Brotherhoods of Man

En route to Jerez we were discussing which one of us was ‘sweet’ and which one was ‘dry’… you may be surprised at the outcome! Parking up on the edge of Jerez de la Frontera right opposite a supermarket, a shopping centre and a cinema we had everything we needed, or so we thought. Given the shortage of Spanish truck drivers, the supermarket shelves weren’t as well stocked as we’d been used to, to date! Ah well, tapas it is! Leaving the storks in their nests, the size of a single bed, high up on the pylons, we headed out.

Getting the bus into the centre of the old town (which was €1.10 for 10 mins journey!) we passed a number of the large Bodegas; Fundador, Lustau and the well known Tio Pepe. We didn’t spot Señor Harvey Bristol though. A large proportion of the cities acreage is given over to these producers who encircle the old city walls, located as they are due to legacy. We hadn’t, in our ignorance, realised how concentrated it was (no pun intended!) or that most of the trade originally came into the UK through Bristol, hence the blend produced there. Given its C15th popularity with the British, the Bodega owners were often English, not so much these days but producers are the economic crutch for the whole area. There’s a fine line walked between the serious sherry stuff and the tourist/flamenco/bull fighting aspects of Jerez, although the visitors beetling about seemed to just be ‘day trippers’. Noting the tour buses outside the Bodegas we chose to give the tours a miss and enlighten ourselves with the locals instead.

Not surprisingly for this trip it had rained most of the day so the orange blossom, shaken awake by the rain, was in full aroma as we walked the dusk streets. A tiny shrine to Silvia Domecq Gonzalez caught our eye due to the curious and unusual nature of the old medical equipment used for children, adorning the walls. Being attached to Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios, we realised why.

In half light we were again seeing faded palaces in narrow streets and naturally, numerous churches. It was Saturday evening so a few were open for services. Santa Domingo had a lovely vaulted ceiling and ornate naves. All around, seating preparations were being made for Semana Santa procession watching. Anyhow, guess what, we had to dive into a local bar to do some sherry tasting with cheese, it started to rain.

The non Bodega ‘attractions’ are the Alcázar de Jerez and Catedral de Jerez. The Alcazar is a gorgeous space, now owned by the City after many years of neglect, and they’ve done a great restorative job, bringing alive the ornate Islamic influences, horseshoe arches, delicate vaulted ceilings and ornate stone carvings. Within the Palace itself, there’s a peculiar pharmacy and rooms adorned with fabulous old posters from the Gran Feria de Ganadas over the past 100 years. The artwork reflecting the changing styles and tastes as the years passed.

The Catedral de Jerez is a vast space, as they tend to be! Carved stone ceilings atop pretty plain columns, symbolism at every turn. The skull and symbolism in The Chapel of Souls was unusual to say the least, wouldn’t be out of place in Pirates of the Caribbean. Their float was being prepared for their Easter procession. As we left and wandered in the old Jewish Quarter we came across Paso (Processional Float/Table) carrying practice…. it was incredible to just watch. This one was being carried by 36 men and boy it looked heavy. The average man carries 50 kilo each for at least 8 hours as each table has an ornate wooden sculpture, typically of El Cristo or La Virgen. Normally the Paso is draped in velvet so the men (Costaleros) cannot be seen so this was a great insight, seeing them literally shuffle under the weight, perfecting the slow turns and manoeuvres necessary to fulfil this privilege. This would have been a brotherhood associated with a specific church.

Exploring more, and down a Barrio alleyway, we inevitably found more churches, the most dramatic one being Iglesia de San Miguel, baroque’d to within an inch of its life on the exterior and sadly closed that day, maybe the interior is plain magnolia walls? Anyhow, as the day was drawing on and we were in need of refreshment, a small bar beckoned for some more tasting and tapas and for those of you wondering, we found out, contrary to popular opinion, that I am the sweet one and Nick is dry… 🙂

From Jerez we took the long drive up past Seville and west, over to a place called El Rocio at Parque Nacional de Doñana. This NP is one of Europe’s most beautiful and important wetlands and has an incredible biodiversity. Considered the largest nature reserve in Europe, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. It’s a haven for migratory and breeding birds and we saw lots of variety. It is suggested they see 300 species annually. Our highlights being the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle, HooPoe’s, Red Chat Shrike and lots of Marsh Harriers. Anyhow, if you enjoy being in nature with binocs, seeing what’s out there, we’d recommend it. The joy is in finding them, identity is a bonus. Pics are off Nicks camera viewer!

Carefully managed, there are just three public entrances to some well controlled walks and hides. The areas are all different, one of them teases with road signs of Lynx Cats, wouldn’t we be the lucky ones! One also has a 1960’s built ‘palace’ built by a wealthy bloke to entertain his pals at (i.e. shoot game) When he died and after 10 years of neglect, restoration means it is now a superb museum to the history of the land and the preservation of it. The views from the tower across the land was great, other than the dark grey looming clouds! We managed to dodge them, completing the walk through the woodlands with ancient corks, myrtle, eucalyptus swishing for company as the winds picked up.

El Rocio itself is one of the oddest places we’ve ever been. A town of c.1500 people day to day, the roads are all sand, non are made. Folks tend to use horses frequently and there are horse training pens roadside and the centre looks like Clint Eastwood could be thrown out of a saloon building any time soon. Standing out, the large white church, is a curious spectacle in a place that looks like a Mexican ghost town. However, for a very short period at Whitsun, the town population swells massively. “Romeria del Rocio” is a Pilgrimage cum Jamboree where over 90 Brotherhoods converge from Cadiz, Malaga and West Seville provinces. The Brotherhoods converge after 2-4 days walking/staggering (there’s often drink involved) alongside lavishly decorated ox carts. Some are sensible, on horseback. They too carry their Paso to the celebrations. The town centre is dominated by each Brotherhoods hostel, these are only used for this period and remain empty the rest of the year. We can only imagine the spectacle that is The Pilgrimage of The Virgen of El Rocio, one day maybe we’ll see it if we can although any event that calls in the army to help manage the numbers, may be a bit tricky.

So anyhow, the Brotherhoods, they pop up everywhere. Every church we’ve been to has information about the specific associated ones, dress code, traditions and statues. Personally, there’s only One Brotherhood of Man for me and he’s been saving his kisses so I’m off for a smooch!

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