I've always loved horses, so much so, at thirteen my parents finally caved into our requests and bought us one. We were lucky yes, but spoilt no, it was indeed made 'crystal clear' that this horse was 'our responsibility' and so bicycle journeys to the stables ensued to look after our beautiful Blaze (his name).
Some years later as education studies and other interests took over, we agreed ‘Blaze’ would be sold and 30 years later here I am, still thinking about him.
So imagine my excitement when some pre-trip research revealed the ‘Feria de Caballo Jerez’ (Festival of the Horse, Jerez) would be making its post Covid return…and a mere two hour drive from our hotel base in Spain.
Finding out the mechanics of this feria was not the easiest task. It’s not really an international tourist event and both recent and historical online information was lacking somewhat, so after many a fruitless effort, we decided to ‘wing it’.
So why a festival to celebrate horses? Horses have been part of Jerez since early as 720 BC. It began with the ”Berber” horse breed from North Africa which was gradually refined with other breeds. Finally it was the monks of Jerez that succeeded in the breeding of the pure Andalusian horses, called ”Pura Raza Española”. The purity of the breed is strictly managed so as not to dilute its unique aesthetics, talents and of course, their ability to dance.
Yes, these horses actually dance and it all began at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation, in Jerez. According to the Foundation it was in May 1973 when King Juan Carlos I awarded Don Alvaro Domecq Romero the ‘Caballo de Oro’ (Golden Horse) trophy in Jerez. A most prestigious annual trophy in recognition of dedication and work carried out in favour of the horse. In return it’s said that Alvaro presented the show ”How the Andalusian Horses Dance” for the first time, and this marked the origin of the school.
To this day this show continues to flourish but the foundation is also known for activities of equal importance including the promotion of equestrian heritage, the selection of horses, training of high-quality riders, and much more. www.realescuela.org
Arriving in Jerez mid-morning we check into Hotel Dona Blanca, an attractive Spanish building with magnificent, shuttered windows keeping the 40-degree heat at bay. With handy underground parking and central old town location, its walking distance to everything.
It is too early for the feria, so we head into the centre and amongst old and new, horses and sherry are highlighted everywhere. From sculptures to fountains, it is clearly a city dedicated to the two. We head to the Alcazar de Jerez, a strong 11-12th century fortress and mosque with stunning Islamic gardens and a 17-18th century baroque palace with spectacular views of Jerez. www.andalucia.org
I’m excited, it’s time to check-out what we came for and thankfully it’s easier to find than expected, we simply follow locals in traditional and flamenco inspired outfits! We are definitely under-dressed. It’s quite a walk to the purpose-built González Hontoria fairground so we negotiate a reasonable fare in a horse-drawn taxi, what a way to arrive. The Feria de Caballo spans a week, starting at 1 pm each day and entry to the main site is free. In addition to the fair itself there are also ticketed events. The feria is vast, street-like lines of festival structures resemble origins of an older festival where ‘Casitas’ (small house/cabins) would have been. Each casita offers either food, music, drinks or a combination of all three. The colours, culture, dress and refreshments are a feast for the senses.
We head to Casita Buena Gente, organised by Spanish group Pena Flamenca Buena Gente (meaning: Good Flamenco, Good People). With a large bar and fans it provides relief from the temperature outside. Puzzled as to what happens here, we soon learn of impending live Flamenco and using Google Translate and our mediocre Spanish we chat to locals and almost immediately are welcomed like family.
As conversation and ice-cold Tio-Pepe dry-white sherry flows, the casita fills in anticipation of the music. We share plates of Jamon (cured ham) and Manchego cheese with our new friends. Excitement builds and the atmosphere is electric, even children fully embrace their heritage, the future Flamenco stars I think…
As musicians take to the stage, the guitarist, a younger Antonio Banderas type does a quick sound test, and music soon thunders into life. The singing, clapping, stamping and guitar rhythms make for feeling so alive. Flamenco’s roots are widely disputed but notes of Arabian, Moorish, Romany and Latin are all present and we dance, drink and eat with Jerez’s finest.
It’s already midnight and we step outside to a dazzling display of Moorish style lights, it’s the feria at night, we’re craving sustenance and head for carb heaven, roast pork loin rolls, delicious. More drinks, dancing and obligatory group selfies follow…a night to remember and one of the best, not bad for ‘winging-it’. Jerez we love you.