El Hammam

In Presentation on April 10, 2014 at 8:58 am

El Hammam

The feathery touch of the late sun against worn sandstone blocks, almost physical, like a warm breath.

In a plazuela to the side of the Iglesia San Dionisio, overlooked by a virgen in ceramics, K’s glass of water casting a long shadow and splitting the light into a colour spectrum on the arm of her chair.

The wrought iron doorway of the meson, swung open, and the waitress’ white shirt that catches the sun as she stands there.

To the left of the door, a window covered in iron lattice and behind that, glass panes framed by dark wood.

All of it set into the heavy blocks and all of it softy brilliant in the slanted sun, dappled in the shadows of the orange trees as the last light shines like time itself, animating everything.

Our table, which I thought messy at first and almost avoided till I saw that the others were the same, in fact strewn with fragile white stamen, fallen from the orange blossom overhead. The air sweet with its scent.

Hello again, Jerez.

The little plazuela is three-sided, opening up onto the larger Plaza de la Asunción with its weather-beaten but wonderful old cabildo – the 16th century town hall that functions as a library and museum today. There are a few people around this late Saturday afternoon but, as always in Jerez, it is quiet and uncrowded – the city is dappled with its own population the same way our table is with spots of sunlight.

We are a little blissed-out, having spent the afternoon in the warm waters, and hot waters, and cold waters, of a hammam: low-lit luxury, dim spaces and illuminated, perfumed pools. Obligatory Arab music and Moroccan lamps. Mint tea. I’m usually reluctant but, also usually, enjoy myself. K is made for it. There must be some oriental blood in her somewhere – the moment she sets foot in a hammam she looks like she’s come home. She saunters, she lolls, she lounges and floats, a look on her face like she’s about to break a prince’s heart, or order someone’s head on a stick whilst helping herself to a complimentary pastry.

She’s lovely, in the water.

I, on the other hand, come into my own in the bar. It’s a little early – as I sit in the square and look up at a stork on one of the rooftops that seems impossibly still until I realise it’s a fake – to launch an attack on the city’s tabancos, but pretty soon that’s exactly what we’ll do. A meandering series of olorosos, amontillados and palo cortados in the barrel rooms of the city, ending with a hazy few in San Pablo, K sitting at a table and watching my back as I stand at the bar and tuck into some tapas, under the impression that she’s gone to the bathroom and oblivious to her presence behind me. When she finally calls my name and asks what I think I’m doing, I bring the leftovers to her. It’s that end of the evening.

In the morning, through the thin walls of our hostal, we hear a guest clear his throat. For ninety minutes. I say clear his throat – it sounds more like the suicide attempt of a man who, finding nothing sharp to hand and not being in possession of a viable quantity of narcotics, has embarked on a spirited attempt to cough himself to death. It soon becomes clear, to us at least, that he’s made a poor choice and will not succeed, but say what you like about this guy – he’s no quitter.

I say cough, but the word does no justice to the violence of the noise that cracks into our room like the thong of a phlegm-soaked whip. I feel as though I and the lower reaches of this man’s oesophagus are really getting to know each other. Although a light hangover keeps us horizontal for a little while, in the end it’s too much and we dress quickly, heading out for a tostada on the Arenal.

On the square the morning light is just as soft and the shadows just as long as they were the previous afternoon by the church, but the air is fresher and the shadows cooler. There is the lulling rush of the huge fountain, a deep blue sky that heralds the first summery day of the year, the palm trees perky, the orange trees well-groomed and the odd stroller dapper in Franco-era Sunday best: sharply creased slacks, handkerchiefs that peep out of blazer pockets, waxed hair, shiny shoes and the like.

Pigeons on the black iron lamps.

After breakfast we walk down to the Sunday market, held each week below the ramparts of the Alcazar, where we always come across something noteworthy. This time it’s pottery – amidst all the broken dolls, old vinyl, antique furniture and general tat, we come across a gypsy woman selling incense and little nazareno-shaped burners. I buy a packet of charcoal from her too and she adds it all up incorrectly, overcharging us by fifty cent. It’s an honest error – she’s done it all out loud and simply made a mistake, but we don’t point it out to her, either because we’re slow to notice or because she looks like she could snap me in two, absent-mindedly.

On the other side of the Moorish fortifications – it’s too early in the year for the intervening avenue of jacarandas to burst with their blue blossom – is an art market, usually attended by a jerezano artist we like and who has a very distinctive, child-like style. For a pauper who lives in a rental with limited wall space, I buy too many pictures, but I can’t help myself this morning; I want to take some of all this beauty away with me. I choose an uncharacteristically conventional sketch of the city of Cádiz and almost certainly pay less than it’s worth.

It might seem contrary to eschew the style that attracted us to him in the first place, and equally so to take a picture of Cádiz home from a visit to Jerez, but then that’s what we love so much about the place – we’ve made it our own each time we’ve come, done our own thing. The bodegas, the horses, the feria – those things are emblematic of a city that is too rich to be defined by them. The real attraction here is more difficult to pin down. Tiene algo más. Tiene alma. I find myself resorting to contradictions in an effort to describe what draws us here – soporific but stimulating, shabby but elegant, full of music and boom-voiced cantadores, but quiet.

Dusty and dry but soaked in wine, and always cleansing.

  1. Must go back to Jerez … must go back to Jerez … must go back to Jerez …

  2. I must go! Why haven’t I been?! :-O

  3. Great reading Robin. I’ve only ever been once or twice, back in my El Puerto days, when I couldn’t really see past the bodegas, horses and ferias. I imagine I’d see the place in a much different light now, preferably a soft, hued and feathery one, like yours…

  4. Your writing takes me right there, invisibly, by your side. Loved your piece and thank you.

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