Carnival crazy in Cadiz

By Jeremy Wayne, Evening Standard

Last updated at 11:53 17 February 2003

Put on the gloves, cut around the soft tissue, scoop out the glands," instructs Ana Garcia, my old friend and mollusc mentor. It is Friday morning and we are in Bar Merodio, opposite Cadiz's central market, drinking ice-cold shots of salty manzanilla and eating erizos - sea urchins - straight from the shell.

It is the week before Carnival and the height of the urchin season, the traditional time to eat these spiny mauve invertebrates, contact with whose needles can reduce grown men to tears. In the bars, in the back streets, even on the beach, everyone is tucking in.

Next week Cadiz (say it "caddy", as in golf, or you will be laughed out of town) will explode into Carnival, 10 days of unmitigated, undiluted, non-stop partying leading up to Lent. Boozier than Trinidad, gaudier than Rio, and a lot less scary than Notting Hill, Caddy's Carnival is not only the greatest in Europe, it is - in my view - the last great undiscovered show on earth. Few people, however globetrotting they might be, seem to know about it.

"Carnival got going in the 17th century," pipes up Ana's friend, Adolfo, who is sitting with us. "Sailors from Cadiz saw what was going on at the great carnivals of Genoa and Venice and decided to bring it here. Plus, over time, as a major seaport trading with the New World, we have been influenced by all sorts of music: Creole, African, samba, primitive Colombian, ranguera, all mixing with traditional Andalusian jaleo and flamenco." Sure makes for a wild party.

In the Thirties, Franco famously banned Carnival. Not for him the seething mass of sequined, sashaying, sweaty humanity which sings, dances and congas its way through the city for 10 sherry-fuelled days and nights.

Across the street from the Bar Merodio, at Pepi Mayo's costume shop, things are reaching fever pitch. Four guys - members of a chirigota, or performance group - are asking Pepi why their codpieces don't fit (I could hazard a guess). A soberly dressed, bespectacled Cadiz mother, an outward picture of conventionality, disappears into a dressing-room and emerges in an Afro wig.

Ana finally gets Pepi's attention to solicit a progress report on her own Carnival costume: "This year she's going as Joan of Arc," he says.

"Not very Spanish," I hazard, and am met with a scowl.

"There is no point trying to outdo the Carnival queens, so this year I'm going for a different look," she explains. "Sexy and boyish."

One thing is for sure, Caddy isn't short of queens - carnival or otherwise. The city has been a haven of tolerance since the 18th century, when the Spanish first moved felons and suspected gays here from all over Spain for eventual deportation to the colonies.

But the insubordinates stayed - and who could blame them? - with the result that, along with Barcelona, Cadiz is one of the two most liberal cities in Spain. Drag queens come into their own at Carnival, even crowning their own queen in a send-up of the real thing.

What an amazing setting for a carnival Cadiz. Like a fist with the fingers half-clenched, knuckles of land divide its sheltered bays washed by a cobalt sea. You can walk around the entire promontory in a couple of hours - and the best time to do it is at sunset, when the sun drops on the distant horizon and the sky becomes shot-silk.

Ana describes her city in a more down-to-earth way. "Cadiz is divided into barrios," she explains. "Including Populo, Santa Cueva and Santa Maria. Santa Cueva is where the good shops and restaurants are."

"And what about Santa Maria?" I ask her. "Santa Maria is where you go for flamenco and drugs." Surprisingly, perhaps, foreigners are welcome at Carnival - though they are something of a novelty. "What do you do if you're a stranger in town?" I ask.

"What do you think you do?" she replies. "Put on a wig, or mask, any costume you feel like, get out in the street and party. That's what."

Any suggestions for a outfit? "Well, Carmen Mirandas are always popular. My brother tried it last year. The fruit on his headdress was so heavy the only way he could get round town was on Rollerblades."

Way to go

Carnival: 7 February to 4 March. Visit

GB Airways ( flies daily to Seville and Gibraltar (both about 125km from Cadiz), current return £109, valid outbound between 24 February and 10 April. During Carnival, try for cancellations at Cadiz's basic but charming Hostal San Francisco (Tel: 00 956 22 18 42, doubles E70). Or Monasterio de San Miguel (Tel: 00 34 956 54 04 40, doubles from E180), in El Puerto de Santa Maria, 20km away.

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