Dis­cov­er­ing the scents of Spain

The Press - Escape - - ESCAPE -

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

Photo: REUTERS

Mag­nif­i­cent: The Mezquita, or Great Mosque, in Cor­doba, has been the Catholic Cathe­dral of Our Lady of the As­sump­tion since the 13th cen­tury.

Photo: REUTERS

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.

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