Travel Europe: Gate to the last Frontera

On Monday, the ultimate flight between Britain and Jerez departed. Simon Calder was there for the final call from a city steeped in history - and in sherry
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The Independent Culture
Go to the drinks cabinet, take out that dusty old bottle of Tio Pepe sherry, uncork it and inhale deeply. Now you know how it feels to take a evening stroll around the entrancing Andalusian city of Jerez, the location with sole moral rights to the finest fortified wine.

You may experience a waft of gentle intoxication, matching the protracted wave of excitement those fortunate enough to be in Jerez enjoy when the setting sun drenches the honey-coloured stone of the cathedral. Make the most of it, because from this week there is no easy way to reach the handsome home of sherry.

The Official Airlines Guide announces the demise briskly: "BA 6977 discontinued 2 November". Thirty months after British Airways started flying between Gatwick and Jerez de la Frontera, the airline has shut down services. No longer can you leave Gatwick in mid-afternoon on a Friday and turn up in Jerez just in time for a bracing, icy fino - accompanied by a robust slice of serrano ham and olives fresh from the groves that drape themselves like ineffectual hairpieces over the big, bald Andalusian hills.

Yet the trickier journey to Jerez - you now have to fly via Seville or Gibraltar - should but double your resolve to visit the city and its dreamily slow and soft surroundings. Go on: take another sniff.

Time and effort have conspired to transform the palamino grapes from young, pale berries clinging to vines on chalky ground into a liquor that is, almost literally, ageless. Under the solera system used in the city's sherry houses, the drink is created by mixing wines from huge oak barrels in proportions which diminish with age. A sip of a well-bred variety should include traces that have been "sleeping" for 60 years or more.

This merging of vintages means the quality of the drink can be evenly maintained. It also means that Jerez smells as though someone has smeared equal proportions of toffee, perfume and fruit all over the town. They haven't, of course; the population is far too civilised for that sort of thing.

Exploring the city gives you the chance to inhale from the permanent aroma-rama and to meet an engaging bunch of people. Last weekend, the temperature in this blessed corner of Europe was been a sunny 25 Celsius; accordingly, the citizens live life on the streets.

The old men being entertained by the resident doves on Plaza de las Angustias sport skins that seem genetically related to over-ripe olives, creased by age and the sun. The accents are more gutteral than the (over-)refined Castillians, and the faces resonate from the Moorish heritage that endured on the Iberian peninsula for close on a millennium and still echoes across Andalusia.

Like many of the settlements that lie strewn across southern Spain, Jerez carries the suffix de la Frontera. The title was awarded towards the end of the Moors' reign in Spain, when the frontier between Islamic and Christian kingdoms ran along the line of pueblos blancos (white villages) that are still strung like pearls across Andalusia.

Along Calle Larga, a main street that is pedestrian only in the literal sense, crowds spill out of La Rotunda to sip sharp, dark coffee, and from La Ibense to wolf down ice cream and lap up the refined street furniture. Messrs Gonzalez Byass have imposed stacks of barrels at strategic points around the city, resembling the Olympic rings after a heavy night out. Pedro Domecq responds with a grand public clock where the figures are replaced by the letters of his name - plus his company's shield to make up the total to 12.

The number 12 is prominent, too, on the best bodega tour in town. Eventually the ripe mist of sherry will drive you to search out the source, which - like the holiest sort of spirit - is all around you.

Many of the leading sherry houses offer tours of their premises, the bodegas. My dictionary translates the term as "wine cellars", a misleading term since there is nothing subterranean about the jolliest for my money (600 pesetas, about pounds 2.50), the Gonzalez Byass jaunt.

You can't miss the location, nuzzling against the exquisitely embroidered cathedral and across the road from the doddery old Alcazar palace. The founder, Manuel Maria Gonzalez Angel (or at least a statue of him alongside the inevitable barrel) welcomes you back to the 19th century. The Byass component of the name honours Robert Blake Byass, a London wine merchant who founded the house with Senor Gonzalez in 1835, and began to entwine the wealthier ends of British and Spanish society. The UK still enjoys an implausibly good name in this part of Spain: a rotund citizen stopped me on the street, asked "Ingles?" and shook my hand firmly when I responded "Si".

As the sherry flowed out, the cash poured in, financing a flourish of palatial building. Gustav Eiffel was contracted to create La Concha, an iron shell that spirals above a ring of barrels spelling out the founders' names. You move on through a sequence of overground caverns fitted out in wood as dark and plain as chocolate, each populated by barrels containing the equivalent of 700 bottles. Osmosis gives the air its gently intoxicating scent.

Twelve of these barrels inhabit the Los Apostoles bodega, bearing the names of the disciples in the same order as on Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. An even larger barrel stands at the centre of the tableau, draped in a Spanish flag and bearing the name Del Cristo.

Lesser celebrities - Bobby Charlton, Steven Spielberg - are honoured by having individual barrels dedicated to them, while dignitaries who visit may personalise their own cask: "The best sherry in the world" was chalked on one barrel in April this year by Baroness Thatcher.

In the tasting hall, tourists get a glass of chilled fino followed, after a dignified pause, by a sweet dollop of oloroso. (Take a sip of that sherry now).

Anyone thirsting for more need only stumble downhill to a cheery little bar called Rincon del Caro ("expensive corner", though the prices are entirely reasonable). The standard drink here is fino; this accompanies the barman's excellent flamenco guitar-playing, which itself accompanies a recording of one of the city's leading ensembles. Jerez has good claim to be the spiritual home of the cante hondo, deep song, established in Andalusia by the Gypsies who still reside in the tangle of streets in the oldest part of the city. The tradition is reflected in the curious logo of Gonzalez Byass, a cartoon figure looking uncannily like Viz character Roger Mellie The Man On Telly and clutching a guitar.

A taste for sherry of the kind acquired by Margaret Thatcher (and, for all I know, by Bobby Charlton and Steven Spielberg) generated a more positive face to Jerez, whose newer streets are a feast of Art Nouveau, the twirls interspersed with patchworks of tiles in pastel blues and the deepest oloroso.

An ideal weekend destination, then - except that the handy flights from Gatwick each Friday and Monday have fluttered off to oblivion.

The end came quietly. The taxi driver to the airport had not heard the news: "Manana - no hay? Por que?" (Tomorrow - no more? Why?). There was no ceremony at check-in, even though it was the last chance for Britons to enjoy the thrill of having their possessions X-rayed at XRY (the three- letter airport code for Jerez).

On board the flight there was no reference to the leaving of this particular jet plane; the only clue was a leaflet saying "Fantastic!" and announcing new flights from Seville, the gracious old city up the road (from Jerez, not Gatwick) that has grabbed extra services. There wasn't even any sherry to be found on the Boeing.

Only the British Airways representative on the ground at Jerez mentioned the event: "I shall be very sad to see this flight leave".

I was, too.

Simon Calder paid pounds 220 for a return ticket on British Airways (0345 222111). Following the ending of flights to Jerez, the nearest airports to the town are Seville and Gibraltar, each about 50 miles away. The advantages of Seville are (a) there are plenty of fast bus and rail connections; and (b) BA has a special fare of pounds 109 return from Gatwick, which is likely to be matched by Iberia (0171-830 0011) from Heathrow.

An estimable companion for any excursion in the region is `Andalucia' by Michael Jacobs; the second edition has just been published by Pallas Guides, price pounds 15.95