We were crammed elbow to elbow and hip to hip in front of the stage, parting only to make way for the waiter delivering trays of sherry whenever he yelled "permiso!," closing in again behind him like the Red Sea after the Israelites. Otherwise all eyes and ears craned towards the stage as the guitar player's fingers flew across the strings and the singer's soulful voice climbed up and down the scales while he clapped the rhythm.
We were watching our first flamenco performance in the place of it's birth, Jerez de la Frontera in the south of Spain. For the first two songs, the dancer sat in another chair beside the two musicians, offering counter-rhythmic clapping to accompany them. It was when she got up to dance that the performance became its most powerful. Shoulders back and feet stomping, her arms moved in graceful arcs while her hands twirled and clapped. Her face was immensely expressive, moving between serious, angry, joyful and flirtatious.
The singer's eyes were glued to her as she moved, and she also glanced frequently in his direction, allowing them to keep perfect time with each other. Audience members frequently cried out "olé!" in appreciation.
The room was so small that it seemed like she was looking right at me, although others in the room surely felt the same. Even though I couldn't understand the lyrics, I was easily caught up in the pasión.
Incredibly, the performance was free. The venue was Tabanco el Pasaje, one of many traditional sherry taverns that have been revived in recent years. All that was expected was to order a glass or two of locally produced sherry from the barrels behind the bar for a single euro each, and perhaps one or two tapas.
The food was surprisingly good. The tortilla (a sort of crust-less quiche with potatoes) and sliced chorizo were the best we had in Spain. I enjoyed the fino sherry, but Joy's oloroso (a 'sweeter' variety) didn't go down as well. So unwell that she ordered a Coke to swig after each sip of sherry! She was a trooper though, finishing half of it before giving up.
Bring on the dancing horses
In Andalusia, even the horses dance. The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art was actually our main reason for visiting Jerez. It's a place I probably wouldn't have gone on my own, but I'm so glad Joy's equestrian interests brought us there.
We showed up at the school well ahead of the noon performance so that we could tour the grounds, including a palace, equestrian museum, and numerous practice rings. Trainers were actively working with some of the horses, which was special to see up close. Other horses were cooling down from their training sessions in a sort of horsey merry-go-round equipped with electric partitions to keep them moving at the desired pace. Such gorgeous animals.
The formal show was quite a spectacle. Hosted in a small arena, it was like an equestrian 'Stars on Ice.' Against a soundtrack of classical music, horses and riders demonstrated feats of precision, power and control that even someone with limited equestrian knowledge like me could appreciate.
While the tricks that most wowed the audience had the horses rising up on their back legs and then jumping or kicking, it was just as impressive to see the disciplined group formations, the ballerina-like Spanish walk and a gait called the piaffe -- trotting precisely in place for an extended time. Some of these moves are well known to the horsey set, but it was all new to me.
At times there were multiple horses and riders performing simultaneously in different parts of the arena, making it hard to know which way to look. There was only one female rider in the performance, but Joy thought she was the most skilled.
Photography wasn't allowed, so the only way to fully appreciate all of this is to attend yourself! There are a few videos on the school's website, but they really don't do it justice.
Random acts of flamenco
In the white village of Arcos de la Frontera, we were treated to a more spontaneous form of the flamenco arts. Strains of classical guitar led us to a cliff-side terrace where a man was performing for a few onlookers. When two local 'tourists' happened upon the scene, they spontaneously joined him with enthusiastic singing and clapping.
Add in the stunning view of the surrounding valley, and it was one of those rare 'never forget' travel moments.
As if that wasn't exciting enough, we turned around to see a man across the way tending to a collection of birds of prey. He was representing a foundation focused on preservation, rescue and rehabilitation of owls and hawks, and he was accepting donations for a chance to pose with one of the birds. We took turns putting on the falconry gloves, the handler setting the birds onto our arms. Joy's owl was adorably soft, my hawk was majestic and surprisingly heavy.
There were other lovely sights around the old town of Arcos : quintessential narrow cobbled streets, colourful woven decorations strung between balconies, historic churches and hefty wooden doors.
Seeing the village was worth the 30 minute drive from Jerez, even though there was a parking payment incident involving a machine temporarily eating my credit card -- panic! I had the ridiculous idea of trying to exit through the entry lane to retrieve it, but of course that didn't work. In my abundance of concern about avoiding a crash into the barrier, I over-revved the engine to reverse back up the ramp. to the extent that we could smell a bit of burning from the gearbox! Sorry rental company, whose name I will not mention. It had been a while since I'd last driven a stick, so the reverse hill manoeuver was definitely a stretch.
I remain grateful for the local monthly parker who was surprised to have my credit card ejected when she pressed the entry button. Thankfully she believed my flustered gesturing and handed the it over, explaining that we needed to pay upstairs before exiting. Whew, travel nightmare narrowly avoided.
Costa de la Luz
I might have regretted renting the car altogether, but it was worthwhile for our trip to the gorgeous beach near Conil de la Frontera. It was about an hour from Jerez, and driving right up to the parking lot at Playa Fontanilla was much more convenient than taking a bus.
We found a long, wide swath of golden sand that was finer and much less crowded than any other European beach I've visited. It was a bit early in the season (mid May), but the temperature was in the low 30s Celsius -- plenty warm. The wind and occasional dips in the surf kept us mostly cool enough, but we definitely had to mind the sun.
We spent the hottest part of the afternoon at a beachfront restaurant, for the shade as much as the sustenance. The fresh fish was delicious, and so was the tinto verano -- red wine mixed with lemon soda. It was a welcome lazy day after a week or so of sightseeing.
Nothing without the horse
Our last day in Jerez was the opening day of the Ferria del Caballo -- the annual horse fair. Except we couldn't find the horses! Since the weather had taken a sweltering turn that day, we decided to wait until 6 pm to head down to the fair. We were supposed to see horses, riders and carriages promenading around the fairgrounds, but there were none to be found. Either we were too late, it was too hot for promenading, or both. It was still 34 degrees.
What we did find were rows and rows of party tents. Some hadn't started up yet for the evening, but others were in full swing with music, dancing and drinking. Half of them looked like family weddings, with all ages and generations dancing together. Others had more of a nightclub vibe with bouncers, DJs, and younger, drunker crowds packed onto their dance floors. Some women wore flamenco dresses; others were just in their best party wear.
As we walked between the rows of tents, our newly purchased fans being put to good use, a young woman invited us inside one of them for a free drink. Just like clubs all over the world, she was loading the place with women in order to attract men.
The drink tasted much like a mojito, and every group in the place seemed to be sharing a pitcher of it. I later found out we were drinking rebujitos, made with sherry (of course) mixed with lemon soda.
We enjoyed the drinks and the people watching, but we withered fairly soon in the heat. As much as we wanted to stay to see the evening illuminations, dusk was still a couple of hours away. We decided to head home and pack up for the next day's train journey. We did see two horses on the way out, but they belonged to police officers on patrol as opposed to riders in fancy dress.
Despite timing our visit around it and paying a premium accommodation rate for that final night, the Ferria was a bit of a bust. Not every travel plan works out perfectly, right?
Mas flamenco, por favor
There was one final flamenco experience when we moved on to Seville. This time it was a formal ticketed concert at La Casa del Flamenco in the historic Barrio Santa Cruz district. It was just as intimate as the bar in Jerez, set in a covered courtyard with only three rows of seating. In fact, it was so intimate that we feared getting sprayed by the sweat droplets flying off the male dancer's hair as he whipped his head during the performance! Ewww. We were thankful for the protective shield provided by our complimentary cardboard fans, a perfectly common item to wave in front of one's face on a steamy 32 degree evening.
This time there were four performers, with both male and female dancers in addition to the singer and guitar player. The expressions of the dancers were much more serious this time -- less playful than the Jerez version, and perhaps more fiery and powerful.
The guitar player was featured more prominently here, demonstrating his lightning-fast finger-roll strums in a couple of solo pieces. The female dancer also showcased a greater range of technique, layering on finger snapping and castanets for some songs, as well as more elaborate 'skirt dancing' when she changed to a longer-trained dress. She moved so forcefully that the flower from her hair went flying into the air, landing just offstage.
I'm so glad this traditional art form is still alive, and I hope it will be for centuries to come. In a tabanco bar, on a terrace with a view, in formal concert -- in any setting, it's a privilege to witness.