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RUNNER UP ARTICLE in SKYLINES TRAVEL WRITER OF THE YEAR 2001
JEREZ - the beautiful
Sam North

The Barrio, Jerez old town, New life in old windows. © Sam North

JEREZ:
The Rough Guide 2000 issue says ‘...you’re unlikely to want to make more than a quick visit between buses, the town, while pleasant, is hardly distinctive...’

Well, by all means move on. Don’t go, don’t get off the train, because Jerez, is without doubt one of the most wonderful towns in Spain and if you just want to drink, lie on a beach and eye up English slappers on holiday, then Jerez is not your destiny at all. But if you stay, you’ll find the Spain you didn’t know you were looking for.

Even at the end of October it is hot, 29c during the days. This is a wonderful dry heat, one is quite comfortable strolling and exploring. Jerez station is undergoing restructuring, but the ceramic tiles on the old building survive and immediately you can tell that this is a town that is proud of itself. It’s easy to be dismissive when all you can see at first are new tower blocks going up all around the station, but you just have to accept that the Spanish are at least building new homes with all modern amenities for their growing and young populations. These are either for rental or for purchase and not expensive by UK terms. They will bed in, trees will be eventually planted and given time, it won’t look so stark. Get beyond this into old Jerez and be prepared for a delightful surprise. Jerez de la Frontera is built around plaza after plaza, each street lined with heavily laden orange trees and Jacarandas. The dimensions and scale of the town are perfectly proportioned and serve as a great contrast the the medieval tone of Cadiz. Jerez is in part a planned city with haphazard side-streets but one can see that some of the civic planning of the Romans, and after them the Moors, has survived. The town is old, we are looking at much that survived more than 1000 years. The eleventh century Alcazar is worth a visit and so is the small but useful Archeological Museum in the Plaza Mercado. Even if you aren’t interested in pre-history or the Roman and Moorish remains, or even the 7th Century Persian helmet, just savour a perfect building that completely recaptures the spirit of a Roman villa with its internal courtyards and cool marble floors.

Opposite the Alcazar they are refurbishing an old warehouse as apartments and as you wander the barrios of Jerez one becomes aware of how important history is to the town and how sympathetic the architects are to the past when they design even new buildings within the old walls.
Jerez is full of pavement cafes, the waiters and waitresses are friendly and helpful, the town is welcoming everywhere you go. If it is too hot for you, find a shady open spot outside a cafe and they’ll bring patatas commodores out to you, a thin fried crispy pancake with shrimps and chilled wine or whatever you want.

Everywhere you turn in Jerez you will find something elegant, another little plaza you missed, always a bank. I have never seen so many banks in one town. For shopping the Larga is the avenue for you, cutting through the centre of town, and paved. This is one town that has at least realised that cars can be kept out of the centre.

The Mango store is in an old bank building and is at the cutting edge of style in Jerez, a sign of what may happen to the other banks, once the inevitable financial consolidation begins.

Of course Jerez means sherry and you can’t avoid the bodegas or the sherry producers. Harveys is right by the station, but the prettiest and most central is Gonzalez Byass. Even if you don’t like sherry, it’s worth looking around or taking at least one tour and don’t forget to sample the Jerez brandy which is surprisingly smooth and easy to swallow. Wine towns are always civilised and Jerez is no exception. The commercial streets are wide and tree lined, the barrios are low scale, filled with houses that hide the courtyards within. A number of local people are moving out of these old mud-walled homes to the new apartments just out of town. Perhaps they are tired of the noise, the lack of modern facilities, but now, thanks to new laws, sitting tenants can be removed or rehoused and a lot of these barrio homes are being taken over by wealthy incomers or local professionals who completely refurbish them, rejecting the apartment lifestyles. Some of these places have been completely run down because up until now, people have been paying rents as little as one hundred pesetas a month and landlords just could not afford to maintain them. It has been a downward spiral for Jerez housing for decades and only the building of new subsidised apartment blocks outside of town has managed to change peoples way of thinking and motivate them to leave the old barrios.

Jerez is very much a town in transition. There are simple delights, discovering at the intersection beside St Domingo’s Church (1264) the delightful arbour covered street of Porvera. 1264 is a key date as this is when the town was taken back from the Moors.

(If you are looking for similarities the City of Savannah in Georgia has a similar feel and perhaps Stellenbosch in South Africa, another wine town but neither has this much history to boast about.)
The Moors left Jerez a long time ago. Alfonso X the Wise still has a monument to his victory over it. Like Sevilla, Jerez was a town ruled by the Moors, who showed remarkable tolerance for others, letting Christians and Jews alone for the most part. From the quantity of evidence of archeological remains, Jerez went through a building boom in the eleventh century and again, the sixteenth where many churches have been built on the site of old mosques. It pretty much froze at that level and size for the next four hundred years and thus was saved the ravages of ‘progress’. The town feels relaxed and in summer the siesta is taken seriously, I am told, as it gets to be pretty hot here.

There are two other reasons to come to Jerez, Flamenco and dancing horses. Flamenco began its revival here and now people come from all over the world to study in the old traditions here. You can find out more in the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco in the hard to find Plaza de San Juan. The best Flamenco flares up in different places around the town and and on weekends performers often go to Sevilla to entertain there. After the attraction of Flamenco, the horse has place of honour here and on Thursdays at noon you can see the best equestrian skills on show at the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art Avda, Duque de Abrantes. For details about all of the above you can call the Turismo Office Tel: 956 180 732 or 956 331 150

Hotels are reasonably priced and unlike Cadiz hoteliers they are friendly and usually have some good English or French. I stayed at Hotel Trujillo on Calle Medina. It’s handy for everywhere in town and a single rate can start as low as 3600 ptas a night off-season, but more normally 4400 ptas. Tel: 956 34 24 38. The service is good, the room which comes with a shower and toilet spotless and the there is 24 hour access.

Jerez isn’t competing with the Prado or the beach life (which is only an hour away) but it does offer something else, peace and quiet, a measured life. The market is excellent, the restaurants serve tasty and very fresh food and it is not surprising that I kept bumping into Americans and English people who have made their homes here. Jerez is a place for artists who love the light , writers who like to be warm and dancers who like to stomp their feet. Furthermore Jerez inspires loyalty. Walk it and enjoy.


Calle Porvera

Jerez

JEREZ PROFILE:
Jo comes from Arizona, she was a professor of dance there at the Tucson University, but suddenly, seven years ago she found Flamenco and her true self. She moved to Jerez. Even in her fifties it must have been daunting, but now in her sixties she is here for life. She’s bought a tumble-down Jerez barrio home and in what she hopes is an improving area (her Argentinian neighbours hope so too for the area was known for its drug problems and prostitution). Jo is rescuing the house piece by piece. One cannot say brick by brick because there are no bricks, it is made of mud and bits of stone and wood. She has great plans for the house, but little money. She teaches English and Dance to survive.
Rescuing this traditional home with its courtyards is a lifetime proposition. Even now new homes aren’t exactly built to last, but nevertheless this home has to be at least 200 years old. The home she has bought is just a short walk from the city centre and is only cheap because it took two generations to get the tenants out who were paying just 100 pesetas a year for the entire place. (Around 40 cents US) Whole rows of the barrios were similarly affected and although landlords were supposed to maintain the homes, they just could not afford to. Decades of rent control delivers this and tenants could pass their rights on to the next generations and the next. It is not like that now, but the law has only just changed.

When you walk around Jerez or Cadiz, which has the same sitting tenant problem, you can see perfectly good buildings some still inhabited but virtual ruins and it makes no sense until you understand the these things. Rent control destroys property values and eventually destroys the properties themselves. But beware of jumping on a plane and heading for the nearest bargain in Jerez. There are still a lot of disputed rights and the courts take their time, just one sitting tenant and you may have to wait centuries...

The new apartment blocks outside of town help the situation. Tenants find fresh water in the taps, showers that work, space and comfort and state subsidised rents. It must be tempting. Of course they are walking away from those lovely inner courtyards with their lemon trees and orange blossoms, but in a ruin, who cares. In the barrio you also have the problem of urban crime, barking dogs, unsilenced motor scooters echoing down the impossibly narrow streets. Your neighbours’ window may overlook your house and be less than four feet away. Yet for Jo and others like her, investing in these old barrio homes gives them a way of life that is virtually impossible in modern America and although it is hard to find good plumbers and builders and you will have to do a lot of the work yourself, the pleasure of living so close to town and restoring, rebuilding, bringing these pretty large spaces back to life is so fantastically rewarding. Jo is lucky, she has two courtyards and what was an industrial workshop will be her dance studio. In neither America or England do we build such character spaces. The nearest one can compare it to is loft spaces, but loft spaces are usually one space and these are many spaces around courtyards open to the clear blue sky. Restored well, these places are perfect dwellings for new lifestyles.

So it is odd to see that what Spanish developers are pushing to foreigners and their own home-buyers are housing estates in the middle of nowhere . These dwellings are usually in a terrace, or semi-detached, with little patches of gardens or a balcony and your view is usually scrubbed dusty fields. There is nowhere to walk to, no community, none of the very things that makes Spanish life so unique. You will pay something like 16 million pesetas and up. Buy something in town that gives you the same space or more and you could be spending just 12 Million pesetas. (Do beware of red tape however. Every little alteration will require an official to be paid and they will always find something that you didn’t have a permit for.)

LIVING IN SPAIN
Get the language, this is essential. Few people speak English and in Jerez and Cadiz the accent is much stronger than Madrid. To buy a home you will need a lawyer, a bank that is used to international banking, an income stream (because everything costs more than you think). The local Spanish owner can get away with murder. You the foreigner will be watched, talked about, informed upon, especially if you have bought in a cheap area. Learning Spanish before you come will prevent many problems and they will warm to you and help you so much more if you make the effort.
Getting to Jerez. Fly to Madrid or Sevilla, catch the AVE train or Andalucian Express. Either way, it’s just an hour from Sevilla and three and a half from Madrid. There is also an airport at Malaga roughly and hour and half’s drive away.

What do homes cost in Cadiz or Jerez?
Well in town they are not cheap for something that is refurbished. 20-30 million pesetas for a comfortable three/four bedroomed home in the city. If you buy a ruin, you could get away with 10 million, but aim to spend that again on building work. (add 40 percent since 2000)

You are buying a way of life that is impossible to live in the UK or America. There will be no parking, you will never get privacy again, it will not be quiet, ever. You will have to walk everywhere, but you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this earlier. Do not be fooled into thinking it never gets cool either. Winter nights can be chilly, so make sure you fit insulation and a heater. But if you’re thinking of buying, buy now. Before the guide books discover just how nice Jerez really is.

© Sam North 2000
Prices, places, currencies have changed since 2000. Your travel experience is unique.
This is based on one journey at a particular time - things change.

I remember old Jerez
by Lionel Darmendrail
- letter from France

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