Friday, March 28, 2014

Jerez

That first night in a new time zone a quarter of the way around the world, is always tough. Every time I take a trip like this I am carried back to my earliest days of traveling to Asia, when I learned that if you are going to be successful in making the transition quickly you have to power your way through your body's inclination to stick to its regular time. Going to China was a bit easier, because you landed late afternoon (their time) and then struggled against your brain's desire for sleep, it having been in active mode for usually 26+ hours. You went to bed, passed out immediately and then woke up 3 hours later wondering why it wasn't day light. Whether or not you could successfully will yourself back to sleep was crucial, and once I figured that out, I learned to do it.

 And so it was here on our first night. One thing that works with our Spanish routine is that we get a huge dose of sunshine on Day One. We land early in the morning, catch a cab to Atocha station, drink a lot of coffee and then sit on a train for the better part of the afternoon. By the end of that you're tired, but you're no longer internally wondering where you are - it's daytime and you're moving. By that evening we're ready for bed and I usually zonk right out. Which I did, for 3 hours until I was magically transported back to my king sized bed in the Yangtze Renaissance where I learned to get back to sleep. Being a master of the technique helps now, I fell asleep again thinking about how the winter darkness last month in Paris had prevented me from changing over, something I did not wish to repeat.

 I learned something new that next morning - an iPhone used as an alarm clock sounds like a giant gas explosion when it's sitting on a wicker night stand. A completely new early morning aural experience, and not the best way to wake up. Now normally we'd allow ourselves a bit of leeway on Day One and sleep in for an hour or so, but not this time, because a big part of this trip was our planned side journey for the weekly show at the Fundacion Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre, the royal riding school for the Andalusian Horse. Being in Jerez, an hour's train ride south, it meant getting up early, getting out, getting a taxi and getting on a train in order to beat the closing of the school ticket office at 11AM. And since it is offered only on Thursdays we had no choice at all but to put aside getting acclimated to one place before moving on to the next.


And so after a quick breakfast we made our way down the unusually empty streets to the taxi stand on Mateo Gago, across from our favorite duck tapas place. The Giralda and the cathedral were beautifully lit by the rising sun, something I’d not seen before as our last apartment was blocks away and we never had a reason to be in the barrio this early. A cab was waiting, we grabbed it and we were on our way to Santa Justa station quickly.

The true rhythm of work day Sevilla was noticeable the instant we came out onto Menéndez Pelayo Boulevard. Barrio Santa Cruz exists on tourism which tends to be a late night affair – few people are wandering about at an early hour. Out here though, people on bikes and scooters and in cars were heading off to real work at real jobs and little heed was being paid to the thousand year old neighborhood that we’d just left. I suppose that’s the way it is everywhere that history and life collide – if you live in it, you don’t really have a reason to pay it any mind. The trip to the station was quicker than I’d anticipated and we had plenty of time to stand in a coffee shop scrum before our train was scheduled to depart. One thing I will say about the two coffee places at Santa Justa is that they are very much understaffed and the queue gets deep. But unlike most American establishments the baristas have a good sense of who is next and there are never any hard feelings due to being overlooked. It may be slow, but it’s fair and a Café Solo heals any wounds you’ve gained from standing and waiting.

My love affair with the Spanish train system continues – they’re always on time, they’re clean and they’re easy to navigate. We found our seats occupied by a woman who had her day’s work laid out on the center table. This was my first ride on a local commuter train, configured for people who want to spread out and work on their trip. I double checked my ticket and said “Permiso” and she looked up, gave a sigh and brusquely gathered her things. She was clearly squatting and her manner suggested that I was breaking her concentration by pointing out that she was in my seat. As it turned out, the train was mostly empty and so we could have sat anywhere, but doing so is a crap shoot in its own right as we have no idea who is going to show up and demanding their seats somewhere down the line. I had no way of knowing how the system worked and so I expected to sit where we’d been assigned. She grabbed her things and huffed off, leaving the car completely.

This was a different sort of ride than what I’ve grown accustomed to on the Ave, the fast train. Only 100MPH, with many more stops, the first being San Bernardo, reached before we’d even emerged out of the tunnels and into the daylight. From there we rolled on through farmlands, dividing up by big hedgerows of what looked like an Old World Prickly Pear cactus. There was an interesting elevated irrigation system running parallel to the tracks, sort of a narrow concrete channel distributing water to the fields. In places where it had broken or sprung leaks, the concrete pieces had been chopped out and left to rot on the ground, replaced with ersatz sections of metal. I’m not sure what the crops were though in some places feral cotton plants lined the fences and many sections were fallow, creating an interesting visual contrast between the blue of the sky, the green of the planted fields and the gray-brown of the sandy Spanish soil. Shadows from the clouds created drifting patterns on the hillsides, punctuating the occasional estancia off in the distance. Cattle Egrets dotted the fields.

Now I had checked the weather forecast the day before and it had called for sun and mild temperatures so I was quite surprised to see the skies turning an ugly shade of gray as we neared our destination. Naturally, believing in the science of meteorology, I’d elected to leave the umbrellas at home, preferring not to bear the burden of the extra weight. My mind was already set on buying a cheap tourist umbrella when what was really going on became apparent – we were seeing the rise of the morning marine fog. Jerez is not far from the Atlantic and this was nothing more than a regular early spring day. By the time we arrived it was clear, cold and a bit windy.

It wasn’t a huge distance from the station to the school, but we chose a cab as we had exactly one hour before the ticket office closed. The rules of the school are very restrictive – limited hours of operation, one show per week, and no tours on show day, etc. I had bought our tickets before leaving via their web site and as it turned out I was glad I did. The show turned out to be pretty much sold out with tickets mostly going to tours that arrived on big buses. I had a nice chat with the ticket agent, telling her that while I can speak Spanish pretty well, I can hardly understand it at all. She told me it was the same for her with English.

Being early though we had a very nice time wandering the grounds and watching the horses work out in the practice arenas before the crowds started to arrive. The history of the Andalusian horse stretches back into antiquity. Both the Iberians and Celts had horses well before the arrival of the Romans. The conquest of the Moors in the 8th century cemented the place of the horse in Spanish culture and their influence on the breeding stock and riding methods ultimately led to their defeat by the Christians. The Catholic Kings took great interest in developing the stock and passed many laws requiring brands, registration and banning exports in order to maintain the purity of the breed. Starting in the 15th century, breeding was controlled by a monastic order that established a stud farm in Jerez which was ultimately broken up when the French invaded in the early 19th century. Chaos ensued with horses being taken away and control of the breed being wrested from the Spanish. A parallel stud was established in Vienna, ultimately developing the Lipizzaner line. The Andalusian remained unique only in the countryside of Spain. Over the years, various stud farms developed and in 1973, the Royal School was founded to consolidate the development of the breed.

We had about 90 minutes to kill so we took a lot of photos of horses being worked, storks nesting in the trees and the boys working in the harness shop. The school museum turned out to be a star attraction, compact but absolutely loaded with information. My only complaint was a complete lack of a guide or brochure. The history of the horse was so well covered, spanning the time period from its evolution in the ancient Americas (where it was judged to be food) to its spread to Asia (where it was judged to be useful for more than food) to its domestication and diversification into modern breeds. No photos were allowed, sadly. We left and made our way across the now crowded grounds to our seat in the show arena.

Again, no photos, a rule that was strictly enforced with young women in red sweatshirts charging into the stands every time a camera was seen being lifted to the eye. I suppose part of it has to do with flashes spooking the horses, but I suspect mostly it’s due to intellectual property protection. An American Dad sitting with his family just below us was warned, and he looked none too happy about that admonition, sitting in a clear sulk for the remainder of the show.

We were treated to a solo performance, 8 horses working in hand, a show of pairs and then a break, followed by the “horse symphony,” 12 horses riding in precise synchronization. It was a spectacular event and well worth the time and energy it took to make the trip down. When it was over, we had planned to head to the gift shop before leaving but everything was closed. The school is clearly dedicated to its primary function and while it enjoys the tourist dollars, catering to visitors is a second order mission. We left through the exit gate and headed down the street towards the old city.

I had a pretty good idea where to go, but lacking a decent map we were dead reckoning a bit. I had downloaded an online guide to my iPad and we had a book by the patron saint of all travelers, Rick Steves but the two didn’t match very well. As I slowly incorporate tech into my travel habits I am constantly struck by just how short these modern tools come up. You bring up a PDF map on your device and wait for it to fully load, section by section. Of course you have to stand in the shade, because you can’t see the screen in the daylight, something that might be okay in July but is less attractive in March. A paper map still rules because you don’t have to push it around with your fingers to find the section you want, and you can see the streets and the legend at the same time. Of course the electronic version is closer to the reality you’re standing in, in contrast to the hand drawn version in the book in which the artist decided to eliminate 5 key intersections in their desire to fit it all on one page. In the end we decided to take a right and figure it out as we went. It turned out to be a good choice because we ended up in Plaza Plateros and at Café Gabriela for a perfect lunch of pork cheeks in Olorosa Sherry sauce, garlic potato salad and probably the best chunk of tuna in garlic sauce that I’d ever eaten. We sat outside in the sun, just out of the wind, eating and people watching and feeding bread to the resident flock of pigeons. Our waiter was great, a nice mix of energy and friendliness with just enough forgetfulness to be entertaining. I asked for his recommendation on a sherry, this being the second most famous product of Jerez (after horses) and he recommended what turned out to be an exquisite glass of Amontillado. It smelled and tasted just like what I had sampled at home, but without the sweetness and with perhaps ten times the flavor and depth. Just wonderful.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the old city. I don’t think that Jerez offers much in the way of tourism aside from food, wine and equines. Unlike Sevilla or any of the other ancient towns we’ve visited, Jerez has not been spruced up - it’s shabby and tired and not easy on the eyes. There are a few Mudejar churches from the 15th and 16th centuries and despite what Rick Steves says, the old Moorish Alcazar is worth visiting, but the rest of it is just not that interesting. We couldn’t get in the cathedral because the ticket seller was too busy talking on the phone. The city walls were nice for a stroll and the mezquita in the Alcazar was peaceful and beautiful as were the Arab baths where the skylights were stars cut into the brick domes. The walk back to the train station through just drove home the point that if you’re coming here it should be about horses and touring sherry bodegas and not much more. We stopped by a small hardware store for a power strip (our apartment like most in these old buildings lack adequate outlets) and had a nice chat with the owner about how big box stores have run all the small establishments out of business in the US before heading to the train.

We ended up waiting for the train by the same American family we’d seen at the horse show. Sullen Dad stood there on the platform with a sour look on his face, tuned into whatever he was listening to on his ear buds. Young Male Heir sat there playing soccer on his iPhone while Exasperated Mom spent her time negotiating with Obnoxious Younger Daughter who was locked in a battle of wills with Quiet Middle Daughter who was drawing horses on a napkin. Eventually Obnoxious Younger Daughter stormed off to sit by herself on a bench further down the platform. Sullen Dad tried to negotiate, but to no avail. I imagine when it’s all over and everyone is back home the day will be remembered as the wonderful spring break trip to Spain, but clearly in this moment no one was having fun. It’s a funny byproduct of traveling here, you tend to see the same people over and over, often on the morning train into these small places and on the evening train back. I’ll have to keep an eye open for this bunch as our week progresses.

As is often the case, the trip back seemed faster than it the trip out - familiarity breeds speed I guess. We arrived on time, grabbed a taxi, went home and donned warmer clothing before heading out for a walk and a stop for a couple of glasses of wine and two mugs of beer. The night was cool and the streets were now crowded with people in the hunt for tapas. We sat there for a good long while chatting with the waiter and people watching and simply enjoying the remains of the day before heading back home.

Click on Photos for an Enlarged View








 


























No comments: