JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, Spain — While the southern region of Andalusia is envied by other Spaniards as the home of "sherry, sun and beautiful women," this town can lay almost exclusive claim to the first, with more than its fair share of the latter two.
Phoenicians first cultivated vineyards in the area called Xera 3,000 years ago. The Romans later named the area Ceret and the Moors Shiraz before the English finally got it back to Xeres in the 17th Century.
Whatever the word's history, jerez (hair-ith) is what you ask for in a Spanish bodega , or restaurant, if you wish to start your meal in a civilized fashion.
Almost as important as sherry to most Jerezanos is their longstanding love and understanding of horses, particularly the distinctive Spanish horse developed from Arab stock by monks here. This magnificent animal was taken by a Hapsburg emperor to Austria in the 16th Century to become the elegant Lippizaners performing in Vienna's Spanish Riding School.
Jerez also is, historically, Moorish-Gypsy country, given to yet one more great love--the flamenco dance with its wailing African music, staccato rhythms, swirling ruffles and castanets.
The town has broad avenues lined with orange trees, small plazas, a maze of narrow but neat alleyways in the old section and a profusion of small cafes and bars where you may nibble on tapas . . . with a glass of sherry, of course.
To here: Fly Iberia direct to Madrid or take American and TWA with stops. Spain's Aviaco flies Madrid-Jerez in an hour.
How long/how much? Give Jerez two days, perhaps another for sojourns to the "white town" of Arcos de la Frontera, or to the old ports of Cadiz and Puerto de Santa Maria 22 miles away on the Mediterranean coast. Accommodations in town are moderate, while dining can be expensive.
A few fast facts: Spain's peseta recently traded at .0087, or 114 to the dollar. Winters are mild, summers moderately hot, with an agreeable humidity level that all adds up to the perfect climate for making sherry. Walk the old section of town where parking is a problem.
Settling in: Hotel Avenida (Avenida Alvaro Domecq 10; $57 to $68 double) has a great location near many city sights. This modern place has a cool marble lobby with black leather furnishings and handsome rugs. Bedrooms are contemporary, with most big-hotel amenities. Take breakfast and snacks in a bright and cheerful room.
Hotel Residencia Avila (Calle Avila 3; $35-$40 double) is on a quiet street in the old section, a small place with bar and breakfast room (the only meal served) just off the lobby. Bedrooms are simple but pleasant, baths fine.
Royal Sherry Park (Avenida Alvaro Domecq 11; $90-$100), in a park across from Hotel Avenida, is spread out in resort fashion, with handsome grounds, a pool and a feeling of seclusion. Bedrooms are contemporary, with TV, mini-bar and balconies. There's dining inside or on the terrace in summer.
Regional food and drink: Jerez and the province of Cadiz have the most varied cuisine in Andalusia, much of it based on marvelous seafood and the renowned Jabugo ham. Rinones al jerez (kidneys sauteed in pan juices and sherry) are a favorite.
Ajo caliente is a hearty hot garlic soup, but our favorite is the summertime ajo blanco , a chilled white soup made with garlic, almonds and olive oil; a few white grapes are added to give it flair. Pescaito frito , or fritura gaditana , will bring you the deep-fried mixed fish of Andalusia's Mediterranean coast.
Discussions of sherry can be endless, but here are the four major types: fino is dry, light in color and character, perfect with entremeses (hors d'oeuvre); manzanilla is very dry, almost tart, with a bouquet and taste of ripe apples; amontillado has a golden color and fuller body, and an aftertaste of hazelnuts to savor with your almonds and olives; oloroso has a full body, heady aroma, golden-red color, and is best for after a meal.
Good dining: Tendido 6 (Calle Cizco 10) is opposite the bullring, which accounts for its "Row 6" name. Owner Juan de la Flor knows every torero of the last several decades, and his restaurant is a wonderful study in rustic Andalusian style. There are lovely tiles and ironwork, and fresh carnations at every turn. Beautiful beams grace the tapas bar and dining rooms; the main dining area is a patio open to the sky in summer.
Choose from 20 fino sherries to start, then perhaps a tortilla de gambas , a Spanish omelet with shrimp. Then from a gigantic Chateaubriand for $13, partridge, loin of pork Andalusian style or several sturdy main courses. There's a fine selection of Rioja wines.
El Bosque (Avenida Alvaro Dome 26) is considered Jerez's finest by many locals, a gorgeous place filled with original regional paintings. But the fantastic food is the lure.