700 years of sherry on horseback

2016-05-05 06:00:00

After living in Andalucía for over a year, I have started to get the sense that Jerez - the largest city in the province of Cadiz - is somewhat overlooked in favour of more ostentatious neighbours such as Cadiz (regional capital) and Seville. Like those other great ‘white cities’, Jerez has its own very own cultural identifiers - namely, horses and sherry - but, as a visitor destination for Spaniards as well as foreigners, it seems to have (or perhaps I should say ‘enjoy’) a rather obscure status. This, of course, only makes it more intriguing.
The same can be said of the first of Jerez’s two annual fairs, the delightful Feria del Caballo (‘Horse Fair’), held at the beginning of May (the Vendimia, or grape harvest, is celebrated in September). With all but a few of its 200+ casetas open to the public, this wonderful celebration of equine beauty is accessible to the passing visitor in a way that the Seville fair, its more loud-mouthed and exclusive predecessor, is not. And as with all of Andalucía’s annual fairs, the key to the Feria del Caballo’s unique nature - defined by stunning horses and a charming inclusivity - lies in its history and location.
The ubiquity of bars in Andalucía - where even the smallest, most ramshackle train station will be able to offer you a beer and tapas before you start your journey - tells you a very great deal about Andalusians. This is a region in which the potentially quotidian and mundane can be enlivened, even made pleasurable, with a little alcoholic refreshment and bite to eat - a fact which accounts for the birth of most southern Spanish ferias, including the Feria del Caballo.
Its heritage stretches back over 700 years to the reign of Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’ (‘The Wise’, reigned from 1254 to 1282), when farmers would come to the then-tiny village of Jerez every spring and autumn to trade livestock, in particular horses. The region’s many wine and sherry producers wasted no time in heading to these markets to lubricate the traders’ deals with a drink or two. Casetas - the white refreshment marquees so typical of Andalusian ferias - started to multiply as the market grew in size, but it was only at the end of the fifteenth century that participating vendors had to obtain official licences.
It was much later still, in 1903, that the horse fair - by that time complete with a sizeable funfair for children - moved to its own special location on the outskirts of town. And it was only in that year that the local authorities permitted individuals and societies to have private casetas at the fair. For its first several hundred years, then, the Feria del Caballo’s refreshments stands were open to anyone and everyone who came to the livestock market, rather than those who had contacts in the ‘better’- ie well-connected and monied - parts of society. In 2016, some seven hundred years later, this is still the case. And despite the annexation of a garish, deafening funfair that could be anywhere, the region’s beautiful horses are still the centrepiece of spring feria in Jerez.
After parking in a maze of identical, sun-baked sidestreets within earshot of the feria, my girlfriend and I got a little disorientated as we wove our way towards the noise. No matter, because after a few minutes of walking we were able to follow the stately progress of horses and their distinctively-dressed riders towards the casetas.
These expensively-maintained animals radiate health and strength, their plaited manes and tails colourfully decorated with flowers and ribbons. No less captivating are their elegant riders, dressed in the short blue jackets, tight black trousers and wide-brimmed hats that are so iconic of this feria. This costume is also the world-famous emblem of feria’s signature drink - the region’s Tio Pepe sherry (mixed with lemonade and fresh mint for the essential rebujitos). Women ride side-saddle, either on their own or with their partners. They look proud, aware of their elegance - but not arrogant.
The Feria del Caballo, day or night, is as breathtakingly colourful and life-affirming as anything you are likely to experience - period. During the daytime bright yellow sand, incomparable blue skies (Gerald Brenan wrote that the colour of Spanish skies is to other blues what the colour of blood is to other reds) and towering palm trees are the backdrop to the ornate carriages - 'paseo de caballos y enganches' - offering tours of the feria for about €30 - and the glistening, immaculately-groomed animals that pull them. Other horses are there purely to be shown off; their riders pull up outside the casetas for a fino or rebujito, remaining mounted while enjoying their refreshment. Despite the tremendous noise and movement that surrounds them, and the attention they are given by passers-by, the horses stay amazingly calm.
At night, the equine stars are absent and lights and dancing dominate. The Parisian-style boulevards that divide the fairground into blocks - wider and more enjoyable to walk down the narrower streets of Seville’s Real de la Feria - bustle under dazzling arches of lights that differ in theme for each street.
The caseta facades are elaborately and uniquely designed, while the casetas themselves pulse with endless Sevillanas, danced with irrepressible energy and varying levels of skill. In the Carrefour caseta, one dancer got so carried away that he smashed a hanging pot of geraniums off the wall into the lap of a fellow-reveller (both, presumably, committed customers of the supermarket chain). This caused laughter and joking rather than an altercation. An ambience of openness, warmth and sensuality prevails and the sherry-fuelled partying continues until 5am, when the casetas finally close for the night. Though the day is more for families, you will still see plenty of prams being wheeled around at 3am.
For me, the Feria del Caballo’s great appeal is only augmented by its being unaccountably overshadowed by other, more famous, Andalusian fairs. Its long-established inclusivity means no-one is left out of the fun, while being less well-known gives it more capacity to surprise the casual visitor. Despite having written this article, I rather hope this hugely enjoyable fair, which runs until Saturday, remains a bit of a secret.source surinenglish