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Three-Dimensional Spain

Jerez de la Frontera is such a long city name that before you get through it, you have probably come to think of sherry, horses and flamenco - exactly what this Spanish city wants to be associated with.

The Lady Mayor and her tourist department never mention one of those characteristics without including the others in the same breath, hoping to cement an image of Jerez as a three-dimensional paradise. They seem to forget that the qualities of Jerez are able to speak for themselves and complement each other without intervention from above.

Jerez is an inland city in the province of Cadiz, on the way to Seville, the regional capital of Andalusia. Costa de la Luz is easily within reach as emphasized in every tourist folder. The sherry production is made possible by a chalky soil, flamenco by a sizeable Romany community and the four-legged creatures by Carthusian monks who settled here in the 15th century with their divine horses. A population of 195,000 increases dramatically in the beginning of May due to Feria del Caballo, the annual Horse Fair - one week of parades, competitions and partying.

The heart of Jerez, Plaza del Arenal, will definitely not be ready for the Feria. General Primo de Rivera is still riding his horse but is no longer illuminated, nor refreshed by splashing fountains. Cafe tables and happy faces are gone, palms have been folded and wrapped up, thus not bothering workmen who patiently sort out heaps of stones. They have a finicky job laying flagstones interrupted by rows of light and dark marble tiles, alternating with pebble fields in a pattern of darker bends.

Arenal is a strategic starting point nevertheless. A short pedestrian street, Lanceria, leads you to Plaza Esteve, dominated by a blue cock, Gallo Azul, a busy tapas bar on an elegant corner, practically a rounded facade tacked on another building to make it worthy of promoting Domecq sherry. Calle Larga, the main pedestrian street and backbone of Jerez, takes you to Alameda Cristina. With these benchmarks in mind, you can safely get lost in the history of Jerez as told by its buildings and monuments.

Lady Mayor and Tio Pepe

A fiery Andalusian stallion, the whitish Fuego XII, may call you back to the present day. He adorns shop windows, caught in an act of dancing; forelegs lifted high, knees and ankles bent, ears pointing forward to show how proud he is to be last year's Champion of Champions, selected at Equisur, the Horse Fair's morphology competition. Even more widespread is a poster version of the festival program's front page, a patchwork of square fields.

The glossy program abounds in pictures of sleek horses with handsome men and a few ladies in the saddles, dressed in tight jackets over white shirts and broad-brimmed flat hats, often in two shades of grey. Six full-page ads for Tio Pepe Fino, the best-selling dry sherry, finance the extravagancies, which include a picture of La Alcaldesa, the Lady Mayor. In the foreword, she calls for tolerance and respect toward all groups, among them sexual minorities. That's because equality, Igualdad, is the theme of this year's festival.

Tio Pepe is an omnipresent uncle in the shape of a black bottle dressed in red, just a hat and jacket, with a guitar at his side. Stacks of his barrels fill the streets, flags and banners present his messages: joy, color, springtime, fiesta. On bar level, he attacks you with napkins, ashtrays and paper lanterns. Gonzales Byass is the company behind Tio Pepe, whereas the name Sandeman covers both a bodega and their brand, immortalized by El Don's black cape and Cordoban hat, tickling your imagination with his amber drink.

Horses appear indifferent to sherry, other animals do not. At Sandeman's, a stork family has settled on the roof, while at Tio Pepe's bodega, you can see mice climbing a ladder to reach the edge of their special glass of Oloroso. Less loyal are young people, unless their favorite hang-outs are sponsored, like Cafe Moderna at the lower end of Calle Larga, sponsored by Domecq: Tiny rooms, stone walls, austere furniture, small dishes non-stop and very popular. Many couples choose a bodega for their wedding festivities, after the Cathedral and photos at the Alcazar Castle are over and done with.

Time for Dancing

Feria is flamenco time, a theme also struck up by a boutique in Calle Medina, whose window display captures it all: two reddish brown dresses in a shining material with embroideries, simple yet stylish. Then a matching fan; plenty of green lanterns and a well-known patchwork, the Feria poster; an embroidered black shawl draped over a green chair; two glasses of Fino on a little green table. The display is deceptively three-dimensional.

In the district of Santiago, traditionally Romany, lies Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, a museum and library housed in the Pemartin Palace. At this early hour, their audiovisual equipment is silent, and so are the exhibited pianos, guitars and gramophones. Music seems to emerge, though, from old posters and funny drawings of party scenes, often celebrating surviving toreros, of dancing gypsies and travel memories from Granada. The real thing is found in local clubs, at the coming Feria as well, whereas the main eruption of flamenco is during a wintertime festival.

Being kingpins of the Fair, the horses are busy fine-tuning their dance steps at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, neighbors of Sandeman. Snorting at first, they soon obey their calmly insistent trainers, in a spacious hall where two weekly shows also take place. The 120 stallions, of various breeds, will in a few days parade the fairgrounds every afternoon, with or without carriages, anticipating to be the next Champion. In the meantime, there are horse monuments to admire, the most spectacular found in Plaza del Caballo.

Parque Gonzalez Hontoria, the fairgrounds, is being equipped with fittings shaped as artistic arcades, soon ready to explode into brilliant light arrangements lining and partly roofing the broad, straight festival streets. Marquees, 229 small huts or casetas are shooting up to become bars, primitive restaurants and discos, a welcome extra income for clubs and organizations, whose creativity is motivated by a competition to be elected the caseta of the year. As could be expected, Tio Pepe has invaded the place with his joyful alcoholic messages, which will be tested by young people in a trial run Saturday night.

The fairgrounds are packed on the opening night, Sunday. People stroll around, chatting and with an eye on the clock, or listening to the Lady Mayor's speech, and then at 22 sharp, the illuminations. After a sigh of relief, the locals steer toward their favorite caseta. The Alcaldesa, by now tired of her own rhetoric, ponders whether she should have a new photo taken for next year's program, one that subtly radiates the three dimensions of Jerez. What about a smashing creation in flamenco style, posing with a glass of Fino and the discreet whiteness of Andalusian horses as a backdrop - olé!