We go to Jerez.
Up the N340, onto the the A396 at Vejer and onwards towards Medina Sidonia looking for the A389 to Arcos. Not finding the A389, we bicker and then we switch on the satnav bitch and let her guide us onto the A381 towards Jerez. It’s too soon to be there though and we have a day trip to Arcos planned so we slip onto the A4 and then eastwards on the A382. Jesus Christ, it’s like algebra. One moment we’re whizzing along on a grand adventure, the next we’ve missed our exit and it instantly becomes an exercise in failure and inadequacy. Anyway, we get to Arcos. Jesus.
We enjoy Arcos, a town draped over a couple of heights along a sandstone ridge and very well endowed with pueblo blanco charm and tourists, and after a couple of hours we find our way back to the car and head for Jerez. Arcos facts for the interested; it used to be Berber, it’s very big for a pueblo blanco, it does indeed boast many arches (arcos).
It is impossible for us to near Jerez feeling anything but carefree optimism. We love it. We came to Spain more excited about places like Seville and Granada, Cádiz and Córdoba but we have never had a bad time in Jerez. It is a sleepy, laid-back town, encrusted in shabby elegance. Famed for flamenco, sherry bodegas and horsemanship, we have somehow managed to avoid all three so far, favouring our patented “wandering around the place and eating things” approach.
This time we drive in to the old town past the recinto ferial, the grounds where the famous Feria del Caballo is held each year, a burst of equestrian and celebratory noise and bustle. It’s wound down now and empty – the casetas not yet disassembled, awnings flapping about in a hot breeze. The streets tighten and acquire cobbles as we reach the hotel. We’ve splurged so there’s a welcome drink at the bar while we’re checked in and aircon in the room which overlooks a walled, fern-laden garden.
We find the streets of Jerez breathtaking every time. Astonishing. Mesmerising. Shocking, even. Choose your superlative. As we walk we are slack-jawed and open-mouthed. It isn’t the elegant facades or the little plazuelas, nor is it the orange trees or cooling fountains. Truth be told, Seville is more regal, Granada has more drama, Córdoba more history and Cádiz is more striking to the eye.
No, it’s the emptiness.
It’s a Saturday afternoon. Even taking siesta into account you would expect, wandering from one end of the old town to the other, to see more than the dozen or so people we stroll past. Where is everyone? We still don’t know the answer though it’s a question we ask each time we come here.
You’d think it might be boring, but it isn’t. It is soporific and gentle and quiet, the perfect antidote to a noisier Spain when you need it. And – let’s not forget – in its modest, shambling way, it is beautiful. The Art Deco clock that overlooks the Plaza del Arenal, the handsome half circle of the Gallo Azul building, the sturdy cube of the Alcazar’s corner, the slender and seperate cathedral tower.
We poke around the few shops that are open and return to our lovely roof terrace to take a shaded seat. It goes against the grain with me not to be tramping up and down every street in the city, photographing every corner, but we’ve had a sad time of it and we came for rest. I sit and read. K sleeps.
That night we sit in La Cruz Blanca looking over a terrace that sprawls messily across an irregular little plazuela. Our favourite place to eat, here and possibly in Spain. The trees overhead are blue and strike bailaora poses. The flowers that rain from their fern-like branches form a carpet for our feet so the blue is above, below and all around.
We leave it at a couple of tapas as we have other places to try this time, recommended by the dueña where we’re staying. We’re eating early (it’s between eight and nine) and most places are just opening up. The next on our route is a name chef affair – all black and white seating and artwork, over-keen waiters in floor-length aprons. We’re the first in, and they pounce; in the course of eating three tapas we find ourselves dealing with at least four of them.
They send the new guy, a young man with a friendly smile, to take our order. I have questions about the menu. He doesn’t have answers; he has to return to his colleagues three times to retrieve information.
“Is like this.” Hands gesturing to indicate size.
It’s pleasantly comical and puts a smile on our faces. The food is accomplished – asparagus tempura, crab lasagne and so on. The service could have been written by Samuel Beckett. There’s a little receptacle of tapa-sized cutlery on the table that has three knives and five little forks in it. A waiter comes by and replaces it with another. This new one has four knives and three little forks.
Perhaps the most descriptive detail of our visit this time is the fact that the following morning, despite our room being right in the city centre, we are woken by a cockerel. A persistent one. We have breakfast and head for the Sunday market.
Overlooked by the bastions of the alcazar, the market is a pleasure each time we come. We have seen wonders here – illustrated editions of the Thousand and One Nights, whole households laid out on trestle tables. Social history up for grabs. We meander up and down and although nothing appeals this time round we are absorbed as usual.
For every picturesque item, every polished antique, there is a different order of merchandise. Some of the stalls here are an illustration of life’s fragility, windows into the reality of people living without margin. The lucky ones sell things – naked plastic dolls, tacky second-hand shoes, old paperbacks. Then there are the lowest orders, selling not things but – quite literally – bits of things. Half a spirit level here, a broken hinge there.
When we’re finished we stroll through the alameda. The jacarandas have followed us; the leafy green canopy is interspersed with their particular blue. It is a blissful setting and we are not remiss in feeling fortunate; recent tragedies and ongoing worries notwithstanding, we’re doing ok.
Another nearby park has an art market going on and we take a shine to one of the artists. Goaded by a need to seize the day we fork out more than we usually would on a little painting. It’s a bailaora in acrylics, striking a jacaranda pose. It’ll hang on our wall and remind us.