We were hemmed in by one of Cadiz’s narrow old-town streets. The ‘You are Here’ souvenir shop to our right, clothes and shoe shops all around, most of them shuttered. It was four in the afternoon and still siesta time. Wider than some, the street was still slightly claustrophobic; cobbled underfoot, and lined with enormous, seemingly impenetrable arched doorways. We were early and no one was home. ‘I thought we were staying in a tower’, Jim said. We looked up, counting four storeys – intricate balconies, glass-paned sierras, but no tower. A man with a can of beer sat on the door-step opposite, oblivious. It was with us again; that uncertain moment of arrival – everything unknown and yet to be discovered.
We took refuge in a patch of shade and waited. Javier arrived to greet us. The wooden door swung open, to reveal a plain, dark, enclosed space – a rubbish bin stood to the right of another great wooden door. Secrets within secrets, an architectural Russian doll. The second door, foreboding, but unlocked, pushed open with a fingertip, revealed an airy interior courtyard, towering glass windows, billowing curtains and steps. Steps dog-legging forever upward, worn concave by the passing of feet, past and present. Newel posts topped with strangely tactile iron knobs – warm, not cold, to the touch – comforted me as I hauled myself onwards, making a mental note to reduce the load in my rucksack. Leaning outwards gave glimpses of spiralling balustrades, giving way to a warren of landings, and yet ever more daunting doors. Finally, Javier was saying ‘here it is, the tower – your tower’ and we stood in front of yet another door.
‘Living here is like living in a boat, you can fly away’, Javier laughed. He was talking about the wind, but I immediately felt that living here above the ground, my feet no longer connected with the earth, my mind would soar. Surrounded by sky, circling and chattering birds, a forest of TV aerials and fluttering laundry, I felt free and happy. There were nearly as many stairs inside the tower as out. Tiny, twisting, one-man-wide, wooden stairs painted cobalt blue. There were little baskets for carrying cups and plates to the terraces – ‘If you make coffee for breakfast don’t forget the sugar or a spoon’, Javier warned. And we were off again, up to the first terrace. And suddenly the towers were revealed in their full glory. And not only towers. A panorama of roofs, domes, tiles and turrets opened up before us. Now there was no sign of the street.
‘Do you know about the towers’? Javier asked. Of course, we didn’t. He told us that when Cadiz was granted a royal trade monopoly with the Americas in the late 1700’s, rich merchants topped their houses with watch-towers to observe their fleets. Look-out men communicated with the ships using colour-coded flags during the four days it could take between a sighting and arrival in port. Speculation was rife, prices were talked up – and down – and fortunes made and lost. One of those unbelievable but true stories. Like the sea captain in Mary Poppins, Jim remarked as we ate breakfast there the next morning, looking out at the ornate but crumbling ‘La Bella Escondida’, another tower hidden from street-view, but standing in full, crumbling glory in front of us.
We climbed further to the second terrace. ‘My grandfather owned the whole tower in the 1920’s’, Javier continued. He pointed to an old black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall, showing a dapper old gentleman wearing a straw boater, standing on the very terrace that we were now gracing. ‘That’s how we were able to restore the building – we could see the shape of the upper terrace from a shadow shown on the photo, and these old railings, we found on a lower floor’. This terrace revealed a different view – the great yellow-domed cathedral floated in front of us, dwarfing white-walled houses, and terracota-tiled terraces. There are still 126 towers in Cadiz, but ‘ours’ was the only one with three terraces, giving views all around the old town, the harbour and out to sea.
And so we teetered up to the very last terrace and the top of the tower. I imagined the look-out man waiting; trying to keep warm, sheltering from the wind that whipped around the walls even on a no-cloud, clear-blue-sky day. Javier showed us wooden plugs for the spy-holes carved into the walls, and time did that strange flip thing, as I felt someone else’s discomfort, mental and physical, and saw him wrap his arms around his body, felt his anxiety and anticipation. Now, as then, Javier pulled down a green flag. ‘We like to keep the tradition alive’, he said rolling up the flag and reaching for a red one, which Jim hoisted aloft to proclaim that the tower had new residents. The first – and probably last – time that anyone has put the flag out when we’ve arrived!