Living for Fiestas and Family

Don Harris | April 2014

Perhaps one of the most refreshing times for me is when my family and I join Spanish friends during their various festivals or ferias. It is a great chance to mix with friends and strangers during a time when the greater community is gathered to spend time together.

Recently I was watching HGTV, and it is clear to me that for us Americans, our home truly is our castle. The ideal house is designed for entertaining: with open spaces, glistening granite kitchens and places to entertain - indoors or outside on the patio with its commanding grilling area. When you are alone, you have your family room with its home entertainment center and perhaps a small office or computer room. It is designed to be a self-contained unit for a life spent in privacy.

The Spaniard’s approach to life is altogether different. Their living area is much more compact than ours. Home is not a refuge so much as a place to rest and refresh before enjoying life out in the public arena. They work to live, rather than diligently living to work. Are they less productive of goods and services? Perhaps. But their way of life is more productive in forming lasting human bonds.

What I enjoy is the constant rhythm of celebrations and festivals where the whole community catches up with one another. The month long season of Christmas through Three Kings Day affords many occasions for family gatherings, where children are celebrated and family ties are renewed. Next comes Carnival, anticipating the end of winter - a time for frolicking, risqué songs and general foolishness.

The community gathers on a more serious note when preparing for Semana Santa, Holy Week. In many cities and villages, it is an all-hands effort to prepare the pasos to be painfully borne through the streets on the backs of strong young men. Many others are practicing music for the processional bands. All of this pointing toward Pascua/Easter and the celebration of new life: buds on the tree branches, fresh blooms in the gardens and a new surge of optimism and energy. 

Springtime is a joyful time for everyone - a time for people to get together, and throughout the country it seems as if there is a new festival every week. Springtime in Andalucía is the most magical time of the year. Between Easter and the end of June you can immerse yourself in feria after feria, in town after town!

Let me tell you of three of my favorites. I warn you that if you follow in my footsteps you won’t get a lot of sleep! But you will meet many warm and friendly people, with whom you will drink many copas of sherry, hear a lot of flamenco music and, if you are adventurous, have fun dancing sevillanas.

Every April in Sevilla, the streets are lined with citrus trees laden with beautiful oranges. It is a sure sign that the amazing Feria de Abril is about to begin. The city grinds to a halt for a whole week so that everyone can visit with kinfolk in family casetas, tents built especially for the celebration. 

Each year the citizens build an immense gateway of lights - a facade of circles and towers which can be as high as 150 feet, and illuminated by hundreds of thousands of bulbs. Around the fairground you will see hundreds of young men and women in traditional dress mounted on graceful Andalusian horses.

As you stroll the fairground you will see sort of a tent city - each private caseta large enough to accommodate two dozen or so people. My son Jonathan and I had the privilege of being invited by a local family to join them in one of the private casetas. It had a small dance floor in the middle for people to dance flamenco-type sevillana dances as the spirit moves them. After a little bit of sherry Jonathan joined in the fun.

In the back was a grill with a chef preparing local fare: gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), artichoke hearts, tortilla potato omelets and glistening slices of Jamón Serrano. There is always plenty of Manzanilla sherry and Cruzcampo beer to accompany plump olives, slices of Manchego cheese and almonds. We had a memorable time with such cordial people.

Next on your itinerary is the amazing Feria de Caballos, the Fair of Horses, in the elegant sherry town of Jerez de la Frontera, an easy hour’s drive south of Sevilla. In Jerez, springtime sees the streets lined with so many orange trees laden with fruit that they become a nuisance, and the city hires men to sweep up hundreds of pieces of ripe fruit, which have dropped from the trees.

As you mingle among the people at the Feria de Caballos, you will see vintage horse drawn carriages with courtly families within. Handsome young men in classic feria attire ride astride the finest horses in Andalucía, often beautiful señoritas in their polka dotted flamenco dresses ride with them sidesaddle. 

In some ways you have the feeling of stepping into the past, almost like the antebellum South represented in Gone with the Wind. You will be among the legendary sherry families whose roots reach back to the 16th century, when Sir Francis Drake introduced the British Isles to sherry by shipping 2900 butts of sherry captured on one of his raids to Cádiz. 

The Spaniards intermarried with the British centuries ago, so that some of the leading families such as Osborne, Gordon or Terry have Scottish and Irish names. Unlike Sevilla, the individual casetas are more welcoming to visitors. Many are actually commercial ventures offering their best sherry and other products to the public at large.

If your appetite has not been sated by the splendor of Sevilla, and the elegance of Jerez de la Frontera, the next week it is time to go to the neighboring town of El Puerto de Santa María for the Feria de Fino - a celebration of fino, the classic dry sherry that was shipped from the port for centuries. 

The ambiance of this feria is very open and welcoming. When we were living in El Puerto de Santa María, we would see the neighborhood youths dancing sevillanas with their rhythmic clapping echoing off the cobblestone pavement and the plastered walls of the Osborne bodega.

Last year Ruth and I were invited by our friends Carmen and Juan Carlos to come along with them for an evening at the feria. They own the boutique sherry bodega, Gutierrez Colosía, situated near the Cádiz ferry landing and grew up among the many sherry families in town. They introduced us to some of their lifelong friends. 

I love my typical American home with the amenities I have come to expect and enjoy. However, a couple of weeks of mixing with the warm and gregarious Spanish people are good for my soul. Springtime is a wonderful time to go to Spain – before the summer heat and the hordes of tourists! Maybe we will see each other there one day.

Su amigo,