The inspiration for this trip had struck a year earlier, as I trawled indolently through a copy of Marie Claire from the comfort of my sun bed in the soothing Croatian sun. Appealingly described as a ‘plan to wind down, grown-up style’, I couldn’t rest until I’d done the lazy drive around the sherry towns of south west Andalucía myself. So my friend Jo and I flew off to Jerez de la Frontera. After a dizzying encounter with the many roundabouts on the outskirts of the town, we drove straight into the annual Feria del Caballo (horse festival), which that night was being celebrated with a boisterous explosion of shouting, flamenco dancing and of course, sherry drinking, under a tented roof and a deep velvet sky. After devouring tapas and sipping rioja in Bar Albala (the asparagus in a delicate crispy batter was to die for), we mingled with the locals at the fiesta and sighed contentedly, already under Spain’s gentle yet vibrant spell.
We stayed at La Fonda de Barranco, an old merchant’s house stylishly restored by attentive, voluble host David Murray, who saw us cheerily on our way with a list of excellent recommendations for the rest of our holiday. But not before we’d taken a jasmine-scented tour of the twelfth-century Alcázar in the centre of the old town. Its solid, sun-scorched walls command impressive views over the countryside and sherry vineyards stretching out around Jerez, and shelter a calm oasis within, evocative of life in centuries gone by.
Our next stop, Tarifa, offered a complete contrast. Just 15km across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco, it has a pretty old town, with narrow cobbled streets hunkering behind a protective curtain of Moorish walls and opening out into unexpected squares. At night, flotillas of soundless white birds cruise across a flat sky stained with deepest blue, lending a timeless air of tranquillity. But the general vibe here is thoroughly modern. The southernmost point in Europe, Tarifa is famous for its wind and is a mecca for surfers of all kinds. When the wind blows in the right direction, a skein of kitesurfers hang from their bat-shaped kites over the bleached white sands of the South Atlantic beaches like a heavy flock of colourful prehistoric birds. They also hang on the weather forecasts, looking out for the idea 11-15 knot wind and waiting to see if it will be poniente (westerly – and likely to cause more waves) or levante (easterly – and associated with calmer seas). While it’s a major attraction for surfers from around the world, the incessant scouring of the wind reportedly explains the area’s abnormally high suicide rate. This depressing statistic notwithstanding, during our stay the town exuded a party feel, its tiny alleys teeming with revellers drinking and dancing until the early hours in Zanzibar, La Ruina and Club Mombasa.
Tarifa was intoxicating – but it was time to drag ourselves away from the seaside buzz and head for the hills. Arriving late at night in the magical white village of Vejer de la Frontera, we dined like sultans in the soft gardens of La Casa del Califa. We had breakfast on the pavement just off the main square, where we chatted with the locals and were joined at our table by a dapper gentleman, still sprightly and up for a cheeky morning sherry at the age of 96. The town is stacked on the hill in rows of stark white buildings, like a huge layer cake, and the streets are enchanting to explore and photograph. Our last stop was Sanlucar de Barrameda, a faded gem of a place with crumbling streets that give the impression of having seen better days. The home of manzanilla, a dry sherry with an intriguing salty edge, it was here that we finally managed to visit a bodega. We poked around the gloomy cellars and light-filled courtyards of Bodegas Pedro Romero, breathing in the rich, heady scent of maturing alcohol. The bodega was founded in 1860 and is still in the hands of the Romero family, so it felt as though we were drinking in history as we tasted the full range of sherries, from the crisp finos and brine-imbibed manzanillas to the heavy nectar of the pedro ximenez. Reluctantly heading home clutching our bottles of the local specialities, we felt, if not experts in sherry, at least warmly disposed to drinking more of it, especially if it can be done in an atmospheric Andalucian setting. Thank you Marie Claire!
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WEB LINKS (see also the Spain page on the Gooster’s Travel Tips page)
http://www.charmingsmallhotels.co.uk/cgi-bin/articles.pl?id=700§ion=49&action=display (For the Convento deSan Francisco, where we stayed in Vejer)