Half an hour ago I didn’t know there was such a thing as manzanilla amontillada; now I’m tipsy on it. I asked for an amontillado but the bartender poured me a glass of this unusual and similarly named manzanilla and, realising his mistake, let me have it as well. Between the amontillado, the amontillada and the manzanilla pasada (which I just had to try) I’m feeling decidedly warm on this hot day in Sanlucar de Barrameda – it’s the third day of a glorious spell of weather in Andalucia and I’m on my third sherry in the third town, after Jerez and El Puerto de Santa Maria, of the famous ‘sherry triangle’. The town, incidentally, from which Christopher Columbus set out on his third voyage to the New World.
Not that they call it sherry – in Sanlucar, it’s manzanilla: a dry wine that tastes a little saltier than finos from elsewhere. The subtle difference is the product of terroir – yeast and soil and all the rest of it – but it’s more romantic to believe (which is probably why people have been told as much for centuries) that the saltiness is added by the marine breezes that blow through the bodegas here, up on the hill that overlooks the town.
It isn’t difficult to see why the place has given rise to a little romance. Wine towns always have a certain something and Sanlucar has the added boon of the water. It occupies the river mouth of the Guadalquivir where it flows into the Atlantic. Sea breezes do indeed blow over the bodegas and the Plaza del Cabildo, lined with wine-from-the-barrel bars, is one of the prettiest and best-used squares I’ve seen in Andalucia – bustling with families at their leisure, at their coffee and ice cream, their wine and raciones.
It’s our first time in the town and we have walked around, trying to pin it down. There is an ordinariness to its casco antiguo – the ramshackle network of narrow streets is as unimpressed by the visitor as it is unimpressive to the eye looking for monument or magnificence. Overall though the place has a very pleasing effect. ‘Jerez-On-Sea’ is the best we can come up with and if you’ve been to Jerez you’ll appreciate the compliment: sleepy, pretty, a little shabby here and there and pure andaluz, top to bottom.
After ‘lunch’ we execute a wobbly amble along the town’s broad alameda down to the water – brown with silt but still pretty and dividing the town from the squat pine forests of the Doñana National Park on the other side of the river. The heat is a little intense – at least it is to a couple of blow-in tarifeños, accustomed to cool winds. It’s as if somebody has pressed the Summer button, too low on patience after what has been a long Winter to bother with Spring.
A few apartment buildings have gone up down here, catering to the Summer client by the look of them, but most of the space is taken up by villas – Victorian in appearance and on a grand scale: these too must have been Summer residences and we wonder who built them. Sherry money perhaps, looking to get out of Jerez in the heat. They appear incongruous now, more English or German in appearance than anything else. More of a mystery – who lives in them these days?
“Hay, que calor!” says the woman in the Spar we go into to get a bottle of water for our room.
“Finalmente!” I reply, but it seems to throw her. Perhaps it has been warm here in Sanlucar for a while. The Spar – a not at all Spanish phenomenon – provides the observant eye today with an object lesson in Spanishness. It’s a big one, the size of a supermarket, and this being around four on an Iberian afternoon, it’s utterly deserted. Most tellingly, there’s a bar. A bar in a Spar. And people ask me why I love this country. Next time somebody asks me that I’m giving them directions to the Spar in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
We have an ice cream back on the square and then sleep for a while, waking up to the familiar rhythm of a Spanish procession – two beats followed by three half beats – somewhere outside. We never find it and assume that a band is practising somewhere.
The town scores well on the food front. At lunchtime I have some beautiful dressed octopus and we share some velvety, rosemary-infused cheese. Now that night is falling we pick a place on the plaza for tapas and a skewer of flame-grilled fish. It’s a self-service bar which means I’m the waiter: up and down between the bar and our table outside as each dish (we order too much) appears from the kitchen, another first for me. We don’t even know what kind of fish it is – something big enough to be meaty and some smoked anchovies, a tuna pudding and a “Gypsy’s Arm” – a roulade of potato, egg and tuna.
Inexorably we are drawn back to the sherry bar for a night cap, and we splash out on a couple of palo cortados from local bodega Barbadillo. I adore palo cortado but K is a little critical of this one.
“It’s no Apostoles,” she says, referring to the (very expensive) palo cortado that Gonzalez Byass make.
Airs and graces.
We struggle to sleep in the heat – I spend half the night trying to understand the incomprehensible aircon, which I never manage to activate, and killing mosquitos. It makes for a cranky morning but we soothe ourselves with a breakfast in the castle courtyard up on the hill. On our way up we find ourselves among the bodegas, the distinctive aroma of this region’s fortified wine all around, mingling with the orange blossom.
The castle is intact and sturdy, another relic of the Guzmans, and the views from its octagonal tower take in the town, the river, the national park and the sea. Even Huelva, nearly seventy kilometres along the cast, can be seen from here, reminding us how close we are to Portugal. Kestrels nest in the masonry and flit around us. The various chambers of the tower are hung with antique cartography so we can check out the town, the region and Tarifa where we live.
Sanlucar has been a tonic – nothing spectacular, it has made a gentle, lulling impression on us. I got to try some new wines and we’ve had our first taste of real heat this year. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for this: a meandering, laid back post that comes from a meandering two days in a lovely, laid back place.Follow @RobinJGraham