Jerez de la Frontera (Sherry of the Border)

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I’m so wrong about this place. Jerez is far from being a boring little obscure forgotten town, by the way and out of the way from Cadiz. And my original plan to spend two weeks writing my new book in this “one-horse town” only ends up loving Spain even more.

Contrary to my naïve first impression, Jerez is far from being a one-horse town. The Horse or El Caballo is one of the most distinguished symbols of Jerez. These Carthusian or Andalusian horses are excellent performers of strength and beauty characteristic of their breed. Throughout the year, equestrian events are held showcasing spectacular dressage shows with colourfully dressed señors and señoritas strutting their stuff on foot and on carriages. Ladies with flowers in their hair and colourful flowing Spanish dresses with their men in traditional Andalucian riding costumes, all looking dashing and flamboyant.

Talk about costumes and traditions, the old town is filled with flamenco music and dance studios, theatres and shops. According to the tourism brochure, Jerez is the birthplace of flamenco and is a magnet of flamenco enthusiasts from all over Spain and the world. Damn right, I’m spoiled now. Won’t see flamenco elsewhere except in Jerez where locals in tabernas will spontaneously perform a little song and dance when the mood is right after a few rounds of their fortified wines.

Not surprising, here is the place where the favourite after-dinner drink sherry first originated and how the place got its name. There are so many bodegas around town all offering tours and degustation for happy tourists to taste the ageing of a certain white palomino grape. Like ‘Champagne’, the name ‘Sherry’ is protected and can only be used for sweet wine produced here. By the way, Jerez means sherry in Spanish and is derived from various old names including Xerez.

Walk around the old town through meandering lanes and open squares, Christian buildings with Moorish ruins, Phoenician and Roman remains, signs of Spain’s golden age and today’s recession, peddlers selling garlic and other farm produce outside high Spanish fashion brands in classic buildings, a busker outside a restaurant, a vagabond admiring an old church, a group of old friends, young people, an odd guiri hoping to find inspiration to write.

Each evening when Steve comes back from work, he’ll ask “So did you get any writing done?” and it’s the same answer, “No, but I’m on to something” which really means I’ve not started on my book yet.

Well tomorrow I’m going back to Madrid after two lovely weeks in Jerez, the not-boring, not-obscure, many-horses city so superbly hidden from the world. And I think I’ve really got something going on now.

Joan Yap

Renfe train station to Madrid

Renfe train station to Madrid

All the Spanish brands are here - Mango, Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Sfera, Stradivarius..

Many of the Spanish brands are here – Mango, Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Sfera, Stradivarius..

Jeres shopping street

Jerez shopping street

Dogs wait while owners shop

Dogs wait while owners shop

A bodega

One of the many bodegas

Remains of an Arabic castle

Remains of an Arabic castle

A beautiful but neglected church

A beautiful but neglected church

Between religions

Between religions

Cathedral San Salvador

Cathedral San Salvador

Villamarta Theatre of the Arts

Villamarta Theatre of the Arts

Save this for the next trip back

Save this for the next trip back

 

 

 

 

 

Pueblos Blancos

Steve flies over these pretty amazing communities on hilltops and valleys, and wonders how they are like from the ground. As ever an eager traveller I am, it wasn’t difficult to be convinced of a visit to one or some of them.

Pueblos Blancos or White Towns of Andalucía as they are called, are well-known in this part of Spain. They were prehistoric settlements from cave homes to Moorish villages to uniformed towns under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. Apparently the whitewashing of these towns was mandated as a form of oppression and suppression of personal, social and political freedom.

That’s a generation ago. Today, they radiate with charm and calm with their quiet narrow cobbled paths, layers of white over layers of history, fascinating holes in the walls where people live and lived, Spanish tiles, Moorish styles, with every turn of the corner a surprising discovery, the top of a church, a grand lookout and even if there’s nothing interesting it’s the brilliant blue sky above gleaming white.

During this trip, I realized that Steve has a habit of parking his car at the bottom of each town so in order to enjoy the splendour of these ancient towns, we have to walk up and up, not really knowing exactly where the roads lead, sometimes into people’s courtyards and so we have to backtrack and find another way out and up. But that makes the visit so enjoyable and the view at the top so worthwhile.

Enough said. Pictures speak louder than words and I hope my phone camera does justice to the beauty of Medina-Sidonia, Ubrique and Arcos. Enjoy the photo-tour…Joan Yap

Out in the countryside powered by the wind

Out in the countryside powered by wind

Medina Sidonia - original site founded by the Phoenicians, and now by Steve.

Medina Sidonia – original site founded by the Phoenicians, and now by Steve.

The entire town is celebrating something, spring festival, Chinese New Year?

The entire town is celebrating something – spring festival, Chinese New Year?

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View from the restaurant we had our lunch

Ubrique - where big brands like Gucci & Loewe source their leather

Ubrique – where big brands like Gucci & Loewe source their leather

Way up to the top

Way up to the top

Another high point overlooking the white town

High point overlooking the white town

The narrow lanes of Arco where Steve is determined to walk up despite the car coming towards us

The narrow alleys of Arcos where Steve is determined to walk up despite the car coming towards us

Alley cat

Alley cat…don’t even think of asking it for directions.

This cutie is waiting for someone, kept looking round the corner and down the lane.

This cutie is waiting for someone, kept looking round the corner and down the lane.

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Halfway up, we realized we were walking the stations of the cross.

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Gate to courtyard houses

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The climax of our climb – view from the peak at Plaza del Cabildo

Midnight Flamenco

Luisa Palicio@

 “You must see a flamenco performance while you’re in Jerez.” Nieves urged me. “It’s the centre of flamenco in the world.”

So I asked Steve if we could find a flamenco place and he agreed we’ll look for the Sala Compañía, a cultural performance centre in the old town after dinner. The Sala Compañía is a simple stone building with a large wooden door and quiet façade. It was unimpressive but there was a queue outside the building .. at 11pm? There were no posters or signs to tell what’s going on so out of curiosity, I approached a couple to find out more in my limited Spanish.

But hey, the couple is from Taiwan and we chatted away in Mandarin, to Steve’s amusement that one can get by, even in this little Andalucían town or just about anywhere in the world with Chinese, English or Spanish.

As it turned out, it’s the opening night of the Flamenco Festival of Jerez with the first performance at midnight. Flamenco enthusiasts from all over the world are in Jerez attending the two-week festival with special performances and masterclasses.

There was no need to consider and no time to waste. We bought the tickets and joined the enthusiasts to watch the solo dance by a Luisa Palicio.

This was the first classic flamenco performance we’ve seen and we were surprisingly mesmerised. It was fiery, passionate, expressive, emotional, agonising, seductive… The music, the movements, the voices – perfectly choreographed into one electrifying hour of pure Spanish entertainment.

Steve and I couldn’t believe we would enjoy the flamenco so much. It was past 1am when we left the theatre, talking all the way back about the performance that we did not understand a single word and yet felt so much for the art form.

And we wouldn’t have experienced a world-class performance if we were at the place earlier or seen the queue or ask someone. What luck!

Joan Yap

An Overseas Chinese Abroad

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It’s nice to see pictures of family reunions, feasting and celebrations. Here in Jerez, time passes by like any ordinary day with not another Chinese person in sight, the spring festival brings peace and quiet reflection, fond memories of lunar new years past and loved ones all over the world.

As if to lift up the spirits, the sky finally cleared up after days of grey overcast. Chinese New Year’s day started with a bright brilliant morning, a clear blue sky all day, a cloudless night with the new waxing moon and Venus by its side.

The streets are lined with orange trees all over the old town and the fragrance of spring fills the air. It was beautiful.

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Gong Xi Fa Cai!” Steve wished me at dinnertime as we listened to Chinese songs from his collection from Singapore and Malaysia. “How does it feel to be Chinese? Or Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) as you probably are.”

And we went into a discussion about the notion of nations, the Chinese diaspora and racial dilution that I won’t bore you with.

But honestly, what defines a person? – race, culture, heritage, history, nationality, or where you live, what you do, things you like, people you’re with, values, practices, attitudes, outlooks?

Chinese New Year celebrates the coming of spring in agrarian societies and the tradition continues. Tradition is good. Reminds us of our roots. But our roots don’t define us.

I look Chinese, speak Chinese but I’m not as Chinese as a PRC or Hong Kong or Taiwan Chinese.” I explained to Steve.

Amongst the Chinese, we know where we stand in the Chineseness of things. And that makes it so fascinating. There are so many sub-cultures within the main Chinese culture.

And like everything else, one is an adaptation or a corruption of another over the years. What’s pure and original has been weakened and strengthened at the same time to create new traditions which will continue to evolve.

Throughout the 15 days of celebration, Chinese all over the world usher in the New Year with lion dances and other auspicious activities, wishes for prosperity and good fortune.

From Spain to my family and friends everywhere, my sincere greetings for this Chinese New Year –

祝你 新年快乐, 身体健康,万事如意

Wishing you Happiness and Good Health for the New Year, and Success in all you do.

Joan Yap

Sanlúcar de Barrameda

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Steve knows I am a history buff and drove to the coast yesterday to a place I’ve not heard of before.

Fancy this. We were on this insignificant-looking beach looking out at the insignificant body of water on a cold windy day. But this place is hardly insignificant at all. This was the gateway of the great Spanish explorations in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Here behind me, is the Atlantic Ocean and beyond the horizon was the New World where Italian Christopher Columbus sailed under the Spanish crown on his voyage across the Atlantic in search of Asian kingdoms simply because eastward was reserved for the Portuguese.

Of course what Columbus found was not Asia but the Americas, thus prompting the Spanish to commission other missions to establish new maritime routes to discover the mysterious Spice Islands and the incredible Orient.

Betting on the then hypothesis that the world is round and if you go west long enough, you’ll reach east, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was appointed to lead a fleet of five Spanish ships and 270 men to Asia by sailing westward to prove the point.

It was here, on the same shore that Magellan saw the Iberian coast for the last time. When he was butchered in the Philippines, the Spanish captain Juan Sebastián Elcano took control of the mission and successfully sailed home on the ship Victoria with a crew of 17 men back to this shore, completing the first circumnavigation of the Earth.

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Photo:Wikimedia.org

Sadly not much was done to glorify this amazing feat or much mentioned about these great explorers in school textbooks. All I could see was a concrete monumental stump with a metal arch stating a few words about Magellan’s fleet.

It’s like everyone knows Steve Jobs but not everyone knows who is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Steve showing where sea battle was fought

Steve showing where sea battle was fought

What’s even gloomier, Steve pointed out, was the Battle of Trafalgar fought between the British Royal Navy and the combined French and Spanish navies just off the coast from where we were. In that one decisive slaughter, Lord Nelson finished off the Europeans and that’s why the admiral was made to stand perpetually in T-Square, London.

Reminds me of what Tony said to me in Berdot about the significance of insignificance – that when all’s said and done, when the moment passes, then what was significant becomes insignificant.

… Steve and I walked away from the beach, the wind blew away our footsteps and nobody would ever know we were once there.

 Joan Yap

A Gift from the Nile

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Photo : Wikimedia.org

I’ve been warned that learning Spanish (or any new language) is a roller-coaster ride. How true!

It was getting manageable last week but this Monday I was ‘promoted’ to another class with far better students and what a struggle it had been.

Couldn’t take it anymore yesterday. Sneaked out for fresh air during class break. Wandered across the street to a park with ancient Egyptian monuments – The Templo de Debod.

The Templo de Debod was constructed in the 2nd century near the Nile River and bequeathed by Egypt in 1968 to Spain for her contribution in saving historical sites in the Great Dam of Aswan project.

What a sight to behold!

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Having feasted on the ancient beauty and the beautiful park, I rushed back to school to sit through the laborious Spanish grammar with a new vigour.

 Joan Yap

Night in the Theatre

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My new classmate, Mathilde and I decided to brave the theatre Saturday night to sit through the play – El Diario de Adan y Eva at the Teatro Bellas Artes.

Synopsis: Ana Milan and Fernando Guillén Cuervo is placed on the skin of a couple of successful radio hosts late 50s who, leaving behind their golden years, they meet again remembering the last story from his nightly broadcast dial: The Diary of Adam Eva and Mark Twain. Based on the comic tale of the famous writer, the version of Blanca Oteyza, Miguel Angel Sola and Manuel González presents a staging where the bound comic melancholy prevails.

The play is entirely dialogue, in Spanish no doubt and so must be the audience except for the two of us from France and Singapore, the odd couple.

Nevertheless it was an interesting experience. After a few minutes trying to pick up comprehensible words, I turned to focussing on the expressions, gestures and tones of the two exceptionally talented pair on stage.

Words didn’t matter anymore. It’s the power of acting, the giving-it-all to the audience, the love of the theatre that the performers did so well.

That’s what life is, isn’t it? And judge not by the words but by the acts. It’s what we do that counts.

Joan Yap