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The Jerez Horse Fair

The Jerez Horse Fair

The Jerez Horse Fair

‘Jerez de la Frontera, the capital of horsemanship, sherry and flamenco.’ That is how I describe Jerez in my novel Indiscretion. The heroine, Alexandra, has come to Spain to learn about her Spanish roots, and that involves spending time with her family – the feisty and complicated de Fallas, whose business is wine-making and horse-rearing – and exploring the region of Andalucia where the family is based. The nearby city of Jerez provides plenty of Spanish colour to educate Alexandra, not least when, while out on a walk, she stumbles upon the famous horse fair:

Lost in thought, she barely noticed that she had come out of a side street into one of the main thoroughfares, full of large crowds milling about. Many of the women were dressed in long polka-dot ruffled skirts, with embroidered paisley shawls, flowers, mantillas, and high combs in their hair. Horsemen strode through the throng, attired in white shirts and ties with wide-brimmed flat-topped hats, tight-fitting jackets and soft leather boots. And then there were carriages and horses; everywhere Alexandra looked there were horses, the majority decorated with fancy harnesses in brilliant hues, brass ornaments, ribbons and bunches of flowers. The Jerez horse fair was in full swing.

Held in May each year, the Feria de Caballo has been drawing huge crowds for more than 500 years. It was devised as a commercial livestock fair, but it slowly grew to be a festival in its own right, with a particular emphasis on food and drink, and on flamenco displays.

Still, it has always retained a distinct equine edge, and while it is a riot of colour and noise, it has a certain air of refinement, because the horses on display are some of the most beautiful and expensive in the world, often owned by well-known horse rearers (like the de Fallas!). After all, this is the city of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, devoted to the long-admired Andalusian horse and the age-old tradition of baroque horsemanship.

There is nothing quite like standing at the side of the Paseo de Caballistas y Enganches (Carriage and Riders’ Avenue) and watching the processions of horses and carriages go by. Some are bedecked in the most amazing colourful attire – see the picture for an example. The costumes, the decorations, the atmosphere: magnífico.

In the Parque González Hontoria, a small village springs up each May full of casetas: little house tents. At the Seville Fair, many casetas are private, but the Jerez Fair is much more open and people flow freely between the casetas. Here, you eat tapas and drink Jerez’s golden fino sherry (or perhaps the rebujito cocktail; sherry mixed with lemonade and ice – very refreshing). Then, to the stirring thrum of the guitar rhythms, you watch flamboyant, dramatic flamenco dancing.

Back in the 1950s, when Indiscretion is set, if you were watching a flamenco dancer at the Jerez Fair, you were quite possible watching a gypsy perform. Their presence at the fair was mesmerising, I found when I visited; as Alexandra comments in the book: A horse fair or a gypsy fête?

I will leave you with a dance from Indiscretion performed by the beautiful and provocative gypsy, Marujita:

The dancing duel began. Marujita raised her hands and clapped them sharply above her head. Bracelets jingled on her arms, and her bare feet stamped the earth. Her partner was much older than her, dark-skinned, and obviously Spanish, but Alexandra didn’t think he was a gypsy. Indeed, he looked every bit the aristocrat in his expensive shirt and trousers. The rhythm of the music was pagan and exciting; Marujita’s dancing had a wild kind of beauty as her long hair nearly swept the dust, her slim body arching and swaying towards her partner, seemingly wanting to be touched even though she repeatedly eluded him. Even from this distance, Alexandra could see the passion in the gitana’s eyes.

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