Although I’d been to Jerez (pronounced Hereth) de la Frontera a couple of times, specifically for the spring fair, which I prefer to the bigger and more impersonal one in Seville, the last time was some five years ago, so when my friend Shawn (aka SevillaTapas) suggested a couple of nights there on a working holiday to explore the city and also visit some sherry bodegas (or vice versa), it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.
For the most part people associate Jerez with sherry and horses, and these are still the main attractions (the annual motorcycle GP also draws a lot of visitors), and I’d never really thought of it as a tourist destination. In fact, although it’s not on the same scale or as well preserved as cities like Seville or Cordoba, Jerez still has a substantial historic old centre that’s worth spending an afternoon strolling around, and a number of monuments worth seeing (of which more later). The name of the city goes back to Phoenician Sèrès and Roman Ceret (although the main Roman settlement was at Asta Regia to the northeast), which later became the Moorish Sherish, from which the famous wine takes its name. The city was reconquered by the Christians in 1264 and became Xerez (later Jerez) de la Frontera, because it was on the border of the Christian and Moorish terrritories, and the name has been retained even though it has long ceased to be true.
This being Sherrytown, though, the first order of business was a visit to a sherry bodega, or in our case, visits to four sherry bodegas over the course of two days to see what’s on offer for the “sherry tourist”. For a more detailed account of our bodega visits you can see my friend Shawn’s blog, so for this post it’s just the basics. First off was Gonzalez Byass (famous for its Tio Pepe fino and the iconic Tio Pepe figure with its guitar and jauntily angled hat), the biggest bodega in Jerez. It’s certainly impressive, but for my money, although good fun, the tour was a bit like an extended advert, suitable for the beginner or people with only a casual interest. For the more mature student, a visit to one of the other bodegas we saw would be more appropriate – Lustau (who make La Ina), or Tradición, a fairly small bodega that specialises in well aged amontillados, olorosos and palo cortados, as well as a fascinating private art collection. We were also privileged to visit Urium, a small family run bodega that doesn’t normally do tours, where we were treated like royalty by host Alonso Ruiz. The bodegas themselves are fascinating, with the ranks of casks in long naves like cathedrals to sherry, although the first thing you notice, sometimes even from the street outside, is the pervasive aroma of the wine.
Another must for us was a visit to the market, which is in a lovely building on the edge of the old town. No real surprises, but the whole swordfish I spotted being unloaded was the first I’d ever seen. We also did the traditional chocolate and churros breakfast in the square outside, which certainly seemed to be a popular way for the locals to start the day.
When it comes to strolling around town, it seems that all roads lead to the Plaza Arenal. This is the big square on the side of the old town facing the modern part of the city, and is so named because of its past association with bullfighting. The square is pleasant enough (the decorative sherry casks paying homage to Jerez’s most famous product are quite fun), but the most interesting parts of the historic centre are close by. Most important of these is the Alcazar, the 11th century Moorish fortress, which
among other things holds the city’s only surviving mosque and minaret, baths, a later octagonal tower, and a formal garden. The walk from the Plaza Arenal past the old town hall and the Church of Santo Domingo to the Cathedral takes you through the oldest parts of the city. For those who, like me, are fascinated by such things, the area of derelict bodegas beyond the cathedral has a certain charm. Not far from here, in the Plaza Mercado, is the Archaeological museum, though unfortunately we didn’t have time to go and see it. Also worth seeing are the Cloisters of Santo Domingo and the remains of the old city wall in Calle Muro.
We found some good places to eat too, though our two favourites were both some way out of the centre. Nevertheless if you have the time traditional fish restaurant Bar Arturo was our absolute favourite, with great food, good service and a lively atmosphere. Ajo Negro was very much a modern bar, but again great food and service. In the area around Plaza Arenal Reino de Leon, Cruz Blanca, and Pulpo y Aparte all served us well.
Jerez is easy to get to, with regular trains to and from Seville, and a journey time of about an hour.