Jerez de la Frontera must be one of the most undiscovered tourist attractions in Andalucia. This may be due to its position, almost midway between the famous cities of Cádiz and Seville, or just an accident. It may be that its charms are difficult to find because signposting of its hotels and attractions within the city is, to be kind, poor. None of that matters because the local populace are not only very friendly the majority also speak excellent English due to the influx of English partners and staff into the booming sherry industry over the last two hundred years.
The firsts settlement in the area is attributed to the Tartessians and the Phoenicians, with whom they traded, called the town Seres. It was later occupied by the Romans and the name was romanised to Ceret. There is no trace of a Roman presence in Jerez itself, they seemed to have confined themselves to another Tartessian city called Asta Regia about 11 kilometres away in an area called the Mesas de Asta. The Visigoths and Vandals briefly had a presence until the town was taken by the Arabs in 711 AD
The 11th, 12th and 13th Centuries were a turbulent time for Xerez as it was now called. In the 11th Century Xerez briefly became the seat of an independent taifa until, in 1040 it was united with Arcos and in 1053 it was annexed to Seville and became part of the emirate dependant on Granada. The Almohads conquered the city in the mid 12th Century. In 1231 at the Battle of Jerez, Alvaro Perez de Castro, the grandson of Alfonso VII of Castile and Leon, defeated the Moors and the city was finally taken by the Christians in 1264.
A tour of a bodega is almost mandatory in Jerez but for those prepared to look, there is lots more to see. You will inevitably arrive in Plaza del Arenal, the main square in the town. In the centre is a sculpture of General Miguel Primo de Rivera mounted on a horse. Rivera was born in Jerez and became dictator of Spain between 1923 and 1930.
Just outside Plaza del Arenal and to the south is the Alcazar. This was built in the 12th century and is one of the few examples of Almohade architecture in Spain. Remaining from that period are two gates, a small mosque, an octagonal tower, the baths, the Palace of Doña Blanca and the Villavicencia Palace.
The Alcazar dates back to the 12th century with some more modern additions, the homage tower was built in the 15th century and the oil mill in the 18th. The most attractive part of the Alcazar has to be the gardens, laid out in typical symmetrical Arabic style, with an enormous sculpture of three horses and a number of small fountains. The whole has been well preserved. As you enter the Alcazar through the city gate, the mosque is to your left. Whilst not being as large or elaborate as the mesquite in Cordoba it has a simple charm more fitting to its purpose. In the Villavicencia Palace, on the ground floor, is a relief model of Xerez as it was in the 12th century after the Alcazar was built. It is only when you see this model that you realize how extensive the city was at that time.
You will find more horses in Plaza del Caballo, a giant sculpture of two bronze horses, and yet more in Plaza Mamelon. There you will see a monumental bronze of a carriage being drawn by five horses with an outrider. It is the work of Eduardo Soriano. It is no wonder that horses feature strongly for Jerez’s second industry is training them. The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation is based at Jerez.
Their famously choreographed performance, ‘How the Andalucian Horses Dance’ is famous throughout Spain. Visitors can see a show and tour the school that includes the training sessions, the stables, the Palace rooms, the Museum of Equestrian Arts and the Carriage Museum. Details of the times of shows, opening times of the museum and Palace and prices vary so contact 956 319 635 before your visit. The first week of May is the time of the Feria del Caballo when these beautifully groomed horses parade around the city and the school organise gala performances on Fridays and Saturdays.
In nearby Calle Cervantes, if you have time, visit the clock museum. On the hour, every hour, all the 302 clocks variously ring, chime, ding and dong. On the quarter hour only the English clocks chime, deep Westminster chimes predominate, and on the half hour it is the turn of the French clocks, lighter tinkles and trings in the background. The majority of the displays are unique pieces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, each spotlighted in beautiful mahogany cases and each wound conscientiously every week by the two employed clockmakers.
You will see the striking contrast between the French clocks and the English. The French were much more concerned with the decorative aspect of their clocks rather than the mechanism whilst the English clocks are less decorative but have more accurate timekeeping. The debate during the 16th century was whether or not a long pendulum produced more accurate time. Only later science in the 17th century proved that the length of the pendulum was important.
The clock museum houses the largest collection of working clocks from this period in the world.
You will also see some unusual clocks including a portable English sundial clock. Portable sundials have been used for timekeeping since at least the 12th century. Later versions were aligned north/south using an integral compass. The gun clock also utilised a sundial. This was a more permanent structure. At noon the sun’s rays were focused using a magnifying glass on the touchhole of a small cannon. This ignited the gunpowder and discharged the cannon, brilliant.
The clock museum is open 10am to 3pm Tuesday to Sunday and at various times in the evening depending on the month.
Recently renovated the museum has displays from the Paleolithic right through to modern times.
The population of Jerez obviously enjoy their food and sitting out of an evening. There are any number of cafes and bars, most of which serve tapas. You will find many local dishes such as kidneys cooked in sherry, lamb cutlets in oregano and sherry and fish in a tomato and brandy sauce; you would be excused for thinking that water is a rare commodity in Jerez cuisine. The dishes are delicious.
A visit to the thriving indoor market illustrates why. This is very obviously the place where the majority of people buy their fresh meat, fish and vegetables. There is a huge fresh fish market with over fifty stalls selling fish from the auction at Puerto de Santa Maria, everything from giant tuna to boquerones and shellfish from huge spider crabs to diminutive Cádiz Bay shrimps, the latter piled in boxes and so fresh they are still leaping into the air trying to get back to the sea.
There is a similar sized vegetable market. It is packed every day with customers competing for the best buys. There is every seasonal vegetable imaginable, much of it from the nearby towns of Conil and Chiclana. The smaller meat market is an equal revelation with the usual beef, lamb and pork, enhanced with game in season, partridges, pheasants and rabbit from the campo.
On the subject of shopping. It is clear that out of town shopping in Jerez has not really taken off. The centre of the town is full of pedestrian streets with busy big name stores in between small bodegas where you can partake of the sherries and brandies from all the bodegas in town if you so wish. Shops observe the siesta so open in the evenings until 8pm or later. Restaurants and cafes open for dinner at any time after that.
Jerez de la Frontera is becoming famous for its ferias and festivals. In early May thousands of motorcyclists from all over the world congregate at Jerez for the MotoGP Grand Prix motorcycle racing event that is held at the Circuito de Jerez. This is one of the mpost watched races in Europe.
Just after the MotoGP, usually towards the end of May, is the Feria del Caballo, sometimes called the Feria de Jerez, one of the most important fairs in Cadiz province. This is celebrated in the Parque Gonzalez Hontoria. It dates back to Mediaeval times when local farmers gathered to sell their animals, often horses. Bars and restaurants are erected in the park. They are called ‘casitas’. In between admiring the animals or taking a turn on the fairground rides, you can wander in and out of the casetas sampling the food and drink. Do not forget to ask for fino sherry.
The Municipal Archaeological Museum in Plaza del Mercado is worth a visit. This museum contains a 1st millennium BC Greek helmet that was dredged out of the Rio Guadalete. It is believed to be the oldest Greek object found in Spain.
The museum also has a rather fine carnelian necklace from the Tartessian period and a Renaissance period pulpit from the church of San Miquel.
During the last week of Lent, Jerez, as with many Andalucian towns, commemorates the Passion of Jesus Christ. The Catholic brotherhoods within the town perform penance processions through the streets.
The Festival de Jerez is a two week extravaganza of all things flamenco, dancing, live music, eating and drinking. The twentieth festival is in 2016 when the celebrations start on the 19th February and end on the 5th March.
Together with the national holidays and saints days there is hardly a week in the year that Jerez de la Frontera is not celebrating something.