Jerez has one of the sunniest climates in Europe, summer heat tempered by ocean breezes. Its soil is white and chalky and called ‘albariza’. Why bother knowing this? Because Jerez is the capital of sherry production in Spain.
Forget your Christmas tipple of a Harvey’s Bristol Cream (albeit lovely and looked forward to!) Jerez is the place to discover lighter, paler varieties of Fino and Manzanilla from nearby coastal Sanlucar de Barrameda.
The Spanish drink fortified wine all year round and have particular varieties for special occasions. Jerez produces the palest sherry, Fino which is drunk at celebrations and festivals. Mixed with a soda over ice, jugs of ‘rebujito’ are enjoyed by all ages.
The enormous fortress of the Alcazar was built in 12th century by the Almohad dynasty. It was closed but we enjoyed walking around its massive walls and towers, glowing gold in the late afternoon light and planted with long avenues of purple flowering Jacaranda trees.
The emptiness around the Alcazar set the tone of our late afternoon visit to the pretty town. No one was around. We wandered past the grand 18th century cathedral, with its flying buttresses and Gothic spires.
Passing the town’s most famous sherry house, Tio Pepe, we tried for a glimpse of the vine-strewn courtyard, but the high security gates closed as the last of the day’s paying visitors were politely ejected.
Wanting to see the ‘gypsy quarter’ we wound our way through narrow and winding streets of derelict-looking low-slung terraced houses.
At night the many shuttered up bars would open and host hard core flamenco performances by passionate and lithe dancers accompanied by crazed guitarists.
In daylight much of the area was seedy looking. It felt edgy and a few loose dogs ambled about.
Surprisingly, a couple of elderly Americans in baseball caps, heaving heavy plastic bags of bottles of booze bumped into us mid conversation: “say we need to get ourselves back and ready for 7.30. God this is heavy, if we don’t make it there then hell, I don’t know what the plan is”.
Under mercilessly hot skies we imagined these guys were on their way to a hit job, but the reality is they had bought sherry cheaply and were heading back to their tour coach.
We were in Jerez to stay at a service centre. Bertha was still nursing a problem with the fridge when using gas.
As we tend to stay on aires, gas is important to us for cooking, heating and for keeping food refrigerated. Plus we had a problem whenever the breeze – or wind, or gusts – blew into the fridge’s outside vents. It was drawing too much gas and not burning it.
The carbon monoxide alarm had sounded which meant that unburnt gas was blowing through our living space. It was a very serious problem and we were nervous.
Joaquin at La Morada Del Sur was another visitation of a trip angel. Cheerfully and methodically he diagnosed a gas burner nozzle too small for the 30 Mbar draw that Bertha was operating upon. Miraculously, he had a larger part in stock and for a very small price, fixed the problem and immediately erased a root cause of our anxieties on this trip.
It was time to party! As the late afternoon sun reached 34c, we found everyone at the festival grounds of La Feria.
Jerez annual horse fair takes place across one week, but nowadays there is no horse trading and the emphasis is on dressing up and parading.
Shining and gleaming horses and ponies decked in colourful ribbons and pom poms pulled a variety of carriages around the show ground. A ten-minute trot cost 30 euros!
We wandered about amongst the crowds of festival goers and admired the fabulous flamenco dresses and gaucho gear.
It was no exaggeration to say that the whole of the town was here, on the massive sandy festival site that was lined with 188 temporary bars and bodegas.
Gorgeously dressed women in packs flaunted their legs, clapped their hands and jangled tambourines.
Interestingly, it was mainly the older women who had squeezed into the figure-hugging and flamboyant traditional dresses, whilst younger women and girls favoured hot pants or tight-fitting trouser suits.
Most tottered about in high heels, either punishing-looking stilettos or ridiculously large wedges – which we hadn’t seen since the days of the Spice Girls!
Some one somewhere was falling over or being helped along by laughing friends wherever you looked.
The atmosphere was extremely jovial and despite the crowds waiting for drinks and tapas at the packed bars there wasn’t a trace of ill temper in the hot evening air.
Everyone was happy to be photographed, smiling or posing for Simon’s camera. Jugs of rebujito were being liberally poured and quaffed. We found out later that 57,800 bottles of Fino had been emptied and recycled before the end of the Feria!
We walked around the massive site and clocked up three miles on the pedometer enjoying the sights and waiting for the sun to set.
At precisely 10pm the massed illuminations were switched on and the festival ground became a Moorish play parlour under more than 200 twinkling arches decorated in Mudejar styles. It was utterly gorgeous and drew gasps of delight and spontaneous applause from the amassed crowds.
As the music pumping from the bars turned to euro pop disco, we headed home. Just a couple of miles away in Bertha we heard the partying until way into the morning, 6 o’clock in fact. We wondered how everyone coped on what was a normal school and workday. It was mid-week and already the staff at the bodegas looked exhausted.
Later we discovered that for the first time the local authorities had agreed the festival could run for an extra day and finish on the Sunday rather than the usual Saturday. We hoped that was a good thing for everyone. Viva La Feria!