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07.27.07

jerez


Listen to Tio Gregorio el Borrico - "Mi Virgen De La Merced"
Buy
Grands Cantaores Du Flamenco, Volume 12

(Day five of the Spanish travel junket.)


After breakfast, it's goodbye to Seville. The itinerary says that our first stop is Jerez de la Frontera, and a visit and tasting at a wine cellar, but I'm sure - or as reasonably sure as I can be - that there's little if any wine produced in the south, and as the English corruption of Xerex, the original Muslim name of the town of Jerez, is sherry, I'm pretty sure that we'll be sipping fino before lunch. I'm right - gold star for me - and we pass one bodega after another on our way to the Domecq cellars.

Our guide, Jose, tells us that the various competing bodegas we're passing, once competitors in the sherry market, have all been bought up by various liquor conglomerates in the last few years; Domecq and Harvey's, for instance, were both acquired by Beam in the last few years, and now the whole of the region's complex network of vineyards and cellars is part of the global booze industry. The Domecq bodega is certainly a lot more picturesque than the winery I visited years ago in the north - a huge, nondescript shed in a suburban industrial park built over vast, dank underground cellars. We enter the gates and enter the first of a series of white-walled courtyards decorated with potted flowers and grape arbours, and make our way through a labyrinth of storehouses full of stacked rows of casks.

Called cellars, they're mostly above ground, at least at the Domecq bodega, and have doubtless been cleaned up quite a bit for tour groups, with hidden lights and paths of pounded ochre dirt. Toward the end of the tour we're showed the celebrity casks - barrels signed by famous visitors in chalk, which are duplicated in paint and preserved. Franco's cask is there, of course, in what seems like a less priviliged spot than it probably once occupied, and the ubiquitous Antonio Banderas. They've obviously been doing this for some time - one little grouping of stacked casks is marked with the names of George IV, Wellington, Pitt and Ruskin.

Next stop is the Royal Equestrian School. The show's just started when we get there, and get ushered into what seems like the royal box. Jerez is horse country, and the school is its most dignified public face, the showcase of the Spanish school of riding and horse-rearing. The first act is eight big, beautiful beasts with a rider and a pretty girl in colourful flamenco garb riding on the horse's high rump behind him. They execute a series of patterns around the oval, and give way to choreographed showcases of carriage riding and acrobatics set to classical music and marches.

At half-time, we're told to grab our cameras for a quick tour of the stables. There's a big dirt-floored atrium where the animals warm up, and a tall room in the centre where they store the saddles, reins and other gear in neat rows and glass-topped cases that would do a museum proud - so much so that a guide has to tell a small group that this isn't, in fact, a museum, but a display of working rig. Around it horses are combed and prepped for the ring or cooled down before being taken back to their stable. It's a tidy, beautifully-organized operation, the Ritz-Carlton of rodeos, you might say, and I only feel slightly terrified of the big, beautiful, powerful animals standing all around me.

I'm a city kid, through and through, and horses aren't exactly part of my day-to-day reality, except for the odd cop on horseback, patrolling the edge of a parade with aloof watchfulness. I wander around, taking photos and keeping a polite distance - just in case. The animals all seem relaxed, however, their ears back and eyes half-lidded. If I knew anything about horses, I'd call them the most beautifully trained I'd ever seen.

We skip the cathedral and alcazar of the town and head out instead to the Feria; it's summer fair time in Andalucia, and we're lucky enough to be here for the week when Jerez gets dressed up and goes on parade. The temporary streets in a large park are lined with bars and restaurants, the lampposts overhead are strung with a canopy of lights and every other woman in the town, regardless of age, seems to be wearing a vividly-coloured flamenco dress, accessorized with pulled-back hair and a mantilla.



Somewhere on the edge of the grounds there seem to be rides, but as far as I can tell there only two things to do at the Jerez feria - drink and eat, or promenade, either on foot or in one of the endless procession of polished carriages pulled by matched teams of horses in headdresses of tassels and pom-poms. I feel woefully underdressed, though grateful in some small way that today's the day I chose to wear my new western shirt with the roses and musical notes - call me the half-assed goodwill ambassador for the ersatz fringes of cowboy culture.

We pile back on the bus and head to Estepona, our stop for the night. It's another string in the hotel-and-condo necklace of the Costa del Sol, though it's supposed to be a rarity - a seaside holiday town more favoured by the Spanish than the English. We take the long way round back and forth along the beachfront boulevard before pulling up in front of the Estepona Palace, and check into long, bright rooms that end in a big patio, set along a curve facing the beach. The sun is at the top of its long drop into the west; the sky is cloudless and blue against the white walls and turrets of the hotel. For some people, this is the pay-off, the pot of gold at the end of the chartered plane ride. If I didn't shrivel and smoke in its direct rays, I might feel the same way.

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© 2007 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters, a conservative catholic, a professional photographer, tv and movie critic, and ten years ago i would have told you that this was impossible. then i would have taken a swing at you. i might have been drunk. i look nothing like william powell.

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