Days of Wine and Horses in Jerez De La Frontera
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Sharish is a strong town of average size surrounded by walls. The countryside around it is beautiful to behold and contains vineyards, olive groves, and fig trees.”
So wrote the Arab geographer, Ibn Abd al- Munim, when describing Jerez de la Frontera some 1,000 years ago. It appeared to us as we drove into town that, with the exception of endless sunflower fields and perhaps more vineyards, not a great deal has changed from that era. I was not too unhappy. We had come to explore the city but, above all, to sample its products of the vine.
I couldn’t believe it! When we sat down to sample the wine produced by the Bodegas Domecq winery, one of the 40 wine cellars in Jerez de la Frontera, on the table were a half dozen bottles of various types of Domecq sherries and brandies – all for us to taste to our heart’s content. Unlike the sips which are offered by the wineries of North America, here in the sherry world of southern Spain, guests are treated with pampered hospitality – a trait prevalent in Andalusia.
Along with the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art with its amazing dancing horses, the scores of wine bodegas in town have made Jerez, a city of some 200,000, world-famous for its Sherries. Only two hours by auto from Seville and less than a half-hour drive from Cadiz, this sherry and brandy town par excellence is a quiet and pleasant urban center – but it was not always so.
For a number of centuries, it marked the frontier between Muslim Granada and Christian Spain, changing hands several times during the Reconquista. Its once Roman appellation, ‘Caesaris’, was corrupted by the Arabs to Xeres – later changed by the Spaniards to Jerez, hence its name, ‘Jerez of the Frontier’.
The Phoenicians who were the first outsiders to settle the region, finding the white chalky soil, known as albariza, ideal for the growing of grapes, introduced the vine. In Roman times, it became one of the top wine-producing areas in the Iberian Peninsula. After its reconquest by the Christians, British merchants settled in town to trade. They were later joined by British Catholic refugees who had been persecuted in England. These emigres founded the great sherry firms or bodegas in town – many of which carry English names like Humbert, Williams and John Harvey. The name, sherry, originates from that era. It comes from the town’s Arabic name, Xeres (pronounced sharish).
Jerez proudly claims to have invented the sherry which the Andalusians call the ‘wine of the sky’ and ‘the glory of Andalusia’. Throughout this Spanish province, sherry is considered to be noble, precious and special. Far from being an everyday social drink, like champagne in other countries, it is served at feast days, celebrations and weddings.
Our next stop, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, was much different than the pleasant atmosphere of sherry. Here, the ‘Amazing Dancing Andalusian Horses’ took us into the world of fine arts. We sat back and watched the stepping and jumping movements, under the expert guidance of men and women, performed with grace, in perfect time to the music, by the pure Andalusian horses. It was a delightful equestrian ballet based on excellent choreography, traditional Spanish music, and costumes from the last century.
Jerez is considered to be the Spanish capital of the Andalusian horse whose roots go back to the period of Arab domination in southern Spain. In the 15th century Carthusian cloister on the outskirts of Jerez, the monks bred crosses between Arabian horses and those indigenous to the area. They achieved an almost perfect horse, the Carthusian – the breed that defines all Spanish horses. In the ensuing centuries, this breed, in the New World and European wars, contributed immensely to the greatness of Spain and influenced all equine stocks in Europe.
Today, the home of this famous horse is the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez. It is one of the few remaining centers for the breeding of noble horses. The school undertakes promotional tours of Spain and abroad. Its show ‘How Andalusian Horses Dance’ acts as an ambassador for Spain to the other countries of the world.
Yet, even though the dancing horses and sherry draw the visitors, Jerez has much more to offer. The town is a treasure house of mainly ecclesiastical monuments. All the major sites and most of the bodegas are within walking distance of the town center where there are a number of charming palm-edged squares and some dozen notable Renaissance and Baroque churches and palaces – many influenced by Moorish architecture. Not only in Jerez but in all of southern Spain, the mosques with their free-standing minarets became Christian churches with free-standing steeples.
At the top of the sites is the 12th century Alcázar, once the residence of the Caliphs of Seville. In the interior, there is a well-preserved mosque complete with a mihrab, which after the Christian conquest was converted to the Church of Santa María la Real. Lately, it has been restored to its original state after being a church for some 700 years.
Some of the other points of interest to travellers are: the Cathedral of San Salvador, a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles, built on the site of a former mosque; the Church of San Dionisio with its Moorish-Gothic architecture and a mudéjar tower; the Church of San Miguel, a gem of Gothic and mudéjar workmanship; and the 1000 year old Banos Arabes (Arab baths).
After visiting the Museo de Arte Flamenco with its portrayal of the history of the flamenco which the Jerezanos claim began in their town, an evening in one of the peñas or clubs in the gypsy Barrio de Santiago would be worthwhile. Here, the exciting sound of guitars, clicking castanets, stamping feet and the rhythmic clapping of the flamenco music, all Moorish legacies, will be a great climax to a visit to Jerez de la Frontera – the cradle of sherry wine, Carthusian horses and the Andalusian flamenco.