In Jerez de la Frontera, in the Andalusian region of Spain spring arrives each year to the clickety-clack of hoofbeats and the flutter of ivory fans.
During one magical week each May, when its shaded patios and squares are filled with the heady scent of jasmine and geranium, this prosperous town blooms afresh. Flamenco-garbed beauties and slender "caballeros" in 19th century riding attire fill the tree-lined parks, arenas and fairways astride high-stepping ponies in a centuries-old equestrian celebration known as the Feria del Caballo, or Jerez Horse Fair.
While lesser known than Seville's April Fair, often cited as Spain's single most photographed event, Jerez' regional festival held this year May 5-12 -- serves up every bit as much pageantry, color and excitement, but on a refreshingly smaller scale.
Part competition, marketplace and exhibition, the Jerez Horse Fair is above all an extraordinary gathering of skilled riders and high-spirited horseflesh played out with great flair and gusto against a backdrop of flowing wine, music and dance -- an exquisitely orchestrated occasion in which these dyed-in-the-wool horse lovers can show off superb Andalusian steeds in a series of races, riding events, auctions, bullfights and colorful parades.
Begun as a livestock market in 1284, today's fair remains deeply rooted in the distinctive history and folklore of this pint-sized parcel of Spanish real estate, located just inland from the Atlantic coast. While recognized throughout Spain as a premier breeding center for fighting bulls and agile, dancing horses, it is Jerez' position as the world's sherry capital, that has won it international acclaim -- "sherry" is an English corruption of the name "Jerez."
Here, under perpetually sunny skies, white palomino grapes flourish in the region's chalk-rich soil to produce one of the world's classic wines. Barrel-aged and systematically blended with other vintages in the airy, above-ground bodegas or cellars of Jerez's well-heeled viticulturists, the sherry is fortified with grape spirits according to one of its 10 classifications before being bottled and shipped by the millions of gallons to worldwide destinations from the nearby port of Cadiz. Most of its exports take the form of sweet sherry, but the favorite in Jerez is "fino," a light, dry variety served as an aperitif.
Over the centuries, sherry has brought fame and fortune to a dozen or so of its producers -- Harvey, Osborne, Ruiz-Mateos, Zoilo, Gonzalez Byass and the Domecq concern, which markets its product in North America under the popular La Ina brand. But if sherry making is their business, horse breeding, training and exhibition are the true passions of Jerez's first families. It is a legacy that dates back hundreds of years to Spain's Cathusian monks -- generally credited with developing the first Spanish horse, the cartujano, which today bears their name.
Originally a mix of Moorish/Berber and Nubian stock, the cartujano's bloodlines go back to the Arab occupation of the Iberian peninsula begun in the year 711. Agile, even-tempered and strong, this horse was chosen by Austria's Emperor Maximilian II for the original breeding stock of the now-famous Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, founded in 1562.
Considering Andalusians' reverence for fine horses, it is ironic indeed that their own school of classical riding should have had to wait more than four centuries -- until 1973 -- to be formed. Yet the Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre (or Escuela del Arte, as it is commonly called) already has won a reputation as one of the world's finest professional riding schools and a major promoter of the Spanish horse.
Not surprisingly, it also has become one of the region's leading tourist attractions, with its colorful weekly performances of the "Dancing Horses of Andalusia," a delightful display of precision riding which marries horse and horseman in the intricate moves of a harmonious ballet.
Much of the school's reputation can be traced to the efforts of founder/director Alvaro Domecq, a prize- winning equestrian, rejoneador (bullfighter on horseback) and scion of the well-known sherry-making clan. He personally raises the school's spirited equine performers on his 7,000-acre estate, Los Alburejos, just outside Jerez, and oversees their daily training sessions as well as the now-famous dressage exhibitions.
But demonstrations of equestrian excellence are not limited to the Escuela del Arte, especially during the Jerez Horse Fair. Displays of precision riding dating to the 18th century, races and other such events take place during the weeklong Jerez Horse Fair, drawing top breeders and buyers from across the globe.