It’s 4 am and all around me women are dressed to the nines, the only vehicle that has passed by in the last few hours is a horse-drawn cart – and the only drink I’ve had, is sherry.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I’d gone back in time, but in actual fact, I’m in Jerez, about an hour south of Seville, for the quintessential celebration of Spanish culture – Feria de Jerez. Also sometimes known as The Horse Fair, it’s legit, quite unlike anywhere else we’ve been before. We’re here as guests of Tio Pepe, which goes some way to explaining the non-stop sherry we’ve been consuming, but it’s practically mandatory whilst in the birthplace of the drink.
The festival is like a mini village, made up of semi-permanent tabancos (stalls, bars & restaurants) all with a unique identity. It’s a pretty impressive setup, with a light display to make Oxford Street at Christmas feel shortchanged. Like the rest of Spain, everything happens a little later than us Brits are used too. These guys think nothing of eating steak at midnight before moving to the feria. Don’t expect to get out of there before 3 am – on a mild night.
You might be having the time of your life, but try not to get too comfy in any one tabanco, you’ll only miss out on a party elsewhere. Best instead, to keep moving, much like you would between stages at Glastonbury. But if Glastonbury is all about avoiding puddles, you’ll be lucky if you leave the feria without a thick coating of dust. Flamenco will spring up around you, from seemingly nowhere, and even complete amateurs are encouraged to try the traditional dance moves. (Tip: twist the apple from a branch high above, and then throw it on the floor in a dramatic fashion – this seems to be the gist of most routines). There’s really not many tourists about (we didn’t feel like we saw any!), so for that reason the whole experience feels very special – and a world away from other trips to Spain we’ve had.
How to do Feria de Jerez like a local…
Channel your inner flamenco emoji. If anything you’ll look under-dressed.
Join in the dancing. Keep a close eye on someone that looks like they know what they’re doing and copy their every move.
Keep moving. The fear of missing out on a better party is real.
Drink anything other than Tio Pepe if you want to look like a local.
Go home before 3 am
Forget to have lunch (did we mention there was a LOT of sherry to be consumed?)
Outside the feria…
We’d recommend spending some time walking around the beautiful city of Jerez. If you’re visiting in May for the festival, you’ll be treated to the Jacaranda trees in full bloom. Great big purple beauties, they line the streets, scattering their petals along the walkways.
Unsurprisingly fish is the order of the day at A Mar, the latest venture from Jerez’ hugely popular Albores team. A super slick modern restaurant which cleverly combines the tradition of Jerez through the original brick walls and simply cooked yet high-quality ingredients. We tried some of the best tuna tartare we’d ever eaten, before moving on to salt-baked prawns, fish of the day and slices of grilled Iberian sirloin with Pedro Ximénez sauce and baked potatoes. Be sure to start with the local speciality, Salmorejo. A chilled tomato soup, similar to gazpacho, you’ll find this in just about every restaurant in town. It’s heavy on the garlic and topped with little chunks of jamon and crumbled hard-boiled egg.
You can’t visit Jerez without going on a Tio Pepe tour. We’ve had our fair share of cellar tours in the past, but Tio Pepe is vast! A mini-village, this is Disneyland for sherry drinkers. You’ll start with a walk along the cobbled streets with vines providing dappled shade from the scorching midday heat. Making our way past barrels signed from kings and queens of past, we spied signatures from English footballer Bobby Charlton, Steven Spielberg and Winston Churchill, just to name drop a few. Keep your eyes peeled for the Tio Pepe mouse which has its very own glass…
From food friendly Fino which must be ordered with tapas, to the sweet nectar of Noe made with 100% Pedro Ximenez which is best saved for dessert, we tasted our way through the whole Tio Pepe range.
Even the architecture is steeped in history. Back in 1862, in honour of a visit from Queen Isabel II, the construction of a new bodega called La Concha was commissioned from the engineer Gustav Eiffel. You know, the dude that came up with the Eiffel tower, you may have heard of him? Apparently the Eiffel tower team tried to buy it back but Tio Pepe wasn’t selling so it remains here today.
Later that evening we returned for the hotly anticipated Tio Pepe Challenge 2019, where Italian mixologist Marco Masiero claimed victory, beating top barmen from around the world. His winning recipe, ‘El Beso de la Flaca’ was a skilful mix of Tio Pepe Fino, Chardonnay infused with apricot, homemade tonic cordial and a dash of orange bitters.
To celebrate we were treated to a moving flamenco performance and an Andulasion feast of tuna tartare with almond cream, beef sirloin with truffles and olive oil and orange cake.
A hop, skip and a jump away from the main festival gates, this hotel is perfectly suited for late night wandering in the feria. Aside from the proximity, the hotel has a large outdoor pool for swimming off your hangover before doing it all again.
If Jerez is too far, you can also catch Feria de Londres at the Southbank!