Touring the Bodegas

Jerez is not surrounded by vineyards as you might expect. Instead, the vineyards are to the north and west in the "Sherry Triangle" marked by Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María (the latter two towns are on the coast). This is where top-quality albariza soil is found; the highest quality contains an average of 60% chalk, which is ideal for the cultivation of grapes used in sherry production, principally the white Palomino de Jerez.

In and around Jerez there must be more than 100 bodegas where you not only can see how sherry is made, bottled, and aged but also get free samples. Among the most famous producers are Sandeman, Pedro Domecq, and González Byass, the maker of Tío Pepe. On a typical visit, you'll be shown through several buildings in which sherry and brandy are manufactured. In one building you'll see grapes being pressed and sorted; in another, the bottling process; in a third, thousands of large oak casks. Then it's on to an attractive bar where sherries -- amber, dark gold, cream, red, sweet, and velvety -- can be sampled. If offered, try the very dry La Ina sherry or the Fundador brandy, one of the most popular in the world. Warning: These drinks are more potent than you might expect.

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Most bodegas are open Monday to Friday 10:30am to 1:30pm. Regrettably, many of them are closed in August, but many do reopen by the third week of August to prepare for the wine festival in early September, which is an ideal time to visit. Regardless of when you come, you can count on the finest in hospitality since Jerez is widely known for welcoming visitors warmly.

Of the dozens of bodegas you can visit, the most popular are listed below. Some charge an admission fee and require a reservation.

A favorite among British visitors is Harveys of Bristol, Calle Pintor Muñoz Cebrian s/n (tel. 95-615-15-00), which doesn't require a reservation. An English-speaking guide leads a 2-hour tour. Tours are Monday to Friday at 10am and noon and cost 8€ ($13).

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Williams & Humbert Limited, Carretera Nacional IV Km 641.75, Puerto Santa María (tel. 95-635-34-06), offers tours 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday that cost 8€ ($13). Their premium brands include the world-famous Dry Sack Medium Sherry, Canasta Cream, Fino Pando, and Manzanilla Alegría, in addition to Gran Duque de Alba Gran Reserva Brandy. It's wise to reserve in advance.

Another famous name is González Byass, Manuel María González 12 (tel. 95-635-70-16); admission is 8€ ($13), and reservations are required. Tours in English depart at 11:30am, and 12:30, 1:30, 2, 3:30, 4:30, and 5:30pm daily. Equally famous is Domecq, Calle San Ildefonso 3 (tel. 95-615-15-00). Reservations are required, and admission is 8€ ($13). Tours usually start at 10 and 11am, noon, and 2pm Monday to Friday (Sat tours May-Sept at noon and 2pm).

Since many people go to Jerez specifically to visit a bodega, August or weekend closings can be very disappointing. If this happens to you, make a trip to the nearby village of Lebrija, about halfway between Jerez and Seville, 14km (8 1/2 miles) west of the main highway. A good spot to get a glimpse of rural Spain, Lebrija is a local winemaking center where some very fine sherries originate. At one small bodega, Juan García, the owner, courteously escorts visitors around. There are several other bodegas in Lebrija, and the locals will gladly point them out to you. It's all very casual, and much more informal than Jerez.

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Other Attractions

Aside from the bodegas, the chief attraction is the Alcázar, the former residence of the caliph of Seville, complete with an octagonal mosque and ancient baths. The complex was taken by Christian knights in the Reconquista in 1255. The walls of the old Moorish fortress are now surrounded by gardens through which you can stroll, south of Plaza del Arenal. The planting here has been modeled as closely as possible to the original gardens. Inside you can view a well-preserved mosque with a mihrab. The baths were constructed by the Almohads and based on Roman designs. In the complex is the 18th-century Palacio de Villavicencio, Alameda Vieja (tel. 95-632-69-23), constructed on the site of the original Muslim castle. Inside is a cámara obscura, that lens-and-mirrors device that projects views of the major landmarks of Jerez onto a large indoor screen. Views of the sherry vineyards and the sea beyond are also projected. Admission is 2.50€ ($4), 5€ ($8) including cámara obscura. It's open May to mid-September daily 10am to 8pm; mid-September to April daily 10am to 6pm.

La Colegiata, or Cathedral of San Salvador, Plaza de Arroyo, is primarily an 18th-century baroque structure with five aisles and both Renaissance and baroque adornments. Some of the building, however, dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. Inside you can see such treasures as Zurbarán's The Sleeping Girl in the sacristy. The transept crossing is covered by a dome. The cathedral is at the top of a wide baroque flight of stairs. Set slightly apart is a 15th-century Mudéjar belfry. Admission is free. The cathedral is open Monday to Friday 11am to 1pm and 6 to 8pm, Saturday 11am to 2pm and 6 to 8pm, and Sunday 11am to 2pm and 5:30 to 8pm. Call tel. 95-634-84-82 for more information.

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Museo de los Relojes (Clock Museum), in the Palacio de Atalaya, Cervantes 3 (tel. 95-618-21-00; www.elmisteriodejerez.org), is across from the Royal Equestrian School. This treasure-trove of 300 British and French timepieces includes many dating from the 1600s. They come in all shapes and sizes, as well as designs, their chimes ringing out in "concert" at noon. This may be the world's largest collection of fully functioning timepieces and antique clocks. Outside, peacocks walk the grounds. It's open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 3pm and 6 to 8pm March to October. Admission is 7.50€ ($12).

One of the oldest churches in Andalusia is Iglesia de San Miguel, a 15th-century Gothic structure to the south of Plaza del Arenal. Its ornate facade was added 3 centuries later. The bell tower is decorated with blue-and-white Andalusian tiles and the interior is a medley of Gothic architecture over different periods. Some of the architecture is in the Isabelline Gothic style. Note the magnificent stained-glass windows. In all, this is one of the area's most beautiful churches. It is at Plaza de San Miguel (tel. 95-634-33-47) and is open Tuesday to Friday 10am to 1:30pm. It costs 2.50€ ($4) to enter. On weekends you can attend Mass here.

A modern flamenco museum, Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, Palacio Pemartín 1, Plaza San Juan (tel. 95-634-92-65), is a busy place, complete with a multimedia show plus an audio and visual library devoted to the art of flamenco. Admission is free, and it's open Monday to Friday from 9am to 2pm.

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If you still have time for a stroll, head for the old quarter, Barrio de Santiago, which stretches uphill from the cathedral. Wander its labyrinthine maze of narrow lanes and alleyways. If you want to have a goal, seek out Iglesia de San Mateo, on Plaza del Mercado, noted for its Mudéjar chapels. Look for its impressive retable and the beautiful vaulting over its chapels. It is open only for services, daily from 7 to 9am and 7 to 8pm. Facing the church, also on Plaza del Mercado, is the Museo Arqueológico (tel. 95-635-01-33), housed inside an 18th-century town mansion. It offers such treasures as a 7th-century-B.C. Greek helmet found in the Guadalete River. Other pieces include a ram's head from the 3rd century B.C. and some fine Roman heads. Many artifacts unearthed at the ancient town of Hasta Regia are also on display. There is even a Visigothic collection and treasures from the heyday of the Cordovan Emirate. Upstairs is a collection of Muslim and medieval artifacts, including Moorish ceramics and a Caliphal bottle vase with Kufic script from the 10th century. Open June to August Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 2pm; September to May Tuesday to Friday 9am to 2pm and 4 to 7pm. Admission is 2€ ($3.20).

The Dancing Horses of Jerez -- A rival of sorts to Vienna's famous Spanish Riding School is the Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre (Andalusian School of Equestrian Art), Av. Duque de Abrantes s/n (tel. 95-631-96-35; www.realescuela.org). In fact, the long, hard schooling that brings horse and rider into perfect harmony originated in this province. The Viennese school was started with Hispano-Arab horses sent from this region, the same breeds you can see today. Every Thursday at noon, crowds come to admire the Dancing Horses of Jerez as they perform in a show that includes local folklore. Lanes 1 and 2 (the lanes are rows for seating) sell for 24€ ($38), lanes 3 and 4 sell for 18€ ($29), and lanes 5 and 6 go for 16€ ($26). When performances aren't scheduled, you can visit the stables and tack room, observing as the elegant horses are being trained. Hours are Monday to Wednesday and Friday from 11am to 2pm and Saturday from 10am to 2pm, and shows cost 10€ ($16) for adults and 5€ ($8) for children and seniors. On the grounds of the school, you can visit Museo del Enganche, the harness museum, which displays antique carriages. Entrance is 3€ ($4.80). Bus no. 18 goes here.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.