I find myself in the city of Sanlucar de Barrameda for the long weekend. Both the Saturday 6th and the Monday 8th of December are public holidays and it’s a time for celebration. The helpful tourist information office has given me a list of places to visit and another list of activities taking place in the town this month. There seems to be plenty to keep me occupied for the next few days.
On the first day I walk through the busy indoor market, smelling of salty fish and Arabic spices, and up to the old part of city. Amongst the large sherry warehouses I find the 15th century castle with a pleasant café inside the walls. Nearby is the Barbadillo sherry shop and museum where I learn about the 7 types of sherry that are produced in the region and get to try a few. The locally produced manzanilla is served chilled and has a sharp, acidic dryness that wakes me up but curls my tongue.
Down the road, hidden behind the imposing medieval Church of Our Lady of O, is the Ducal Palace of Medina Sidonia. There are some public areas, the palace is also a hotel, but to access the state rooms I need to join a guided tour in Spanish. I struggle to keep up with all the historical dates and names of the artists who painted the dreary religious paintings, which are badly in need of some restoration. There is antique furniture from all over Europe and beyond, displays of fans and ceramics, four poster beds with copper bedpans to warm the sheets and picture windows looking down on the city and beyond to the river Guadalquivir and the Donana National Park beyond.
On the second day I go in search of Zambombas. The tourist office described it as flamenco to Jingle Bells so I’m not quite sure what to expect. Perhaps professional flamenco dancers stamping away to Christmas carols? I check out the main squares, which are busy with people chatting over tapas and glasses of manzanilla, but no flamenco. However, as I stroll further into the maze of side streets, I can hear singing. Following the sounds, I arrive at a bar where a group of musicians are playing away while the locals dance in the streets. The young girls are particularly keen to show off their talents. There’s no Jingle Bells but the spirit of Christmas flamenco is definitely flowing through their bodies to the tips of their fingers.
On the third day I walk along the promenade to the far end of the beach to see a tradition dating back to 1845. Each August, horse races are held along the beach and I am lucky to arrive during an additional event for the younger riders. It’s all very professional with a parade ground where the judges and onlookers can view the horses and riders before the race. Then the horses are ridden along the beach for the stated distance of race before thundering back down along the sand to the finish line. There is a chill wind blowing but everyone is wrapped up and the stalls of free sherry help to warm us from the inside out.