Andalucia has a (richly-deserved) reputation for a being a region of Spain that loves a fiesta. From April onwards, at any one time, several towns and cities around southern Spain are filled with people throwing up their arms and dancing in the streets – many shut down for a few days to concentrate on some serious partying.
So what is a feria? It’s when a mini-village of small, temporary house-tents are erected just outside the centre of town, and people come there to eat jamon and queso, drink sherry, dance Sevillanas, ride in their carriages, show off their magnificent Spanish horses, and generally put all their worries on the back burner for a few days to have a cracking good time.
I’ve been to the Seville Feria almost every year (with the odd exception for recently-born babies) since I arrived, which is quite a few hot afternoons and evenings spent traipsing around the recinto (fairground), trying to coordinate with friends to get into their casetas – in Seville, they’re private, you see; invitation-only. It’s also vast, with over 1,000 casetas. And this is why many people I know here, both Spanish and not, shun this feria as being too unmanageably large, exclusive and nobby. I had heard that other ferias were more open, and was curious to find out, so when a fellow Seville blogger, and tapas expert, suggested a trip to the Feria de Jerez with a visiting English food blogger, it was the perfect opportunity.
We went on Wednesday, which is Ladies’ Day at the Feria del Caballo (Horse Fair), as it’s officially called. As we arrived at the recinto quite early (it’s an hour by train from Seville, so easy-peasy), and there weren’t many other feriantes around yet, we could get a good idea of the scale. This feria is held in a park, with wide avenues, lined with palm trees and punctuated with pretty roundabouts decorated with sherry barrels.
The streets have plenty of space to ride up and down in your carriage – the Seville recinto‘s streets are much narrower, and it’s more cramped in general. The pavement here is vast, with room for 20 people to walk abreast – in Seville, you could barely fit five. The whole feria is a fraction of the size, with only 200-odd casetas. We stopped off at a corner caseta with a big terrace for some rebujito (fino sherry and lemonade) – our table was outside, with a great view of the jerezanos in their finery, and we had table service, none of which is the case in Seville. Recinto score: Jerez 1, Seville 0.
As we drank our jug of refreshing rebujito, we watched, entranced, as groups of middle-aged ladies started to arrive, dressed in the brightest colours like exotic butterflies – dancing in the street, singing as they walked, clicking their castanets. At a feria, women wear flamenca dresses, traditionally long and fitted, with spots and frilly skirts, with a matching shawl and flower in their hair. They’re the sort of dress which (I think) looks great on everyone, whatever their shape – as you can see in these photos. Many more women had chosen not to don the flamenca dress here, and the alternative feria outfit of choice was showing off your pins in micro-hotpants, with flower-in-hair optional. Sartorial score: Jerez 0, Sevilla 1
In terms of other sartorial differences with my “own” feria, I saw more short (knee-length) dresses here in Jerez than at the Feria de Sevilla, and more loose up-dos, as compared to the slick, pulled-back ponytails with flowers on top of the head – the girls in Seville look more Arabic, with very dark, straight, glossy barnets, while the English element in Jerez (sherry families, where English merchants and producers intermarried with Spanish aristocracy) seems to have left more fair hair – or maybe that’s just my own bonkers theory.
We saw women dancing in groups, accompanied by a drum and a flute – this is Andalucian celebration as it’s been for many years. Also women were driving carriages – not just as drivers (in uniform), but of their own horses. Another aspect of Ladies’ Day.
Jerez is very famous for its sherry (the word is an anglicized version, as the English who came to export, and then make it, couldn’t say hair-ezz), and one of the most famous is Tio Pepe – the man in red jacket and black hat. So we had arranged to rendezvous with various friends at the Gonzalez Byass caseta, reputed to be one of the best (indeed, it won a prize). A circular gazebo hung with billowing red and cream curtains, it is quite a sight, and unlike the stuffy, sweaty casetas at the Seville feria, a breeze blowing through made the steamily-hot day pleasantly warm.
Plied with chilled Tio Pepe, and even better the marvellous unfiltered, multi-layered Tio Pepe en Rama (only 6,000 bottles produced annually), we had a riotously good time. Various friends turned up, including Jose Pizarro, London-based Extremaduran chef and restaurateur, whom I interviewed a few years ago was there, as was Daily Telegraph Spain expert journalist Annie Bennett.
One of our hosts was the gregarious Antonio Flores, master blender at Gonzalez Byass – he’s the man who decides which barrels from the solera to use in the blending process of each sherry. An important job, you might say. He was tickled by our shared surname – Flores – and we snuck off for a cigarette break together (tut tut, I know – only when pissed, honest) like naughty children.
As well as horses and sherry, Jerez is also famous for a third typically Andalucian element: flamenco. As soon as the performance started – a singer and various dancers, wearing the signature black and red – the caseta filled up as the music and tac-a-tac drifted out into the street outside. Flamenco score: Jerez 1, Sevilla 0.
My return journey was slightly earlier than scheduled, due to some technical communications hitches, but I could not have enjoyed my visit to Jerez Feria more. Go if you can – if not this year, than next. I will be back, for sure. Final score: Jerez 2, Seville 1.
The Feria del Caballo in Jerez is on until tomorrow, Sunday 12 May, which also happens to be the deadline for voting in the BIBs blogging awards for which I was shortlisted. So if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, and would like to vote for me, please click on the button on the top left of this page to go to the voting form (Travel section), or alternatively just click on this link. Thank you!