The land of the sherry wines is a fuzzy patchwork of dreamy fields that sit under that milky blue sky. Barley fields, vineyards and chalky ground formed a flag of white, green and yellow. Here and there a wine estate added a point of scale and reference to this undulating and dry place. It was a landscape dedicated to one product and the air hung heavy with flirtations of salt and fermented palomino grapes.
The town of Jerez, a typically Andalusian settlement of white walls and flowery balconies clinging to each other as they spilled away from the Moorish castle, would play host to our desire to drink. The air was heavy and hot and the streets, coloured with jacaranda, orange trees and roses, had already started to hum with the sound of the jerezanos coming out to breakfast in the sun. Tiny bars, white and rimmed with yellows; and tourists, silvery-haired like most in this area. One had to want to go to Jerez.
The impressive San Salvador cathedral glowed the colour of wet sand and its gargoyles spat water. Its door was guarded by one of those miserable beggars of Spain, that we would call gypsies, who moan as you approach and call out for money. You ignore them perhaps, and inside one is startled by the large, yet graceful, slate-coloured columns that slink around the knave and hide the decorative insides of its great cupola.
Fundador Pedro Domecq was situated on a rise and looked out at the cathedral. The oldest bodega in the town, Fundador was started in 1730. The low-key visit took in giant halls loaded with barrels and arches, pretty patios and picturesque gardens. Their generosity continued to the tasting: three sherries (a crisp fino, a smooth amontillado and a 30-year old oloroso) and a brandy. Enough to cushion the brain into a softer and slower mode of use. I already knew the story of the wine so I preoccupied myself with being smitten with our guide Mercedes. The two things I took away from the visit were that Spanish brandy was discovered by accident after the grape spirit left in sherry barrels warped out of recognition, and that Mercedes favourite sherry was Pedro Ximenez.
Heading west to the waters of the Guadalquivir estuary the air became spongy and moist. Sweat fell despite the lack of movement. At Sanlúcar de Barrameda a pleasing breeze blew the air along the long promenade. Attractive people were lounging on the unexpectedly vast beach that cradled the whole east flank of that great river. Across the brackish water was the low and unbroken line of Spanish pine trees that signalled the waterside start of the Doñana National Park; a vast area of wetlands and birds that UNESCO had deemed important enough to put on their list.
Lunch was taken in view of this difficult to visit park at Don Vicente. Its pretty local waitress, everyone seemed pretty in the south, and her quintessentially gaditano accent - an odd tongue loaded with ‘ch’ sounds and a propensity to swap the s in words for a z and vice versa; potentially leading to confusion as to whether they are talking about the house, casa, or the hunt, caza - brought us plates of Russian salad, flamenquín (deep-fried breaded jamón and pork rolls stuffed with cheese) and delicious grilled marrajo, Mako shark.
Time was failing us and people were getting tired in the heat, despite Sanlúcar’s cute and florid squares that were bursting with terraces and busy with fussy seagulls. I once again ran off on my own. I couldn’t leave the town without trying its particular brand of sherry, the manzanilla. A pleasure of these Spanish towns, and Sanlúcar was no different, was to lose oneself in the maze of lanes with nothing but a vague direction in mind. In the south little glass-covered indentions often presented themselves on the corners of the streets or above doorways. Behind the crystal one could spy little models and mannequins of virgins. A saint to pray to as sherry-led emotions bubbled to the surface.
At El Soberao, somewhere in one of the scruffier streets of the old fisherman’s town, I took a manzanilla. a San José poured generously straight from a little barrel and only costing a euro. The bar was full of that bouncy and acrobatic local accent and waiters in pressed white shirts hurried about serving tapas to the older ladies and gents gathered outside on the terrace. Boquerones, anchovies, cockles, salmorejo, fish eggs, octopus, crab claws and snails, all sat in their tin trays behind the glass display cabinets ready to be divvied up. I declined the food and bounced back to the car ready to return to Cadiz.
There was time enough to pay a brief visit to the somewhat hidden La Cartuja monastery 5km southeast of Jerez in an area of forgotten fields and somewhat shadowed by tall trees and orange groves. A grand and decorative front gateway, topped in that same mustard-coloured lichen as Santiago de Compostela and studded with orbs of either black glass or obsidian, hid a graceful courtyard and convent that still housed white-robed Belen nuns.
Through the gate one met a carpet of bright purple jacaranda leaves that had fallen from their perches. To the left was a dainty little chapel inside which was a nun quietly praying to a virgin. A light ray had broken through a crack and was illuminating the statue. I was not a religious man, but I could empathise in that moment. Outside, more purple and lilac flowers and high bushes led to the church: Andrés de Ribera’s frilly masterpiece hewn of bright sandstone and again mimicking Santiago with its inlaid statues of saints and amusing decorations.
A white nun opened a door and looked at me. Everything was silent and she smiled and looked around. I had lowered my camera, fighting the urge to photograph her, and made a pious face. As quick as she had arrived she disappeared through the big wooden door. I took it as a sign. My camera battery was depleted and I had seen a lot. Back in Cadiz we enjoyed a meal of gambas al ajillo, rock fish and local Iberian pig, at the La Despensa restaurant with its seaward views. We plotted the following day. It was time now to head east. Time to leave the land of sherry.