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Inner Harbor

In praise of ports.

Cádiz, Spain—No famed church, museum, or historical totem draws outsiders to this city on the Atlantic. So few come. Cádiz returns the lack of interest. Let the summer hordes swelter in Seville or Madrid. We’ll feed and entertain you, the body language of the place tells a new arrival, but we don’t need your validation. Take us as we are. And to be honest, the first impressions won’t beguile. Arriving by road, you pass through an unseemly industrial area reminiscent of the New Jersey Meadowlands, followed by a banal stretch of modern beachfront Spanish architecture. Near the tip of a narrow sandbar, you hit the Puertas de Tierra at the centuriesold wall that separates the densely packed old town from the unremarkable new city. Then your parking headaches begin. But soon enough, in the cozy streets overlooked by enclosed balconies and cooled by a brackish breeze, you sense something special. An ease of spirit, a place open and lively, if more than a bit seedy, at once tolerant and insouciant, rakish, and raffish. This combination, you start to think, you’ve noticed in other ports and quickly come to appreciate here, just in bigger doses.

Walk around; the streets, built for another time, are impassably narrow even for the most compact of Euro-cars. Before sunset, as Laurie Lee wrote, this is a place of “sharp incandescence ... sparkling with African light,” with buildings that range in color from ochre to white. From the Plaza de España, near the inner commercial port, heading toward the ocean barely a kilometer away, attractive shops inhabit well-kept eighteenth and nineteenth-century structures. At the Plaza de Mina, flamenco music mixes with the hum of outdoor conversation and laughter. Seemingly someone from every living generation of gaditanos (as the locals are called) is here, enjoying tapas and a twilight drink. A couple of kids dribble a soccer ball between outdoor café tables. By the time you reach the town’s popular restaurant, the taberna on Plaza del Tio de la Tiza, you’ve reached the grittier part of town, the Barrio de la Viña, a place of dark alleyways and newer, shabbier buildings. The wait for the evening special, grilled langostinos, is long but worth it. Overt signs of the economic crisis rattling Spain are missing from this picture of restaurants that are crowded on every night of the week. One of the world’s great mysteries is that Western Europeans, who earn and work less than we do, manage to have a quality of life seemingly superior to our own—although perhaps this is not so mysterious at all.

To its core, Cádiz is a port city-arguably the most port-ish of ports there is. Certainly, it is among the oldest. According to myth, it was founded by Hercules. The Phoenicians—in historian J.M. Roberts’s phrase, those “traffickers in civilization”—opened their western-most station here more than a millennium before the time of Christ, calling it “Gadir.” It linked the Mediterranean with the Atlantic and assured a supply of tin. It has been inhabited without interruption ever since; the ancient Greeks, Hannibal’s Carthaginians, the Romans, and the Moors all passed through. The Spanish took over about 800 years ago. These layers of culture are all visible: a Roman theater, largely intact; an Arabic medieval quarter reached through the Puerta del Mar, the thirteenth-century sea gate, and fetching neoclassical Spanish architecture. Kind of redefines melting pot, doesn’t it?

Cádiz’s golden age came in the 1700s, when the city acquired a monopoly on trade with Spain’s American colonies. More than one-tenth of its population in those days was foreign. The city, home for centuries to the navy, prospered as long as Spain remained a world power. The Spanish still call it the country’s “capital of commerce,” although Cádiz went into decline around the time of Mexican independence and never recovered.

Ports nurture a likable sort of character. They are, by necessity, open to different kinds of people and ideas; willing to defy borders, physical or cultural, in a way that’s harder to find in the hinterlands. Denizens of ports also tend to know how to enjoy themselves. Each February, Cádiz puts on the best party in all of Spain, which is no easy feat; its famed carnival brings in the crowds. Its people are also by reputation Spain’s funniest. (A sense of humor and mischief is another port specialty: Just spend some time with Isaac Babel in the Russian-Jewish Odessa of his stories, or visit today’s rambunctious, though no longer very Jewish, Black Sea port of the same name.)

The hodgepodge of people, commerce, and good times carries with it political consequences. Throughout the years, trade has been the foundation stone of capitalism and democracy. So it was here, even if it took a while for the one to bring about the other. Two centuries ago, Cádiz was the birthplace of Spanish liberalism; the Spanish word liberales helped introduce the term to European politics. After Napoleon deposed the Bourbons in Madrid and installed his silly brother on the throne, a rival Spanish Cortes, or parliament, was established in Cádiz. The competing government drew up a new constitution in 1812—a liberal inspiration to others that provided for near-universal male suffrage and checks on the church and aristocracy. Spaniards didn’t come to enjoy these rights in full until the 1978 constitution brought to life the post-Franco democracy. Not surprisingly, plans for a bicentennial party are already underway here, with red “CADÍZ 2012 banners adorning street corners.

Melville would have loved Cádiz. If true freedom is to be found on the sea, as he put it in Moby-Dick, then a bona fide port city is its extension to terra firma. It is surely no accident that during the same period that Britain was the world’s foremost naval power, its seafaring traders and shop owners, the future middle classes, led the push to temper the power of their kings. Contra Melville, Virgil. In the Georgics, the Roman poet praised “the husbandman/With hooked ploughshare turns the soil. ... His chaste house keeps its purity.” Yale’s Ben Kiernan showed in his chilling 2007 book, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, that georgic notions of agrarian Utopia have been adopted by tyrants to justify the murder of millions. Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot—and the great would-be génocidaire of our times, bin Laden—were not men of the sea (or ports).

Cities are impure, ports most of all. Their messy charms refute the very idea of Utopia and, with just a bit of exaggeration, underpin our very civilization. The other night in Cádiz, the sound of a steady Arab beat drew me through a small passageway into the remnants of the medieval part of the old town and smack straight into a Moroccan dressed in the old Moorish fashion. He was hawking jewelry at the “Al Andalus market.” Other stalls had Moroccan sweets, children’s playthings, and clothes. Toward the Cathedral Plaza, the Maghrebian tune blasted through loudspeakers began to meld with a woman’s voice, singing a Christian medieval tune. She was sitting on the cathedral steps, also dressed in historical costume. Was all this a bit of a cliché? Maybe. Kitschy for sure. Yet somehow it also felt genuine and true to this port’s vibrant nature.

Matthew Kaminski is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. This piece ran in the October 14, 2010 issue of the magazine.