Sanlúcar de Barrameda could be described as a modern old town, in this case not a contradiction in terms. The buildings date from the 15th Century right through to the 20th but somehow manage to sit side by side in a pleasing blend of architectural styles. There is no better way to appreciate the town than with a glass of cold Manzanilla Sherry in hand. Only sherry wines matured in Sanlúcar de Barrameda can carry the word Manzanilla on the label.
Situated at the mouth of the Rio Guadalquivir it was for a long time an important port (the actual port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, called Bonanza, is a couple of kilometres north east up the Rio Guadalquivir) and home to some famous explorers. Alonso Fernandez de Logo who conquered La Palma in the Canary Islands in 1492 and Tenerife in 1495 was born here. Columbus departed on his third exploration of the New World from Sanlúcar in 1498 and the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan sailed from here in 1519, intending to sail around the world.
Unfortunately he never made it himself, being killed by natives in the Philippines but ‘Nao Victoria’ his last remaining ship of the five that started the journey, arrived back at Sanlúcar in 1522. Of the 237 crew members of all the ships only 18 returned home commanded by Juan Sebastian Elcano.
Sadly, for Sanlúcar de Barrameda, events conspired to make the town a bit of a backwater. Until 1717 Seville hosted La Casa y Audiencia de Indias, otherwise known as the Casa de Contratación. This government agency tried to control the exploration and colonisation of the New World. the Casa collected all colonial taxes and duties, approved all voyages of exploration and trade, maintained secret information on trade routes and new discoveries, licensed captains, and administered commercial law. In theory, no Spaniard could sail anywhere without the approval of the Casa. Whilst the Casa was at Seville the town and port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the river that led to Seville, up which the treasure fleets sailed, was an important anchorage in a strategic position. Ships would also provision here for their outward journey. In 1717 however, the Casa removed to Cadiz and Sanlúcar lost its major source of income.
The winemakers of Sanlúcar noticed that barrels of wine left to age in bodegas open to the sea air developed a lighter, crisper, more apple-like flavour than other sherries. They also noticed that the flor was more active and less robust. Barbadillo bottled its first Manzanilla in 1821 but it was not until 1964 that the specific appellation Manzanilla – Sanlúcar de Barrameda was created.
Standing in the two main squares, one with a straight, wide, boulevard that leads to the estuary, all the buildings on one side date from the 16th and 17th Centuries whilst all those on the other are 18th to 20th. As you head deeper and up into the town the buildings become older until you reach the oldest part, the 15th Century Castillo de Santiago opposite which is the Barbadillo Bodega. On the way you will have passed the Palacio de los Duques de Orleans y Borbon, now the town hall, and the Palacio El Ducal de Medina Sidonia. Just above the Municipal Market is the so called sea gate through the old town walls with a long, straight, steep, cobbled road leading directly to what used to be the quays. You will also have passed any number of bodegas where the Manzanilla sherry for which this town is famous, is stored prior to shipping it to all parts of the world. It is said that the west wind, from the sea, has a certain salty tang that lends a particular aroma and taste to the sherry and the bodegas that are in the path of that wind produce the best Manzanilla. This may be true, when the west wind blows all you can smell in the streets is the heady aroma of fine sherry, quite intoxicating. Many of the bodegas are open to the public. The Gitana bodega shop in the main boulevard leading to the sea has a wonderful range of Manzanilla, Amontilado and Cream Sherries and brandies from the bottles you can pick up in supermarkets to rare vintages you will find nowhere else.
Eating in Sanlúcar is no hardship so long as you enjoy fish and anything else that comes from the sea; head for the area known as the Bajo de Guia. There you will be able to sample the delicious langostinos for which Sanlúcar is well known or the incredibly calorific camerones that contain handfuls of those tiny, exquisite, Cadiz Bay shrimps.
Self service tapas has reached new heights in Sanlúcar. Many establishments serving food, from bars to full restaurants, allow you to choose from a menu and from the spread of daily specials. You can specify tapa, media racione or a racione portion. You wait for your choice to be cooked and then you take it to your table. Do not forget to ask for a Manzanilla. You will be served with an ice cold half bottle and as many glasses as you want. If you want more food or drink just go back. How they keep track of who owes what is a mystery but, after a couple of half bottles, who cares?
Samples of all the sherries produced in Sanlúcar can be tried at the annual Feria de Manzanilla that is held towards the end of May.
Sanlúcar is home to one of the oldest horse races in Europe and the first regulated horse races in Spain. The Carreras de Caballos take place just before sunset along the beach at the mouth of the river over distances of 1,500 and 1,800 metres. Every August thousands of people flood to Sanlúcar to watch the spectacle.
Only slightly less popular is the horse racing week for children and teenagers, again on the beach, starting on the bank holiday around the 6th or 8th December.
July, August and September are one long party in Sanlúcar. On Saturdays during these three months you will find flamenco singing and dancing competitions throughout the town. There is also an antiques fair and the International Classical Music Festival, ‘A Orillas del Guadalqivir’, on the banks of the river Guadalquivir.
Every year Sanlúcar hosts a tapas fair, a local gastronomy competition towards the end of October.
On the opposite bank of the Guadalquivir is the Doñana national park, a huge area of wetlands. Sanlúcar actually advertises itself as the Puerta de Doñana but if you expect to drive there from Sanlúcar forget it, it’s all of 150 kilometres up to Seville and back to El Rocio, the main town in the Doñana. There is a passenger ferry across but then you are on foot or part of a four hour guided tour that whisks you around in a mini bus with little time to catch breath never mind study the flora and fauna. Better to follow the signs to the Puerta de Doñana and, just before the grandly signposted ferry landing stage that turns out to be a beach, visit the Doñana museum which is in an abandoned ice factory.
The ground floor is devoted to the Doñana, its geography, geology, history and inhabitants, plant and animal and is very well done. The upper floor carries displays illustrating the history of Sanlúcar, concentrating on the explorers and overseas trade from the Phoenicians to the present day, and is similarly excellent, and free. Leave the Doñana itself for another day.
Jerez de la Frontera, along with El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, are the three points on the 'Sherry Triangle'. In order to be called sherry, the wine has to be produced within this area. So, whilst you are here, why not take a look at the other towns in the triangle?