Discovering the scents of Spain
The assault on the senses is immediate and strong: rich, fruity aromas from some of the the world’s best full-bodied sherries and then acrid barnyard smells from the horse stables of the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art. Welcome to Jerez.
Pronounced ‘‘Hereth’’, this city of 200,000 people is a surprise to the first-time visitor.
Jerez is Spain’s principal sherry producer. It and two other towns form a triangle within Cadiz province, where by law, all labelled sherry must come from.
The word ‘‘sherry’’ is an anglicisation of Xeres (Jerez).
Sixteen sherry bodegas are scattered around town – think heady, syrupy Pedro Ximenez.
Jerez is also the home of an illustrious equestrian school considered second only to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and among the top four in Europe.
With its large population of gitano, or gypsies, it is the regional centre for flamenco. All three cultural aspects come fabulously together during fiery fiestas.
Located northeast of Cadiz city, Jerez de la Frontera (its full name) is one of the first day stops on a fortnight tour of southern Spain with Tauck Tours, an Americanbased tour company specialising in small group travel, which began in Portugal.
We had made our way to Andalucia and the Mediterranean via the Unesco World Heritage site of medieval Evora, Portugal, with its Roman ruins.
Merida’s well-preserved Roman village, we learn, was established in 25BC as a retirement settlement for veterans after campaigns in Cantabria.
In Seville, we ride through flower-bedecked streets in horsedrawn carriages, marvel at the waffles-on-steroids Metropol Parasol in Plaza de la Encarnacion, admire the marbled halls of the Royal Alcazar and appreciate the unique Mudejar blend of Moorish and Castilian design.
I’m one of four Australians in an agreeable group of 28 comprising mostly Americans.
In Jerez, we watch some of the 120 mounts being groomed and put through their paces in a vast indoor arena. Some canter, others cross-step and others seem to skip and dance. It’s serious business as they are being primed for performances scheduled throughout the year.
This highly prestigious establishment accepts just six students chosen annually from some 60 to 70 applicants to train over a four-year period. Right next door is the Sandeman Bodega, where we learn about the solero sherry-making system from a guide dressed in a Zorro-style black cape and sample some of their best fortifieds, accompanied by tapas dishes for lunch.
We continue to Gibraltar, its presence a great anomaly in Europe. With its unique strategic position, the Rock has remained a British colony for 300 years.
Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly in 1969 to remain under British rule. Hence, today it is not amember of the European Union and uses the British pound. We drive to the top of the Rock and wander through the cavernous grotto of St Michael’s Cave.
Today, Gibraltar’s population of 30,000 is self-governing, with tax breaks that draw thousands of Spaniards across the border daily to buy duty-free cigarettes and alcohol.
On we go to Marbella, via kilometres of cookie-cutter holiday condominiums along the Costa del Sol, which boasts 320 days of sunshine a year. We stay in a hotel edging the beach, where endless rows of sun-loungers and straw beach brollies await the crowds.
With Spain’s current economic woes, tourists enjoy the half-price bargains everywhere and are especially pleased with the high quality of Spanish leather goods.
We wander the narrow cobblestone streets of the charming Moorish Old Town centred on the orange tree-filled Plaza de los Naranjos, wonder at the series of sculptures by Salvador Dali along Avenida del Mar and lunch at seafront Restaurante Santiago on first-flass seafood – Galician-style octopus with potatoes, baked garlic prawns and whole sea bass cooked in a salt crust.
The next day, we head north to Ronda, whose dramatic gorge-top location adds to its appeal amid the rugged Serrania de Ronda mountains, where long-horned sheep and wild goats roam and clusters of distant white-washed villages appear to float like clouds.
We take awalking tour of the city and visit the beautiful 18thcentury Plaza de Toros, or bullring, which is credited with establishing the rules of modern bullfighting.
An on-site museum celebrates the influential Romera family, whose son, Pedro, was a local bullfighting hero.
Although only a handful of fights are scheduled each year, a stroll through the empty ring evokes scenes of the passion, colour and emotion of this tradition.
The allure of the famed Alhambra (palace and fortress complex) precedes it as we look forward to our two-night stop in Granada. The trick here is to rise early to beat the 8000-strong crowd each day, although we already have prebooked entrance tickets.
We are among the first to walk through the dew-kissed Palacio de Generalife, where roses, irises, petunias, red-hot pokers, blue salvia and swooping boughs of purple bougainvillea thrive in the gardens.
Inside the walled medina of the 9th-century Arabic fortress, converted into a ‘‘paradise on earth’’ by the caliphs who ruled there in the 13th century, the many sites are understandably Unesco World Heritage listed.
You could spend all day visiting the impressive buildings, including the Museo de Belles Artes, with its square exterior and open-air circular interior; the exquisite Palacio Nazaries, considered the most superb Islamic building in Europe, with its labyrinth of courtyards and fountains, complex moulded stucco walls and intricately carved ceilings; and the Palacio de los Leones, where the central Patio de los Leones features a dozen white marble lion fountains in a beautiful courtyard of elaborate columns.
We lunch at awinery bodega in the country, enjoy a private flamenco show – the town has a large gypsy community – and later notice, very appropriately, the
Magnificent: The Mezquita, or Great Mosque, in Cordoba, has been the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption since the 13th century.
Seville: Metropol Parasol, by Juergen Mayer-Hermann, in Plaza de la Encarnacion in old Seville, was inspired by Seville Cathedral and ficus plants. Built between 2005 and 2011, the wooden structure hosts a market and an elevated plaza.
Illustrious: The equestrian school at Jerez to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.