¡Viva El Puerto!
Overshadowed by its big brother Cadíz, El Puerto de Santa Maria is well worth a visit. Steeped in history, today’s Puerto is an eclectic mix of the old and new attracting both industry and commerce, beach bums and history buffs.
We arrived in El Puerto during a hot summer’s afternoon and immediately warmed to the place. Its situation in the heart of the Bay of Cadíz gives even the town a seaside feel with its wide, leafy Ribera del Marisco leading majestically to the Muelle del Vapor. Here the six spouts of El Fuente de las Galeras Reales (Fountain of the Royal Galleys) gush forth water as they have done since Columbus’ time when they supplied water to the America-bound ships.
Christopher Columbus resided here for a spell in the XV century and it was from here that he set sail in the Santa María on the voyage which resulted in the discovery of the Americas.
We walked from the Plaza de Galeras Reales along Avda. M. Aramburu, flanked by huge, majestic palms and fantastic facades. Looking for a hotel we entered a hostal on a side street linking the Avenue to the waterside. A grandiose entrance welcomed us with a huge marble staircase, above which an ornate and architecturally stunning ceiling hung. The first floor sadly offered nothing but a long corridor with small, box-like and airless rooms and none of the old world charm of the building’s entrance.
Although evidence has been discovered of settlements dating back to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Phoenician eras, it was the Moors who really put El Puerto on the map. They built a watch-tower and mosque, upon the ruins of which, Alfonso X built the Castillo de San Marcos in the 13th Century. Privately owned today, the castle has been painstakingly restored and hosts atmospheric concerts throughout the summer months.
During the XVI and XVII centuries, El Puerto became a popular place to pass the winter for the Royal Galleys and was a base for important naval expeditions. When Felipe V was proclaimed king, the city was incorporated into the Crown and in 1717 the Chamber of Commerce was moved from Seville to Cadíz, offering a new commercial life to the Bay, at the centre of which was El Puerto. During the rest of the XVIII century, the city reached its zenith, attracting rich merchants and aristocrats.
The new arrivals erected sumptuous palaces from local stone, marble and wrought iron along with wood imported from the Americas. El Puerto’s mansions became an ostentatious show of wealth as the merchants competed with each other and the city earned the nickname “The City of the Hundred Palaces”.
Wandering the narrow streets of the old town, there are a number of wonderful palaces to peer at. You can peek into the leafy courtyards– some exquisitely reformed, others left to rack and ruin. The municipal museum is in a lovely old palace and houses some interesting archaeological and fine art exhibits.
The impressive Iglesia Mayor Prioral, built between the XV and XVIII centuries dominates Plaza España and has been re-built and added to over the years - what you see today is mainly Baroque. Inside, a richly gilded retablo in the capillera de la Virgen de los Milagros holds La Patrona, a XIII century image of the Virgin, formerly housed in the Castillo and to which the town is devoted.
Part of the famed “Sherry Triangle”, El Puerto is home to some of the largest sherry producers such as Osborne. You can visit the bodegas to learn more about the sherry trade or simply to sample a little of the liquid gold for yourself!
Another of el Puerto’s claims to fame is its bullring. Opened in 1880, it is second only in size to Madrid and Seville and can hold a crowd of 15,000. It has hosted all the great names in bullfighting including the legendry sevillano bullfighter Joselito whose words are immortalised on a mosaic just inside the entrance: “He who has not seen bulls in El Puerto does not know what bullfighting is.”
If all the sightseeing has left you in need of a rest, El Puerto’s beaches, situated just out of town, are some of the best the Costa de la Luz has to offer; the pine flanked Playa de la Puntilla and Playa Fuentebravía offer amenities such as showers and chiringuitos. Between the two is the very up-market and modern “Puerto Sherry” marina. One of the most advanced in Europe, the marina can dock 1,000 vessels and has dry dock facilities for a further 3,000. It also boasts cruiser, sailing and diving schools, a hotel and sea village with apartments and shops.
If you fancy taking to the water yourself, you can take the little ferry, which departs regularly from the Muelle de Vapor in town, to Cadíz. The trip takes about 45 minutes and makes for an interesting little excursion.
Last but by no means least, El Puerto is famous for its seafood. The only place to sample these delights is Romerijo. Romerijo is an El Puerto institution with two buildings situated on the Ribera del Marisco, one serving fried seafood, the other boiled. Take a number, wait your turn, then take your pick from what’s on display in vast glass cabinets, buying by the kilo. Young ladies in uniform rapidly fill paper cones with your choice of fish or shellfish and you can either take these away or find a table where waiters will bring you your drinks. Fast and furious, Romerijo is a dining experience not to be missed. There is of course a whole range of other restaurants in El Puerto worthy of a visit should you have time.
El Puerto de Santa Maria is a great place for a weekend visit or longer if you want to use it as a base to explore Cadíz. The place has a certain faded elegance, is laid back and small enough to leave your car for your sojourn and amble around on foot (we paid only 9 euros to leave our car for 24 hours). Its location, history and gastronomy will appeal to all, young or old and for you night owls out there, El Puerto’s bars and clubs offer a nightlife to rival that of anywhere on the Costa de la Luz!