On December 24, Christmas Eve—or Noche Buena (“Good Night”) as the Spanish call it—in the year 2015, at an egregious hour in the morning, we met up with a couple of guys that we had contacted through Blablacar to make the drive down to Jerez de la Frontera.
They were both extremely nice, agreeable fellows; but I’m afraid they had Andalusian accents and I could hardly understand them.
The people of Andalusia, you see, have something of a reputation. Their accent is distinctive and difficult for outsiders to understand. They speak in a rapid staccato, spitting out the words like a machine gun. Unlike in most of Spain, Andalusians do not pronounce c’s or z’s like “th” (often mocked, incorrectly, as the “Spanish lisp”); and instead pronounce all soft c’s and z’s like an “s,” as they do in Latin America. For most people this would not be a problem; but since I’m only used to Castillian Spanish this confuses me.
What is more, Andalusians drop the terminal “s” wherever it appears: tres becomes tre, gracias becomes gracia, and so on. To top it off, the consonants separating two ending vowels are also dropped, and the vowels are blended together into a dipthong: complicado becomes complicao. With all these factors taken together, the final result is, for me, an indistinct slur of sound that never resolves itself into separate words.
In sum, I could not understand them. So I slept; and GF slept; and we woke up and then fell asleep again.
The countryside of Andalucía, normally so flat and treeless that you can see for miles, was shrouded in a mysterious and impenetrable wall of fog. Apparently, mornings in the south of Spain are typically foggy, which I find odd considering how absolutely sunny and cloudless are the days.
But I had traveled this road before, when I went to Seville. So even though I couldn’t see much, memories flew by the window instead.
There are castles, I recalled: mostly run-down and in ruins, dotting the countryside; we must have passed five or six. Then there are the great, big, black silhouettes of bulls, which stood here and there, sometimes next to the highway and sometimes on a hillside beyond. These are the Osborne Bulls: signs that were originally set up as advertisements for Osborne brand sherry. Despite this prosaic commercial origin, they have since become something of a symbol for Spain, and you can find them on everything from T-shirts to book jackets to postcards.
I also remembered the livestock. The Spanish countryside has a rugged, rural, pastoral charm that I did not expect to find in an industrialized country. In what look like wild fields along the highways you can see cows grazing, sheep huddling in herds, and horses bathing their shiny coats in the sun. No human can be seen watching over them; not a fence is in sight—except perhaps and old, derelict stone barrier that looks short enough to hop over.
Then I thought of the wind turbines—those gigantic white towers, their blades meditatively spinning in the breeze—and the solar panels, glistening like the future itself in the sun. These new technologies served to break the spell of the castles and the wandering livestock, snapping you back to the twenty-first century. But they also showed a wonderful continuity; people still made their living here, and were still doing their best to achieve harmony with their environment.
But the castles and the bulls and the horses and the turbines were nowhere to be seen this morning; just the grey fog, the clouds overhead, and the few feet of road in front of us. I was having trouble staying awake, and still more trouble staying asleep. So I drifted in that unpleasant, cramped, confusing, groggy twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness, my neck hurting, my knees in pain, my eyelids feeling as though a gigantic weight had been placed upon them.
But then we arrived. Our driver, very kindly, drove us right up to the door of our Airbnb, and soon we found ourselves in Jerez de la Frontera, blinking in the familiar bright of the Andalusian sun, our bags sitting on the sidewalk, both of us tired and dazed, pressing the buzzer to get in.
Jerez de la Frontera
Our hosts were just as kind and friendly and welcoming as our driver had been. One of them, the husband, was a professor of Spanish and French from Switzerland; and his wife was a wonderful woman from Peru. They were hospitality incarnate; they gave us a tour of the neighborhood, told us about the bus schedule, provided us information about all the things to do and see in Jerez, and in general answered every question we had. Not only this, but they had the patience of saints with our halting, slow, mistake-ridden Spanish.
Soon we were on the bus, heading towards town. We arrived at 3:30 in Jerez de la Frontera, on Christmas Eve. The restaurants were jam-packed, the streets filled with so many people eating, drinking, and talking that there weren’t nearly enough chairs, so most people had to stand—not that anybody seemed to care. On Christmas Eve, apparently, the entire town celebrates by having an after-lunch drink.
With more hope than foresight, we thought we could visit some of the main sights of Jerez. First, we tried the Alcázar, a Moorish castle in the center of town. It was closed. Then we tried the cathedral. Closed. After that, we walked to a bodega (winery), to taste some famous sherry. (Jerez de la Frontera is the birthplace of sherry wine.) They were all closed, too. It was Christmastime in Andalusia, and the only places open were the restaurants.
So we walked around, somewhat aimlessly, feeling lost and out of place. What were we doing here? This was the holidays, a time for family, and here we were, just the two of us, alone in a strange city with nothing to do. After two hours of wandering, we decided we might as well eat, and sat down at the first restaurant we could find.
Two tables over an entire extended family was gathered together. They were playing flamenco. Three boys were strumming on guitars, others were stomping and clapping, and they were singing in unison, the women an octave higher than the men. It wasn’t professional by any means, but it was fun and exciting. As we sat outside in temperate sun, listening to this family play flamenco—not because they were being paid, but to celebrate the holiday—the day suddenly became ineffably romantic.
We sat at that restaurant as long as we could before they kicked us out—which was at about 5 o’clock. Then we walked back to the Airbnb.
It did not feel like Christmas Eve. We spoke with our families through Skype, but this only served to remind us of what we were missing. The loneliness was easy to forget during the day, when surrounded by crowds, overhearing small-talk, exchanging pleasantries with waiters. But as the sun went down and the shops began to close and the people retreated indoors to be with their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, we could not forget that we were not at home; that on another side of the globe, our own families were celebrating without us; and that instead of being surrounded by familiar faces, we were surrounded by faces entirely new, and even strange.
And with these thoughts, we went to sleep.
We got out of bed and went downstairs. Sadly, there weren’t any presents waiting for us, not even a tree; but there was breakfast. It was simple and delicious: bread, yogurt, fresh fruit, and Spanish ham. Even though our goodly hosts had eaten several hours before, they had sat at the table with us just to talk. As I sat there, I realized how odd it was to be staying at the house of a stranger—or, at least, someone we’d just met—during Christmas. It felt somehow intrusive and indecent. But then I remembered that our hosts were immigrants, too, and all their family was elsewhere as well. This made me feel a bit more at home.
We were off to town again, though we hardly knew what for. Just like yesterday, everything was closed; and today, not even the restaurants were busy. This time we didn’t even try to see anything. We sat down at a restaurant, ordered some food, and relaxed. I must admit, though, that I was getting a bit cranky by this point. Not only had I missed Christmas, but for what?
I calmed down a bit after I pulled out my book to read. I read and read, looking up now and again to observe people strolling by, kids playing, grandparents chiding, young couples chitchatting—and the day passed like this. I began to feel calm and happy. There is something strangely intoxicating about Andalusia. I don’t know quite what it is. A big part is just the weather. The sun is so bright that it’s hypnotic. The intense light is just so constantly present; it transforms everything, making colors brighter, laughter louder, people friendlier.
Then again, the people really are friendlier in Andalusia. Here the social instinct of the Spanish is expressed most fully. In New York, there are crowds, of course; but the crowds are always crowds of individuals thrown together more or less by accident, by force of circumstance. But the Andalusians, as I witnessed on Christmas Eve, congregate purposefully and joyfully—taking pleasure in the feeling of togetherness and camaraderie and excitement that good crowds generate.
The day wore on, and nothing much happened. I looked around the square; there wasn’t much to see. A cone-shaped, plastic Christmas light sat in the center. Beside that was a civic statue of someone riding a horse, surrounded by fountains and flowers. Palm trees were lightly swaying in the breeze. At another table, an elderly British woman was yelling at her dog every time it barked; but the dog didn’t seem to care, and kept on barking at every passerby.
Behind me some kids were riding around on a toy car ride that played cheesy music as it went by. Later, another group of kids were amusing themselves by exploding firecrackers in the middle of the plaza. These firecrackers were astoundingly loud, sounding like gunshots. I nearly jumped out of my seat the first time one went off. I’m still surprised that the kids’ parents, who were sitting nearby, didn’t mind their six and seven-year-olds playing with such powerful explosives. American parents would sooner let their kids eat gluten and get vaccinated.
We sat there four solid hours, until the sun began to set behind the restaurant, casting the square in shadow. Without the sun, I began to feel colder and more lonely. So we left. The walk back took us through several strip malls, all completely vacant. Although the sun was still out we could see the moon. It was full and seemed much bigger and closer than usual. Behind us the sun was setting, turning the sky a bright storybook pink and orange. By the time we reached the Airbnb, all was dark.
Everything was closed, even the supermarkets. What would we eat? Our hosts came to the rescue. In their freezer, they had cooked, seasoned pork chops ready to heat up, along with rice, potatoes, and salad. It was fantastic. We sat around the table, talking some more—the kind of supremely pleasant small-talk that is both interesting and easygoing, the kind that engages the mind enough to keep your attention but not so much to get you flustered.
We ate; we slept. Tomorrow we were leaving, so we only had the first part of the day to explore. Thus, even though I spent three days in Jerez, the time lost to Christmas closures resulted in only a half-day to visit the sites.
Jerez de la Frontera, translated literally into English, means “Sherry of the Border.” Indeed the English word “sherry” is an anglicization of “Xeres,” the antique name for this town. For it is here that the famous fortified wine originated. Situated just 7 miles (12 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Jerez enjoys a mixture of humidity and heat that has proven ideal for its trademark wine. This sprawling city has overtaken Cádiz, the regional capital, as the region’s most populous city; and apart from its wine it is know for being the home of the Grand Prix motorcycle race.
Our first stop was the Alcázar of Jerez. The word “alcázar” comes from the Arabic word for “fortress,” and many cities in Spain have one: Córdoba, Segovia, Toledo.
This alcázar is located right in the center of town, surrounded on all sides by pretty plazas filled with orange trees. Today this area was also filled with people. The locals were holding a market around the old fortress—a flea market, more precisely. Tables and tables were filled with all sorts of delightful rubbish, old plastic toys, dusty books with broken spines, varieties of colorful knickknacks, tiny statuettes for nativity scenes, and much else. We wandered through the crowd as we looked for the entrance, passing around the entire building before we finally found it.
The Alcázar of Jerez is a compound surrounded on all sides by a high wall. It was originally built when Jerez was a small Taifa kingdom during the Moorish period. Many of the internal structures—likely built of wood and therefore perishable—have disappeared, and a garden now occupies the center of the fortress.
An old Mosque, the only one that wasn’t destroyed by the conquering Christians, still stands (though I couldn’t identify it); and you can walk inside an old Moorish bath with its roof pierced with star-shaped holes. Also standing is the oven and the machinery that the Christian used to make their pottery. Yet the best part of the visit was just the opportunity to stand on the walls and see the whole city spread out before us.
After this we went across the plaza to see the city’s cathedral. The Jerez Cathedral is comparatively small. Indeed it wasn’t originally built as a cathedral, but as a church, and was only elevated to that status in 1980. Stylistically speaking, the building is eclectic: gothic flying buttresses were fixed to neoclassical columns. We walked in the door, excited to explore the interior, but stopped in our tracks. They were having a service.
The whole place was packed, every pew totally filled. At the altar, several white-robed priests were gathered. One of them was speaking through a microphone, his old, tired voice projected throughout the cavernous space. He sighed rather than preached, seeming to exhale the words with minimal emphasis. Meanwhile, his proclamations were punctuated by the cadences of an organ, going from the dominant to the tonic minor chord. This might have been the first time in my life that I’ve heard an organ in a cathedral. The sound was duly impressive. But more interesting were the musical interludes provided by a group of flamenco singers and guitar players. Yes, here in Jerez they even have flamenco in their church services. It sounded absolutely great in that old building, and provided a welcome contrast to the old gentleman’s fatiguing voice.
“You gonna put that in your blog?” GF asked as we walked out.
“Of course,” I said. “I put everything in my blog.”
This was the end of our time in Jerez. We had to eat lunch, pick up our luggage, and catch a train to our next stop. I still regret that we didn’t get to visit one of the town’s famous sherry wineries. I suppose I’ll just have to come back.