Steeped in history the Spanish resort of Puerto de Santa Maria is a destination not to be missed for many reasons.
Founded in the 13th Century the San Marcos castle is now the geographical centre of the town. It was built to protect the then small village from pirates and it was here that, in 1492, Christopher Columbus tried unsuccessfully to persuade the resident Duke of Medinaceli to finance his first voyage of discovery across the Atlantic. It was in this castle that the trader, Juan De La Cosa, who supplied Columbus's three ships, the Santa Maria (the name is a coincidence that has led to much confusion),the Pinta and Nina, drew his world map in 1500 that first showed the American continent. Columbus never liked the Santa Maria and he was relieved to transfer his command to the Nina when the Santa Maria foundered on rocks on the coast of Hispaniola on the first voyage.
To confuse the visitor to Puerto de Santa Maria even more than its name and the tenuous link to Columbus, a replica of the Nina occupies a prominent position on a roundabout as you enter the town. Columbus actually started his first voyage from Palos, a small port near Huelva, his second and fourth from Cadiz and his third from Sanlucar.
Having set that record straight we can now look at a product for which this town is justly famous - sherry. Until the rail line from Jerez to Cadiz was built all the sherry from Jerez was stored in warehouses at Santa Maria before being shipped all over the world. Famous names like Osborne and Terry are written in large letters on these massive bodegas that occupy whole blocks near the port area. Many bodegas allow sampling of the product; ask for fino for the driest palest sherry, drunk cold and young, amontillado, slightly aged and darker but still dry, or dark, sweeter, luscious oloroso.
Whilst here let's dispel another myth. Manzanilla is similar to fino but can only be produced at Sanlucar where there is a particular salty microclimate that imparts a unique tang to the wine.
Sherry became popular in the UK after the mid 16th Century when Francis Drake nabbed a few barrels during the sacking of Cadiz. In fact for many years the wine was known as 'sac' or 'dry sac'. Puerto de Santa Maria is linked to Cadiz by a passenger only ferry that runs every two hours across the sheltered Bay of Cadiz. Its comings and goings from the ferry dock are the scene of tearful farewells and joyful reunions. Maybe the locals still dread meeting Drake half way across.
After sampling the sherry there can be nothing that beats a visit to Romerijo for lunch. This al fresco restaurant on the promenade specialises in shell fish and to obtain best value you have to do as the locals do. First go into the 'shop'. There you will encounter a huge range of precooked on the premises shellfish, some familiar, some not. Be adventurous, its fun. Everything, from the smallest Cadiz Bay shrimp (an essential ingredient in crispy camerones or shrimp pancakes) to huge Norwegian lobsters is clearly marked for sale by the quarter, half and full kilo. Make your selection and pay. It will be wrapped in a paper cone. Take your fish to a vacant table. Be warned, after 2pm there is little chance of a table immediately. A waiter will offer you a menu so you can chose salads, bread, wine and so on to go with your fish. He will also bring your plates, cutlery, skewers for prising the meat out of shells and claw crackers. That's it, enjoy. Throw waste and shells in the plastic bucket and go back to the 'shop' for more but make sure you leave somebody at the table or it will be occupied when you return.
If you can still move after Romerijos, Puerto de Santa Maria has more to offer. About 10 minutes drive out of town is the archaeological site of Doña Blanca. This site dates back to 2000 BC, towards the end of the Copper Age. Later it was occupied by that almost mythical people the Tartessians who were joined by the Phoenicians from about 750 BC and then by the Romans. Artifacts from the site are on display in the Municipal Museum. Opposite the museum is the cathedral, whose spires and turrets are now home to a large number of storks.
Wandering the streets reveals small shops that look as if they have been there since the town was founded and larger places selling fashionable clothing. Not a Mercadona in sight.
There is enough to see and do in Puerto de la Santa Maria to make a lazy long weekend but lots of Spanish families think the same way so accommodation is at a premium. It is advisable to book in advance South of the port is the protected area of Cadiz Bay. This large area of marismas is home to thousands of waders including flocks of flamingos. There is limited access to the marismas from Sancti Petri. If any reader can provide details on how to access the Cadiz marismas we would be grateful.
The coast north of the port has fine beaches and the area is protected in aid of that charming lizard, the chameleon. This one was spotted at the south end of Playa de Sta. Catalina, languidly making its way into a bamboo plantation. Perhaps he had lunched at Romerijos as well.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.