It was close to midnight, the sherry was flowing and the raw guitar and ecstatic vocals of a flamenco group filled the hot, crowded bar. A happy gang was joining in the chorus of a classic tune and the evening was coming to heady climax. This was when I realised how much I love the rough and ready culture of Spain. It’s a country that constantly surprises, whether an unexpected festival – of religion, food or art – or a small, intimate and passionate rendering of flamenco.
We were in the Tabanco El Pasaje, a classic Jerez flamenco place, where the owner had secured us a ‘ring-side’ seat after a chance encounter over a sherry earlier in the day. It was the culmination of a fantastic final day in this wonderful Andalusian town. We’d visited the lovely Alcázar, discovered a local food festival, unearthed a microbrewery in this sherry town, and explored the atmospheric streets. This won’t be the last time we visit Jerez.
Like so many places in Andalusia, the historic centre of Jerez de la Frontera is filled with a maze of narrow cobbled streets and attractive plazas. It’s a town where history oozes from the walls of ancient churches, old palaces and the imposing Alcázar. If it wasn’t clear from architecture that incorporates Arabic mudéjar elements, seeing the magnificent Alcázar would be enough to tell you that this was once part of Moorish Spain.
We had a busy day of sightseeing and (more) sherry tasting ahead, and arrived early to the Alcázar. Unlike Granada or Seville, there aren’t many tour groups queuing up to get into Jerez’s historic sites, which meant we had the lovely Alcázar grounds to ourselves. The building is not as rich artistically as other ancient Moorish buildings we’d visited, but the Arabic baths, 900-year old mosque and the enormous olive oil press were still pretty impressive.
The Alcázar was part fortress, part palace, but definitely feels more like a fortress. Built in the 11th century, and expanded over the next couple of hundred years, it was a key part of Islamic defences against the Castilians. Unfortunately, the fall of Seville in 1248 left the door open for the Reconquista, led by Alfonso X of Castile, to capture Jerez. The city capitulated in 1264 after a long siege. Unusually, the Moorish population was allowed to remain largely unmolested.
The importance of Jerez to the Moors saw it grow into a sizeable town. Before the Moors, it was a relatively minor Roman outpost. Once Spain was unified following the Reconquista, Jerez boomed. Trade with Cadiz and Seville made it very wealthy and has bequeathed its own architectural legacy. All of these periods of history have left their mark on the modern city, and adds to the fascination of exploring its streets.
Once you’ve been to the Alcázar, spent some time in the cathedral and visited a sherry bodega, you’ll have ticked off most of the things on the typical tourist itinerary. That leaves time to wander the barrios of Jerez at leisure, and get a feel for the sedate pace of life. We had lunch in a little cafe and after an early afternoon siesta spent the rest of the day just walking.
We did manage to visit a couple of tabancos to sample a few different types of sherry, and it was during one of these ‘rest stops’ that we learned about the flamenco evening that would end our stay here. Who says living the dissolute lifestyle doesn’t have any benefits?