Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Tuesday, 2 October 2012



What I am about to relate happened a long time ago – more than ten years at the very least.

For work reasons I had to go to Cadiz every weekend and as a lover of decay I chose to stay in the different run-down pensions, hostels and flophouses instead of in decent, clean, anonymous, anodyne hotels. Luckily my partner of the time also shared this nostalgie de la boue. One such hostel was situated in the winding streets that surround the Town Hall.

The hostel occupied what had been a mansion. All traditional Andalusian palaces, mansions or farmhouses follow the same groundplan, probably inherited from the Roman villas. This is a square complex revolving around a central courtyard open to the elements, usually boasting a fountain in the middle. In town houses the ground floor composed the summer quarters and the upper floor the winter habitations. Usually both floors have an open gallery running around them.  
 Many such mansions had been left to decay, as the city's economy decayed with the loss of the colonies. Over time they were usually subdivided and became corrales de vecinos, or tenements. This particular mansion had escaped that fate and still seemed to be undivided.
A decaying portico, Cadiz,
As with all such mansions, its imposing, if crumbling, porticoed entrance led visitors through a vestibule into the central courtyard. Placed at the far end of the vestibule was a screen, preventing passers-by from seeing in. This too is architecturally interesting as it hearkens back to the Moorish building tradition of turning one’s back on the exterior world, jealously guarding one’s own privacy. I soon found out why this tradition had been maintained here.

When penetrating into the courtyard, apart from the familiar layout of large dusty potplants - aspidistras and the like, central fountain and moth-eaten bull’s head to one side of the staircase, I was surprised to find about eight to twelve women wearing rather unbecoming housecoats sitting around, smoking and chatting familiarly to the men who also occupied the space. It was then too that I noticed that the reception desk at the far end of the courtyard was piled high with threadbare, but scrupulously clean towels. Drawing closer, my partner pointed out that the rooms were rented by the half hour. We had stumbled into a brothel!

What to do? Turn and walk out? Pretend to be tourists and ask for directions? But it was too late. The receptionist had already greeted us and was asking us how long we wanted a room for. There was nothing for it but to tough it out. An hour would suffice; we said and paid up front. We were given huge shiny iron key to our room on the first floor – and a towel. The room was a windowless chamber with a single super low-wattage bare bulb. Even so long ago this hostel was making its own contribution to the environment! We spent about three quarters of an hour listening to the, ahem, comings and goings of the hostel clients before venturing out and giving back the key.

We thanked the receptionist and chatted a bit to one of the ladies nearby who had asked us for a cigarette and then we left.

Everything from start to finish had been conducted with the utmost civility. In fact I would go so far to say that I have been in few places where such a relaxed, yet formal atmosphere reigned supreme.

Thus ended my unintentional visit to a brothel and I must admit it was a unique experience. There was no brash sexuality, none of the plush, pianos and potted palms that films have led us to believe is the norm, I saw no naked women; no parade of erotic underwear, just people going about their daily business with no fuss.

Nor was it like the modern pick-up joints full of young illegal immigrants imported and exploited by obscure mafias. This was a purely neighbourhood ("family"?) brothel where the atmosphere was relaxed, everyone knew each other and there was time to sit around and chat with no apparent pressure on anybody to consume or turn a trick.

I am not romanticising prostitution. It is a hard, difficult, often dangerous job for those who exercise the profession. As workers, prostitutes deserve our respect while those who exploit them deserve our contempt. However, on that particular day in that particular place, I saw a completely different side to the sex trade.


  1. A fascinating experience indeed. It's good when one's own direct observation contradicts the standard clichés and shows a different picture.

    The house plan you describe brings back memories of the house I lodged in as a student in Seville. I remember going out on the town one night and returning late. I had been shown the bell-pull just inside the grille that served as front door. I rang and a sleepy woman came to open for me. I apologized for being so late but she brushed this aside saying "It's my job to open for you..." I can't imagine that response here...

  2. This was a truly extraorinary afternoon. But such afternoons are to be expected in Cádiz. It is a city that has a certain edginess to it, a certain feeling of expectation, a feeling that anything might happen.

    The streetplan of the old town also lends itself to this feeling as it's built on a grid system so you are constantly catching glimpses of the mundane and bizarre as you walk along your particular street.

    try to get hold of Arturo Pérez Reverte's novel El Asedio. Set in Cádiz during the French siege of 1810 - 1812. It gives a feeling of the spirit of the place.