The Las Vegas
Of Spain
I went to Jerez to arrange a visit to Las Marismas, the great area of desert and marsh at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, where the last of the wild camels, presumed to have been brought in from the Canary Islands, but first recorded in 1868 by a naturalist called Saunders, have only recently been captured and subdued to the plough. At Jerez it happened that the man who owned most of Las Marismas was away for two days on his country estate, so while waiting for his return I went on to Sanlúcar de Barrameda for the annual feria of the Divine Shepherdess.

Sanlúcar is twelve miles south-west of Jerez, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir. It was the Las Vegas of Spain in the Middle Ages before the completion of the Christian reconquest, famous in particular for its homosexuals --- a tradition which lingered until the Civil War, when the puritans on both sides used machine-guns to suppress entertainment by male dancers, who went in for long hair, women's clothing, and false breasts.

Across the river from Sanlucar there is nothing but desert and marshes almost all the way to the Portuguese frontier. The half-wild fighting bulls roam in the wasteland beyond the last house, and its men are fishermen and bull-herders as well as producers of splendid sherry. It is one of the many mysteries of the wine trade that an identical vine, growing in identical soil at Jerez de la Frontera, should produce a fino sherry, while at Sanlúcar it produces the austere and pungent manzanilla.

The road to Sanlúcar went through the whitish plain of the frontierland between the ancient Moorish and Christian kingdoms. A few low hillocks were capped bloodily with poppies; there was a distant sparkle of solitary adobe huts; some bulls were moving quietly in the grassy places on short, stiff legs; and storks planed majestically overhead in the clean spring sky. The peasants, holiday cigars clenched in their teeth, were coming out of their fields for the fiesta; hard, fleshless men in black serge and corduroy who bestrode the rumps of their donkeys with the melancholy arrogance of riders in the Triumph of Death. The countryside smelt of the sweet rankness of cattle, and the villages of dust, saddlery and jasmine. Sometimes, as the car passed a scarlet thicket of cactus and geraniums, a nightingale scattered a few notes through the window.

Sanlúcar was a fine Andalusian town laid out in a disciplined Moorish style, white and rectangular, with high grilled windows and the cool refuge of a patio in every house. The third evening of the feria, which is spread out over four days, was flaring in its streets. There had been a horse show, and prizes for the best Andalusian costumes; and now family parties had settled round tables outside their house doors to drink sherry and dance a little in a spontaneous and desultory fashion, for their own entertainment and that of their neighbours.

It was the time of the evening when handsome and impertinent gipsies had appeared on the streets with performing dogs, and a street photographer with the fine, haunted face of an El Greco saint had already taken to the use of flash bulbs.

In the main square, where a great, noisy drinking party was in progress, trees shed their blossom so fast that it was falling in the sherry glasses, so that sometimes a glass of sherry was thrown out on the decorated pavement, and a gipsy's dog rushed to lick at the sweetness, and sometimes a little white blossom remained on the lip of the drinker.

Down by the waterside, where eight hundred years ago the first English ships arrived to buy wine from the abstemious Moors, a catch of fish had been landed and spread out with orderly pride on the sand. A hunchback chosen for his mathematical ability was Dutch-auctioning the fish at a tremendous speed, intoning the sequence of numbers so quickly that it sounded like gibberish. Girls frilled at the shoulders and flounced of skirt strolled clicking their castanets absently through the crustacean fug, and distantly the dancers clapped and stamped in all the water-front taverns.

In Andalusia a spirited impracticability is much admired, and Sanlúcar had squandered on its fiesta in true patrician style. Tens of thousands of coloured electric bulbs blinked, glared, fused, and were replaced, over its streets, and every mountebank in this corner of the ancient kingdom of El Andalus had gathered to sell plastic rubbish, penicillin-treated wrist-straps, "novelties from Pennsylvania and Kilimanjaro," hormonised face-creams and vitamin pills. Only music and the dance were tenacious redoubts in the creeping uniformity of the modern world. The ancient orient still survived in the pentatonic shrilling of panpipes bought by hundreds of children, and although the professional dancers engaged to entertain the rich families in their private booths went in for sweaters and close-cut hair, in stylish reproof of the frills and curls of their patrons, they gyrated with snaking arms to Moorish pipe music and deep-thudding drums. The gestures of the dancers, too that trained coquettish indifference, that smile, directed not at the audience but at an inward vision, were inheritances from the palace cantatrices of Seville and Granada, not yet discarded with contempt.

--- From A View of the World
Norman Lewis
©1986 Eland, London
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