, Emperor Justin overturned the law for the benefit of his nephew. So when Justinian I succeeded his uncle as the Byzantine Emperor in 527, his former mistress became Empress and ruled jointly with him.

Construction of the large octagonal Basilica of San Vitale was begun while the Ostrogoths ran Ravenna but was completed in 547 after Emperor Justinian reclaimed the city. Supposedly, the project was patronized by gold donated by a Roman banker. Both Justinian and Theodora were promoted to sainthood by the Eastern Orthodox church.

The murals above are from San Vitale and a neighboring building in Ravenna. The oldest of the pair is a small mausoleum in the form of a Greek cross commissioned by Galla Placidia (386-452), but she ended up buried in Rome. The story of Galla Placidia, who must have been as compelling a consort as Empress Theodora, requires divulging a few more juicy tidbits.

I’ll try to keep this simple, but her life was complicated. Galla Placidia was the sister of Roman Emperor Honorius (384-423), the one who moved the capital to Ravenna in 402. Her first fiancé was executed in Rome in 408 amid accusations he was part of a military coup d’état.

During one of the invasions of the Visigoths, Galla Placidia was captured and moved with them to Gaul in 412. She ended up married to their king, Ataulf (370-415), a union forging a period when the Visigoths and Honorius briefly ceased fighting each other. King Ataulf, though, was murdered in his tub in Barcelona by a minion of a Gothic challenger to his rule.

The widow returned to Ravenna where her brother browbeat her into marrying his general, Constantius, in 417. In 421, Constantius assumed the title of Constantius III, ruling in conjunction with the childless Honorius. Her new husband brought her the title of Empress, but he died of some illness seven months later. Alternating scandalous stories of Honorius’ incestuous affection for his sister and quarrels between the pair forced Galla Placida and her children into exile in Constantinople, where another of her brothers reigned over the eastern half of the empire.

Following much political infighting and turmoil after Honorius’ death, Galla Placidia served as regent of the Western Roman Empire until her son from her marriage with Constantius III, Valentinian III (419-455), turned 18 in 437.

History is so not boring.