If Homer, the Greek storyteller extraordinaire and not to be confused with The Simpsons character, is to be believed, El Puerto de Santa María has a history reaching back to the Bronze Age. In the Odyssey, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, Menestheus, passes through the Straights of Gibraltar with some soldiers to found a settlement at the mouth of the River Guadalette, the present day site of El Puerto de Santa María.
Whether there’s any truth to the legend is hard to know, but El Puerto de Santa María has a long and storied history nonetheless. In the first millennium BC the Phoenicians established an enormous area of salt pans here, and traded it around the Mediterranean. As did the Romans who followed them. When the Moors arrived in 711, they called it the Port of Salt. There’s still a working salt pan on the far bank of the river from the town.
El Puerto de Santa María marked the end of my own, albeit somewhat less ambitious, odyssey. This was the final corner of Spain’s legendary Sherry Triangle of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. It all started in 2017 in Jerez, and has been an arduous journey. Along the way, I was forced to consume many glasses of sherry, not to mention a tremendous amount of tapas. Gruelling stuff.
Undeterred by these hardships, I finally arrived in El Puerto de Santa María to complete my quest. The town is home to many sherry bodegas, most famous of all is that of Bodegas Osborne with their iconic black bull, one of the most recognisable brands in Spain. The Osborne business takes up a vast area of the city and is fittingly close to the 19th century Real Plaza de Toros.
The Plaza de Toros is one of the largest I’ve seen in Spain, and it’s one of the most attractive buildings in the town, if you can disassociate that from what happens inside the building. We passed by it en route to our hotel, the Casa de Indias, a beautifully converted former 18th century palace that doubles as an art gallery. The name also hints at the role El Puerto de Santa María played in the colonisation of the Americas.
Numerous of the early Voyages of Discovery, set sail from the town, including that of the conquistador Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. Ojeda arrived on the coast of South America a year after Columbus had first discovered it, and it was Ojeda that named this new land, Venezuela. This opened the way for colonisation to start in 1502, and was an unmitigated disaster for the indigenous peoples of the region.
While El Puerto de Santa María played a role in this history, it was trade with the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries that made the town wealthy. The construction of magnificent palaces during this period have bequeathed the town the nickname, The City of a Hundred Palaces. Sadly, the upkeep of a palace is expensive and history has not always been kind. Today, many of them are in a ruinous state.
We only spent a night here, but it’s a small town and can be covered on foot in half a day. It’s worth spending a bit more time to sample sherry and visit a clutch of historic buildings: the medieval Castillo de San Marcos, built on top of a former mosque, and the Basilica Nuestra Señora De Los Milagros are two not to miss. The town has a couple of beaches as well, from where you can see Cadiz just a few kilometres away across the water