Glorious Andalucía: My Days in Cádiz

Jonathan Harris | February 2019

Cool, misty rain is falling here in Virginia. This soggy, soaking weather prepares the way for spring, when plants sprout through the earth and cover the countryside with vibrant green. During these short, gloomy days of winter I find myself daydreaming about my days living in El Puerto de Santa María in vibrant Andalucía.

The warm, sunny climate is inviting of course, but I also yearn for the bright whitewashed buildings, delicious food and relaxed, welcoming culture. The sherry town of El Puerto sits on the bay of Cádiz and its beautiful beaches look out on that ancient city. You can wander the streets for hours, the air filled with the intoxicating aroma of the sherry bodegas. I remember stopping at Restaurante Romerijo with its amazing display of remarkably fresh seafood and feasting on delicious langostinos prawns and tiny cigalas lobsters. Pescaíto frito is the signature dish of the region – fresh fish deep fried in olive oil. Whole fried anchovies called boquerones fritos is the dish I miss the most.

Visiting a sherry bodega is an experience of a lifetime. These buildings, often centuries old, are built to maintain a constant temperature. The thick whitewashed walls support a massive roof covered in ceramic tiles. I remember walking into the Gutierrez Colosía bodega in the blazing heat of summer. Entering the cavernous warehouse, I was greeted with a peaceful darkness and surprisingly cool, humid atmosphere. Strolling down the aisles of enormous sherry barrels, I looked up at the curved arches that supported the roof. It was as if I had stepped into an ancient cathedral dedicated to this very special wine.

Sherry is a misunderstood masterpiece. It is actually a family of wines, from bone-dry, crisp Fino to nutty, aromatic Amontillado to raisiny-sweet Pedro Ximénez. What they share is a process called Solera, where wine is aged and transferred from top barrel to middle barrel to bottom barrel every year. This way a sherry contains a little wine from years or even decades past. During aging, the surface of the wine is covered with ‘flor,’ a beneficial yeast that slows oxidation. Less oxidized wines like Fino and Manzanilla are almost crystal clear, whereas more oxidized sherries like Oloroso and Amontillado have a warm, mahogany hue.

Plunging her long-handled dipper into a barrel, our guide Carmen poured us glasses of Fino sherry. The bright, aromatic wine was cool and refreshing. No wonder it is the classic pairing for seafood in Andalucía!

El Puerto de Santa María is one of the birthplaces of flamenco singing and it is common to see people dancing an impromptu Sevillana dance, with friends providing the distinct rhythmic clapping of the region. In late spring the season of Ferias begins. These centuries-old festivals used to be livestock fairs but are now a celebration that attracts the whole community, many of whom dress in extravagant flamenco-style dresses and arrive on horseback. Families host casetas, floored tents where they drink wine and dance into the night with their friends.

Across the bay in the city of Cádiz, everyone is excited for the famous Carnaval celebration this time of year. Every year during Lent, the whole city practically grinds to a halt for two full weeks! Large groups of performers called ‘chirigotas‘ parade through the streets in makeup and costumes, performing satirical songs and reciting sarcastic speeches. Far from the glitz and glamour of the Carnival in Brazil, this Carnaval is all about wit and irreverence, mocking politicians and prominent citizens. As you can imagine, the authorities have tried to ban Carnaval many times over the centuries, to no avail. This festival encapsulates the Gaditano love for celebration and community, for enjoying the moment and not taking life too seriously.

Not far from Cádiz is a pretty seaside village called Rota. Historically a fishing port, it now mostly depends on tourism and the large naval base nearby, run by the US Navy. My father, Don Harris, was a chaplain stationed at the base for a few years in the 1970s. Instead of living on base housing, my parents decided to experience the real Spain. We first moved into a house in El Puerto de Santa María on a busy street, and I hear the story of daily walks to the city market and filling plastic bottles with sherry at the front office of a local bodega. After a few months of experiencing the downtown cacophony, including parades and late-night revelry, they decided to move to the quiet Vista Hermosa neighborhood on the edge of town where their three small sons could get some sleep!

Later, I moved to the same neighborhood with my wife and two small daughters. We loved the flowering jacaranda trees and lollipop pines swaying in the wind. Occasionally the hot ‘levante’ winds would suddenly blow in from the Mediterranean, originating in the Sahara, and buffet the area until the windows rattled, and tree limbs slapped against the roof. This was so startling that on pretty days we avoided using the word ‘levante,’ in fear that just mentioning it would bring on another blast of wind!

As you probably know, the sun sets late in Spain. Because the country is on the same time zone as central Europe, everything seems to be happening later. We used to put our young daughters to bed at 8pm. Our Spanish neighbors were shocked – the sun wasn’t close to setting and it seemed like we were putting them in bed in middle of the afternoon! The locals took the opposite approach. I remember standing at a high table outside of a tapas bar downtown at 11pm enjoying a beer and seeing young kids chasing after each other in the square while their parents sat nearby. This is perfectly sensible when you remember that dinner is typically served at 9 or 10pm.

Further down the road is one of my favorite Andalucian cities, Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Guarding the mouth of the Guadilquivir river, it is an ancient, vivacious city with a scruffy edge. Columbus’s first voyage launched from Sanlúcar and much of the treasure of the Americas passed by on its way up the river to Seville. Legend has it that the city of Bonanza on the other side of the river was the origin of the famous exclamation referring to sudden riches. The beautiful Plaza de Cabildo in Sanlúcar is the perfect place to enjoy fresh tortillitas de camarones and other seafood tapas with a frosty glass of the famous local Manzanilla sherry.

There are so many great places to visit nearby: Jerez de la Frontera is a regal sherry town just 20 minutes inland, Chipiona is a beautiful old beach town, Medina-Sidonia’s whitewashed buildings bring you back centuries to the rule of the Moors.

But what I most remember is the warmth of the people, sharing time together over glass of sherry or caña of beer, often singing and clapping as they celebrate the end of a long sunny day.