Head to Jerez in Andalucía for fascinating jaunts around the sherry bodegas and a wild splash of colour at the feria.
The evening air was balmy as we arrived at Jerez de la Frontera, and tall Mediterranean pines swayed in a light breeze beside us. As we walked from the plane to the small airport terminal we got our first glimpse of a sight that would stalk us all weekend; stacks of barrels, with Tio Pepe and Osborne written on the ends. They are a reminder of the lifeblood of a region peppered with sherry bodegas. The barrels serve as urban sculpture in a town that feels distinctly Andalucian. Vespas whizzed by our chauffeur-driven SUV and along the arterial Avenida Andalucía we passed a statue of two prancing stallions. These are the city’s famous Cartujana horses, as symbolic of Jerez as a barrel of its amber nectar. There are daily demonstrations, “How the Andalucían Horses Dance”, at the Royal Andalucían School of Equestrian Art, Recreo de las Cadenas, Avenida Duque de Abrantes (0034 956 31 96 35,www.realescuela.org) and a Horse Fair at the beginning of May, which explodes with colour in the Recinto Ferial del Caballo in the beautifully cultivated Jardines de la Rosaleda and Parque González Hontoria. These sculpted pleasure gardens are a monument to how this semi-arid province was shaped by Moorish horticulture, viticulture and agriculture into what it is now.
Our driver, Fran, an affable bear of a man, suggests that while we’re there we stop by at the flamenco bar near the Plaza el Gallo Azul he runs with his wife, but after checking into our hotel we hit the town and decide to eat at the sumptuous, Ristorante San Juan on Plaza Melgarejo (0034 956 32 64 71 – closed on Mondays). However, for more local flavour both La Taberna Flamenca on Angostillo de Santiago (0034 956 32 36 93, www.latabernaflamenca.com) and El Lagá del Tío Parrilla on Plaza del Mercado (0034 956 33 83 34) offer dinner and a flamenco show.
The locals claim that flamenco was born in Jerez and the Barrio de Santiago is its cradle. Walking beside fruit-laden orange trees along Chancillería the next day we heard the ripple of a buleria and the rhythmic stamping of a class in session at the Andaluz Flamenco Centre, while among the streets around the Iglesia of Nuestra Señora de la Merced and Iglesia de Santiago there are numerous hidden clubs and brotherhoods.
Jerez, it has to be said, isn’t heaving with gay nightlife (head to Cádiz for that), but there are plenty of shopping and sightseeing opportunities. Chief among these is The Alcázar, the 12th-century seat of power of the Moorish caliphs of Seville, from where you can view the whole town from the camera obscura in the tower. And right next door are two of the town’s major attractions: the impressive Cathedral and the Holy See of the town’s other religion (sherry), the extensive Bodega González Byass. Founded in 1835 it has a hugely successful marketing machine behind its most famous brand, Tío Pepe, named after the great-great-great uncle José of Vicky González Gordon, who showed us around its impressive cellars, including the shell-shaped La Concha (Seashell), designed by Alexandre Eiffel, (he of Paris fame).
The most imperial show-bodega was the Los Apóstoles gallery (12 casks named after the Apostles flank an enormous central barrel, El Cristo), but the Bodega de los reyes (the kings’ bodega) was the most intriguing. It houses rows of barrels signed by Byass’ famous visitors. Liz Taylor came here with hubby Mike Todd, and Lana Turner, Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau and Cole Porter are among its other biblious luminaries. It’s a reminder of Hollywood’s love affair with Hemingway’s Spain and we wondered if the man himself had been here – but then remembered he was a more of a rum man.
On our last day, Fran drove us out past acres of dusty vineyards to the Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where we were met by Tim Holt, a charming English gentleman who is now Hidalgo’s export manager. Between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar exists a Golden Triangle (or Jerez Superior District) of wine production where only fortified wines produced from the Palomino grapes, or from the sweeter, richer Pedro Ximénez grapes, can truly call themselves jerez.
Tim walked us through the cool cellars, and began to explain the complex solera system which takes place in the banks of enormous American Oak barrels. Here, among other types of sherry, Hidalgo La Gitana makes Manzanilla, a very dry, fresh fino that thrives on the coastal conditions found at the estuary mouth of the Quadalquivir river, and only Manzanilla made in Sanlúcar can carry the denomination of origin “Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda”. Approximately every six months, one-third of the lowest-barrel sherry is taken for bottling, which is replaced by a third from the next level up, which, in turn, has a third from the top-level vintage added to it. This way, the blend of old and young wines maintains the quality and nature of the bodega’s signature sherry.
With swallows and swifts swooping among the rafters overhead, we made our way out to the street, and found that we’d arrived in Sanlúcar at the start of one of its feria weeks, when the whole town was preparing for El Romeria del Rocío pilgrimage (May 24th-30th), one of the most important in the Catholic calendar.
Walking to the feria ground, we were passed by chattering groups of women dressed in flamenco dresses of every hue and pattern, like a garden of animated flowers. We sauntered through the crowds to a far caseta by the beach, looking across the estuary to the wilderness of Parque Coto Doñana and watched a proud young man trot his horse across the sand while sampling succulent, crispy acedias and salty gambas with breadsticks and copas of cold Manzanilla. It was a wonderful flavour of southern Spain.
“Which is your favourite jerez?” I asked Fran on our way back from Sanlúcar. “Domecq’s La Ina Fino,” he said, without hesitation. “At the end of a hard day, I go back to the bar and pour a cool glass of this wine – it’s smooth, but it’s crisp. Refreshing.” And he was delighted when, as he dropped us off at the airport, we presented him with a bottle of it along with his tip. The tip was almost refused; the wine was thanks enough, he said. Which perhaps says more about how proud they are here of their local drink than any guidebook could ever tell you.
FLIGHTS and LOCAL TRANSPORT:
Ryanair flies twice daily from London Stansted to Jerez Airport, from £39.99 one-way (excl. taxes) web fare. No buses or trains from the airport, but a taxi costs approx 15 Euros for the 5km journey into Jerez.
Trains to Cádiz. From €2,70 one-way. Tickets are time-coded for use within two hours of purchase.
Ferry to Cádiz. El Vapor del Puerto from Puerto de Santa Maria, €3 one-way/ €4 return, leaves every 2 hours from the jetty on Avenida de la Bajama, starting at 9.15am. Returns from Cádiz approx every 2 hours from 10am. No service on Mondays. Approx 50 mins.
One night at the chain Hotel Los Jándalos costs from €93,50 double occupancy (low season) to €220 (high season). The hotel’s hydrotherapy SPA centre was refurbished in May 2006. For more info, call 0034 956 32 72 30 or visit www.jandalos.com
For luxury travel, try five-star RAS Tour chauffeur-driven cars, C/Tornería, 18, 11403 Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz: 0034 661 30 89 38/ 0034 610 76 39 23. email@example.com. www.rumauto.com/rastour