Hello Andalusia, where a feria overwhelms the senses and is the world’s best party. Let your senses be overwhelmed by the dazzling colours of the gypsy dresses; the harsh taste of dry sherry which lubricates the throat; the hordes of clapping, stomping, whirling figures on the dance floor; the screaming children and the rows of horsemen in procession.
It's mid-May, at two in the afternoon. The party zone of the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera is starting to come alive. For feria novices, this may be the best time to ease into the atmosphere. The volume of the music is still at an acceptable level and the terraces of the cafés are not too crowded. A group of identically dressed women sing stirring flamenco songs for anyone who wishes to listen. The many striking young girls are dressed in their best “trajes de gitana”, bright gypsy dresses, are trying to attract the attention of the noblemen parading past them on horseback.
The high point of the feria in Jerez, which used to be a horse fair, is the parade of los señoritos, the gentlemen of the city. During the last weekend of the celebrations, the men of the old sherry families and other noblemen parade around the party zone for hours on their Carthusian horses, which are bred here in the region. The horses are valued more than luxury cars. They even cost as much. The gentlemen are duty-bound to wear a traditional three-piece riding suit with a cap, and police are posted at the entrance to allow only those who are correctly dressed to enter. An essential accessory is (of course) a glass of sherry, as it is also important for the riders to demonstrate that they can control their horse with a single hand.
Breathless, the other visitors watch the spectacle. They point out the local celebrities and gossip about any of the beautiful women who, when viewed from the rear, happen to be carrying a little extra weight. The show lasts for a couple of hours, after which the more prominent members of society head back to their own casetas, the colorful marquees erected for the fair, leaving their horses to wait outside until such time as their masters are partied out.
It is then time to set yourself up for the rest of the day with an extensive tapas lunch. The food is rustic and hearty, and I’m laughed at if I ask for anything remotely vegetarian. We enjoy a carnivorous feast of jamón iberico, the best ham on the planet, salty and dry and served in delicate tissue-thin slices carved from an enormous reddish leg, the black hoof still attached. There is also menudo (a stew with tripe), pork chop sandwiches, meatballs in sauce and fried green peppers. It’s delicious and fortifying and will keep us going throughout the hours of partying ahead.
Sherry is more of man’s drink here
Like the others, I order fino (dry sherry) served in handsome bottles. In many places outside Spain, sherry is a drink for women but that is incomprehensible here. “Here, everyone drinks sherry!” says bar owner Manuel Sanchez, 33. “It’s more of man’s drink, though.” He sips his first glass of rebujito, fino mixed with sparkling soda. This Andalusian-style alcopop is a real summer thirst quencher and a popular feria drink because you get happy fast and drunk slowly. Manuel says, “We start earlier in the day with alcohol than some other countries, but we know how to hold our drink better. At the feria the atmosphere never gets unpleasant, even though there are sometimes hundreds of thousands of people about. The police have very little to do here.”
“Since my childhood, I’ve drunk a glass of oloroso sherry every morning at 11am. My parents believed it was good for my health,” says Mauricio Gonzales-Gordon, Marques de Bonanza and founder of the Gonzalez Byass sherry empire. Since he is still in good health, it is evident that ‘Don Mauricio’ subscribes to the sherry-drinking tradition.
I walk over to a large tent where hundreds of couples are dancing. The women sway to and fro in their gypsy dresses, throw their arms in the air and spin elegantly around the men. These enticing folk dances are sevillanas, partner dances that in their footwork and hand gestures resemble flamenco and, in southern Spain, are danced mainly as an expression of joy. They are danced anytime, anywhere; at parties, but also after winning a football match. It seems easy to clap along to the rhythm, but when a man invites me to dance my feet get awfully confused. I stand and watch, rebujito in hand, and wait for the Spanish disco music to gradually gain the upper hand as the evening progresses.
The feria is not for the faint-hearted, but even shy visitors will find a warm welcome. This giant party has much in common with the Spaniards themselves: down-to-earth, traditional and boisterous. It started out as an annual fair where villagers from the region came together to trade goods, but also to chat with old acquaintances or, with any luck, to acquire a new spouse. These days the goods trading has made way for drinking and dancing – one thing that hasn’t changed is the flirting, which continues unabated. In fact it was at the Feria d’Abril in Seville where Holland’s Prince Willem-Alexander fell in love with his soon-to-be wife, Princess Máxima.
The gypsies will do anything to sell their small corsages
In earlier years, it was the wandering gypsies who really brought the festival to life. They traded cattle, made music and sold flowers. Even today, hordes of Spanish gypsies travel from feria to feria, but many have now been replaced by Chinese, Romanians and Senegalese. The gypsies here will do anything to sell their small corsages. A strong woman in a colourful floral dress leans over to the man to whom I’m talking. “Don’t you love her?” she asks, flashing her golden teeth. Minutes later, I’m walking away with three corsages in my hair.
At around four in the afternoon, it’s busy in the caseta. There are few foreigners, but the ones that are here have all been well and truly swept up in the party atmosphere. A few words of Spanish are enough: everyone is in a great mood and no one expects anything beyond light conversation.
Hanging out and having fun together is an art, and one which the Spanish have perfected. A tall blond girl receives a sevillana lesson from a man who comes up to her shoulders. Two Scandinavian teenagers watch from a corner and are left in peace until they feel the time has come to join the crowd. “Are you in the mood?” asks an older man in a suit, courteously. Timidly, they nod ”yes”.
In contrast to the lively atmosphere of the afternoon, as evening gets underway it suddenly becomes very quiet. The crowd has melted away, either at home enjoying a quick siesta, or off watching a bullfight, an essential part of any feria. According to the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, Spain is “The only country where the celebration of death is a national pastime”. In Madrid, the party lasts no fewer than 30 days, and those unable to afford a ticket to the bullfight (the best seats cost around €150) head home and prepare for a long evening watching it on TV. The crowd drifts back around 10pm, revitalized after a short nap and a shower.
Talking is the Spaniards’ favorite hobby
Dolores (39) and Blanca (43), two divorced sisters ready for a serious party, have decked themselves out in low-cut dresses. “That’s the fashion this year: long sleeves, ruffles under the buttocks, prominent stitching and low backs. Our mother wears the same dress each year; for us that’s unthinkable.” I look around and indeed, hip young women are all wearing the style they describe. The sounds of upbeat sevillanas, South American beats, hardcore flamenco and Spanish disco hits spill out of the casetas and mingle as they reach the streets. Despite the cacophony, the revellers persist in conversation. Talking is the Spaniards’ favorite hobby, and since the noisiest people in Europe do it best at full volume, they are in their element tonight.
The sherry flows like a river, there’s plenty of flirting, and on the promenade, there are long queues for the toilets. By 1am everyone has well and truly let their hair down, and even the grannies and children are still going strong. What makes a feria different is that everyone parties together. Half an hour later, 73-year-old Esperanza Montoya is still jigging with her children and grandchildren, while keeping an eye on a toddler who, despite the noise, is fast asleep in his buggy. Esperanza says: “If he starts whining, I’ll just take him for a spin on the Ferris wheel – it’s open all night.”
For a while, the differences in rank and status – which are particularly evident in Southern Spain – become temporarily blurred. Yet while everyone is busy indulging in sherry and sevillanas, they still remain aware of certain boundaries; the sherry houses admit only friends and family; further along, the Communist Party welcomes everyone with politics and cheap drink, while the members of a bullfighter’s fan club flaunt their hero’s paraphernalia.
In Seville, the Feria begins and ends with light. I approach the extensive fairgrounds – a large field on the outskirts of the city – to be there at dusk for the alumbrado, the illumination of the main entrance to the fair. It is framed by an enormous portada, a massive gate-like structure which takes local church architecture as its inspiration. With the flick of a light switch, suddenly the portada is blazing with hundreds of light bulbs – people cheer and applaud, and hasten into to start the fun.
Anticipation has been building for weeks
Ironing the layers and layers of ruffles on the long skirt of my green, polka-dotted traje de gitana took ages, but my Spanish host madre insists that one must look one’s best at the feria. I have bought a second-hand flamenco dress for the feria and, like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes, feel ridiculously pleased to be wearing its ruffled sleeves and bright colors of green, orange, and white, with the traditional shawl tied in place over a tight bodice and an orange flower atop my knot of hair, in the style of the gypsy girls. Plastic bangles complete the ensemble and will clatter when it comes time to raise and twist my arms in the movements of the sevillanas, the steps of which I’ve been practicing for weeks under the tutelage of a local girl from the university.
She is one of many students in Seville who earn extra money by giving lessons to foreigners eager to learn the steps in time for Feria de Abril. Each dance is made up of four sequences of turns, crosses, and steps, with arms upraised continuously, hands snaking inward and out. It is tricky to remember all the pasos of the dance and even harder to mimic the practised, nonchalant elegance of my instructor’s curling fingers, but after a few sessions I feel ready to join the throngs. Anticipation has been building for weeks.
Long rows of striped casetas form a neighborhood of dusty streets, lined with thousands of brightly colored paper lanterns hanging above. The strings of lanterns are so festive that I long to have some for my next party at home, but what I really yearn for is the entire scene, the music and noise and excitement of what is shaping up to be the best party I’ve ever attended. Most casetas are private and entrance is by invitation-only, although there are several large corporate casetas offering admission to the general public. These, while offering welcome refuge to milling groups of tourists, don’t have the same energy of the private ones: empty drinks pitchers sit scattered around abandoned tables, there are not many people dancing, and bits of torn bunting lie forlornly along the ground.
Feria has been called “the biggest party you’re not invited to” but, after months living in Sevilla, I’ve had the good luck to be invited to a couple of casetas. The first houses quite an elegant party. Elena, a professor of Spanish literature and devoted scholar of Cervantes and el Quijote, greets us at the railing surrounding her caseta’s door. She is wearing a tight dress in white lace which would look almost bridal but for the flounces of ruffles. She leads us in and shows us to the sherry, and invites us to join in the dancing. Her movements are neat and precise, making the sevillanas look courtly and refined in contrast to the raucous twirling and shouting we’ve seen elsewhere.
Feria is not a spectator sport
The second caseta belongs to parents of friends and is much rowdier. It’s also packed to the walls so we squeeze in to grab drinks before retiring to the front door where sevillanas are extending the caseta party out into the street. In this atmosphere I feel less conspicuous and dance the first three sequences of the sevillanas correctly before getting confused and crashing into my dance partner instead of around him. I bashfully ask to be excused the final sequence and just enjoy watching the others instead. But feria is not a spectator sport, and I can’t help but stomp and tap my toes on the sidelines, clapping my palms in staccato time to the music and practising the hand gestures.
After hours of this, it’s nearly dawn and our feet are so swollen from stomping that we are forced to remove our dust-covered high heels and gingerly pad home barefoot. We stop for a snack of gofres, waffles covered in chocolate, and chocolate con churros, fried sticks of dough to dip in hot chocolate, sold by a vendor in one of the many stands that pop up throughout the city only for the fair. At home, after showering off the dust of the fairgrounds, sweat, and spilled sherry, I place the ruffled flamenco dress in the bathtub to soak – it is far too elaborate a garment to be stuffed into the washing machine – and, at eight in the morning, go to sleep for the rest of the day.
I awaken in the dark of early evening and don ordinary clothes – and the most accommodating shoes I can find – to attend the concluding event of Feria, the fireworks display. Everyone crowds to the edge of the fairgrounds and we find a vantage point on the bridge overlooking the riverbanks where the pyrotechnics are set up. As if the week of Feria was not enough, the fireworks display is spectacular in itself. Gold fireworks shoot up in patterns of wheat fields.
Before the patterns vanish from the night sky, another round of rockets is screaming upwards and exploding into dandelions of light. Exhausted from too much feria, we watch quietly and contentedly while for others still jubilant with party fever, it seems a sudden termination of the festivities. But only for another year.