In elegant Jerez instead of wine, women and song, read sherry, flamenco and dancing horses
Sherry is a traditional tipple at Christmas; what is not so conventional is to visit the home of sherry - Jerez - at the same time of the year.
Why choose this city among all the other big hitters? Well, the answer lies in its calm self-confidence about its own identity and the potential it holds for travel to neighbouring attractions.
Jerez de la Frontera, to give it its full title, is situated in the south of Spain, 23kms from the coast and 78kms from Seville. In four days, as well as exploring the city, we also visited Cadiz and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Within thirty minutes of landing at Jerez’s airport we had settled into the charming hotel Bellas Artes (€70 double with breakfast). From the window of the room you have a view of the striking cathedral which is close to the Alcazar. The latter is an impressive mediaeval fortress surrounded by orange trees and featuring a mosque which had been transformed into a delightful chapel, Arab baths, and in another area, a mill for pressing olives. The entrance fee (€7 with concessions available) includes access to a camera obscura which gives panoramic views across the city.
Everywhere there are reminders about the sherry trade and the Sandeman Bodega complex is open for tours and tastings (0034 956 151700; www.sandeman.com). Entrance is €14, including the glasses of sherry, and perhaps this experience may tempt you to more of the same in the bars and restaurants dotted around the city’s plazas. Bars such as Juanito’s (0034 956 334838) and El Almacen in Plaza Vargas give a feel for the sense of the community, while dinner can be a grander affair at La Carbona (Calle San Francisco de Paula 2; 0034 956 347475) located in a converted sherry warehouse. Quail breasts with foie de gras and sea bass with pasta were just two of the dishes that we selected (€50 for two, including desserts and a bottle of Rioja). Other restaurants that we would recommend are Reino de Leon (Calle Latore 8; 0034 956 322915) where there were delicious mushrooms in sweet sherry and El Gallo Azul (Calle Larga 2; 0034 956 324509), which specialized in kidneys marinated in sherry, gazpacho and chicken in sweet wine. Can you spot the common denominator?
Christmas in Jerez is restrained, with the old–fashioned street lamps casting a warm glow on the cobbled streets and a large nativity tableau in the central square bathed in a kaleidoscope of changing colours. It seemed to be a tradition for families to pay a nightly visit to this grotto. The atmosphere is friendly, happy and mercifully free of commercialised frenzy.
The town is not only famous for sherry but a centre for flamenco, celebrated in an extensive museum on the Plaza de San Juan and, according to the locals, a vibrant festival in late February (www.festivaldejerez.com). At night, displays of this passionate dance can be enjoyed in many bars including Bar Arco de Santiago (Calle Barreros, 3).
Another passion in the city is horses. The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art (www.realescuela.org) holds an ‘espectaculo’ every week where the pure bred Andalusian horses go through their paces to familiar classical music. The ninety minute show in the indoor arena (£18 with concessions available) is an impressive performance and beforehand you can see the training procedures that take place at the centre.
But it was time to check Jerez’s suitability as a base to visit some of the neighbouring towns and Cadiz was a mere 45 minutes away by train (€10 return). This city is associated in British people’s minds with the Spanish Armada, but for the Spanish its reputation is for having the finest carnival in the country during February. In December, the weather is still balmy (16C) and there is a wonderful coastal walk which takes in some of the beautiful gardens, historical exhibitions and Atlantic beaches. There is a wide selection of tempting bars and restaurants but our favourite was Meson Cumbres Mayores (Calle Zorilla 4; 0034 956 213270). Here the friendly, professional barman served up delicious raciones and larger portions of tapas of anchovies and ham washed down with some of the local wine. After a stroll down the causeway to San Sebastian Castle, it was time to catch the last of the afternoon’s sunshine on the beach.
To bring things full circle our last day trip from Jerez was a 30 minute bus ride to Sanlucar, the home of Manzanilla, a wine that gets its tangy character from the cooler climate. Alongside the beach is a bazaar of bars that sell platters of sea food with the obligatory Manzanilla. Close by to the town hall there is the Palacio de los Duques de Medina Sidonia, which is a treasure trove of paintings and artefacts. The cakes in the palace’s café rounded off another gastronomic foray.
Back to Jerez
Jerez is a city steeped in the character of its most famous product. It is cultivated and zesty, promoting an understated bonhomie. This is a city not just for Christmas, but for all seasons.