The Alcázar

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

 Visited October 2008

On the surface, a staid and sleepy town, Jerez de la Frontera is, in fact, Andalusia's fifth largest city -- and a center for sherry and dancing (by both humans and horses). We came for a night and stayed four -- and would go back tomorrow.

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Let’s start our tour of Jerez de la Frontera where the Christians did in 1264 when they took the town back after 5 centuries of rule by the Moors. King Alfonso (nicknamed “the learned or the wise”) successfully stormed the Arab defensive fort (alcázar) and made Jerez part of his kingdom of Castile – one of the states that led to the eventual unification of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella 2 centuries later. After Alfonso, Jerez stayed on the border (de la Frontera) like several other towns in this area. Nearly 8 centuries later, these places are still surnamed “de la Frontera.”

Moats to parks and anarchists to voters

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

The Alcázar was once protected by a moat which the city filled in and converted to a strip park in the late 18th century.  Called “Alameda Vieja,” today it hosts a multitude of cultural events and a lot of hanging out. It provides views of the agricultural countryside below. 

The soil in those fields is white and chalky -- excellent for growing the grapes that will become the fortified liqueur called Sherry. Cereal grains also thrive here. While the land is fertile, the people have historically been poor since an ever smaller minority controlled that land. Laborers in those fields even had to live in Jerez. Often a day’s work in the fertile field yielded wages barely enough to buy a loaf of bread. To the landowners such inequality spun off wealth to create beautiful palaces in town. To the workers, such inequality eventually made these area hotbeds of an organized anarchist movement in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Regional government attempted to quell such insurgency with frequent executions, not quite the most effective stimulus plan in the long run.

Bits of the city walls

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Above we see a Mudejar arch leading to the Octagonal tower where Alfonso’s troops first raised the flag of Castile in 1264. The Arab city walls once extended about 2.5 miles.

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Jerez’s 11th century Alcazar has been restored several times, often without much desire to preserve the Arab history. After the Reconquista, the Christian governors resided here. Above is a neo-classic doorway clumsily placed below Moorish castellation.

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

The alcázar has several gates but the one above demonstrates Arab defensive architecture. This was the “country gate” – and faced the outside of the Jerez’s walls and was therefore most likely to be attacked by invaders. This entrance is obviously narrow and has a sharp 90 degree turn.  This means the invading army could probably get one horseman through at a time and his speed would be greatly reduced by the need for the sharp turn. He’d be a sitting duck on an unlucky steed.

The keep was kept

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Most of the area inside the alcázar has been turned into a pleasant garden. Here we have the 1471 Torre Del Homenaje currently being restored. In its day, it hovered over the moat and served the function of a castle keep -- the last place that could be captured during an attack. As such, it stored food and provided housing. These typically rise above the walls unlike the 1950's air raid shelters American buried in the ground.

The Palace Patio of Arms

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

But a few buildings remain showing the glorious Moorish and Reconquista past.  This arch leads from the Arab quarters (including baths and mosque) to the Patio of the Arms – where Moors from the Almohad dynasty and Christian governors alike would watch their armies drill.

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Here we see the Patio of Arms stretching to the gardens in the distance.  At left is the Arab mosque complex, one of the rare buildings left from the extensive rule of the Almohad Moors. The Almohads were a powerful dynasty who long presaged the Taliban in harshly inflicting fundamentalist Islam rule. (Granada’s iconic Alhambra features the palaces of their successors, the Nasrid dynasty who ruled a much smaller realm and, in fact, were pretty much vassals of the Christian kingdom of Castile.). At right is the Baroque Palace of governor Lorenzo Fernández de Villavicencio built in 1664 where the Arab palace once stood.


Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Here we enter what remains of the Almohad’s palace complex. Today Jerez is Andalusia's 5th largest city but even when the Almohads were at their peak, this was one of the most important towns in Andalusia even though the Almohads kept their capital in nearby Seville.

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Jerez once had 18 mosques but only this one remains, probably because it was christened as Santa Maria del Alcázar and used as a chapel. Note the altar here in this rare octaganol space. Looks like it may once have been the Mihrab niche used by worshipers to face Mecca.


Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

Several extensive gardens now separate the fortifications, palaces, and Arab baths including the traditional Arab water gardens.

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

The Alcázar sometimes served as residence for the Seville-based Almohad dynasty. The Moors lost Jerez twice to the Reconquista after they themselves took it from a Visigoth army ten times the size of their invading army in the 8th century. The Moors first lost it to Fernando III but recaptured it in 1251. Thirteen years later they lost it for good after a 5-month siege led by Barcia Gómez Carillo – a man whose life the Moors had spared shortly before.

Camera Obscura

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

At the end of our tour of the alcazar, we visited the baroque palace of the powerful Villavicenio nobles. Their tall tower houses the second camera obscura in Spain. Here our guide shows the white disc which, when the room darkens…

Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

will show us a 360 degree view of the town projected by an overhead lens. The camera obscura led to the eventual invention of photography. As in an old box camera, the lens projects an upside-down image onto a wall of a room or, in this case, a disk lined up parallel to the lens. Before they had lenses, the Chinese would use pinholes as early as the 5th century BC. The smaller the hole, the sharper the image.  Alhacen, the Arab equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci, used a lens to create the first true camera obscura around 1000 AD. We found that many Andalusian towns would have a camera obscura as a tourist attraction. 

Next let's visit Jerez’s cathedral -- next door to the alcazar.  Please join us by clicking here.

Please join us in the following slide show to give Jerez de la Frontera the viewing it deserves by clicking here.

Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Next: Cathedral

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