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13 February 2008

1st-13th February 2008: Andalucía, Spain

My friend speaks Spanish and is fond of the country, very useful for when I first visited in 2005. That time, the big highlight was the magnificent Alhambra in Granada, which is easily one of the most beautiful monuments on the planet. It is a product of Moorish Spain, back when Islamic people who originally came over from North Africa occupied an area of modern Spain they called Al-Andalus – hence the Spanish region 'Andalucía'. This year, I was again going to be able to indulge my enjoyment of Moorish architecture and history, as our itinerary was to include the ancient city of Cádiz, Sherry capital Jerez and what was once the hub of the Spanish Empire, Sevilla.


As it turned out, the guidebooks we'd rented from the library failed to mention a huge festival that takes place in Cádiz around this time of year, meaning the hotels were stuffed. So instead, we booked a few nights in nearby El Puerto de Santa Maria, though that did considerably cut down our time in Cádiz.

We initially flew in to Jerez, but decided to take a day trip to Cádiz the following morning to see the first big day of the festival. Not much to say about it except a lot of people wearing bizarre costumes, from nuns with trident candelabras to a group of guys all dressed as Duff Man (seemed to be a general trend that rather than going by yourself in costume, you should get all your buddies to come too wearing the same thing). Also proved to be the best tapas we had for the whole trip, down one of the side streets which suddenly bloat with temporary bars serving Cruzcampo beer.

If you want to go the festival, definitely book well in advance. Alternately, you could just do a day trip from Jerez like we did, which costs about €6.40 on the train (about 40 mins). You'll also find the walking tours handy, as the Cádiz tourist board chose an extremely direct way to mark them out: there are big colourful lines drawn on the floor. The orange route is probably the most pleasant, taking you round the coast.

We later went to Cádiz again, but this time from El Puerto de Santa Maria by boat. There's a fairly good beach, Playa de la Caleta, which is apparently where the Ursula Andress homage in Die Another Day was filmed. Cádiz stood in for Havana (I went to the real thing in 2016), though I found it hard to tell: then again, its been a while since I've seen that film. Finally, we popped up the Torre Tavira for the camera obscura, which is a fairly entertaining way to get a birds eye view of the city.


Jerez, part of the so-called 'Sherry Triangle' of Jerez (or to use the full name, Jerez de la Frontera, so named because it used to be on the frontier of the Christian territory), El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. Jerez is best known for three things: sherry, horses and flamenco. The first one proved to be our focus, though we did briefly check out some flamenco in Sevilla (much better than the package holiday show we'd seen a few years earlier).

There are a number of sherry producers in the Sherry Triangle, most of whom have a bodega open to tourists. Gonzalez-Byass is situated in Jerez and had been recommended by an article I'd read, due to its visitor-orientated bodega. The symbol of their Tio Pepe brand – a bottle wearing a hat and jacket as well as holding a guitar – was everywhere, and I'm told it’s a market leader in the UK, which is the largest importer worldwide of sherry. Indeed, a lot of Brits were involved in the development of bodegas in the Sherry Triangle, including Gonzalez-Byass (Mr Byass was an Englishman - his descendents have since sold their stock in the company, but it retains his name).

For €10, you get a tour round the Gonzalez-Byass bodega in Jerez (near the cathedral), which isn't bad value considering they give you a whole bottle of Tio Pepe at the end – you'd pay about that just for the bottle in England. They are laid out in a tasting room on tables with four chairs, so technically its between four people, but in practice less (either because you'll just have one or two by a table, or the other people won't be keen to drink so much of it). We also got a glass of the distinctly English sounding Croft, which IIRC is medium sweet, whereas Tio Pepe is a dry fino.

The main part of the tour is done on a small train, while the guide gives out snippets of information. On our tour (my friend and I, two Americans and two Germans), that was in German and English. I speak both: he was competent enough, but occasionally a little hard to understand due to the heavy Spanish accent. More detailed is a video you're plonked in front of once you reach the main cellar, which is comparatively long, but well produced. It goes through the kind of thing you're likely to want to know on that kind of tour: history of the company, the process of making sherry, the different types.

Obviously there's a giftshop, selling alcohol and various knick knacks. I don't think its especially cheaper to buy your sherry here rather than the local supermercado, so may be sensible to save your souvenir purchases for later. Along with the cathedral, there is also an Alcázar in Jerez, which is worth a look. Finally, we also did a trip over to Arcos de la Frontera, a hill town, but frankly the only thing worthwhile there is the view from the swish Parador hotel (admittedly, it is an incredible view). Its probably an awesome place to book a room, but we just bought a drink and sat on the terrace: rather more affordable.

We stayed at the Nuevo Hotel in Jerez, which was incredibly good value. My friend had got some kind of deal through Hostelbookers, which cost us a mere £11 (£15 on the weekend). That got us a large room with en suite plus breakfast, which would be about quadruple the cost in the English B&Bs we'd stay in back home (and I'd count that as pretty cheap).

El Puerto de Santa Maria

Highlight was yet another bodega visit, this time to Osborne, which has an even stronger English influence than Gonzalez-Byass. The Osborne family is still involved in management, though they're a distinctly Spanish people these days, having lived in the country for numerous generations (though the guide did mention that ethnically you could still see fair hair and blue eyes, which isn't exactly common in Spain).

Overall, I'd say this tour was superior to Gonzalez-Byass, not to mention cheaper at €6 (though you do need to book in advance: we just phoned the day before). You don't get a whole bottle of sherry, but you do get to taste a wider range – we got to try four, with a decent sized glass of each (my student drinking roots are kinda coming out here, but hey, I like to get a good bit of booze for my cash :p). That included my favoured Pedro Ximénez, which is an especially sweet sherry, often – and aptly – described as treacle.

The guide was also a great deal more knowledgeable, as well as far more personable. Rather than the odd few words while puttering along on a train, she kept up a constant stream of information: the production of sherry, storage, history, sales, brands, competitors etc. The only superior part of Gonzalez-Byass was their video, as the offering at Osborne was an irritatingly corporate presentation. It might have been well suited to a prospective investor, heaping superlatives on the various Osborne brands and their market strengths, but fell very flat on tourist ears.

Aside from Osborne (one of many bodegas based here), there wasn't a whole lot else that grabbed our interest in El Puerto. Partly that was because our hotel, the Hostal Alhaja Plaja (spacious rooms with en suite and a helpfully empty mini-bar for about £25), was a long way out of the centre, though on the other hand, it was excellently located for the beaches.

The guidebook was a bit excessive in calling them "fabulous", but certainly pleasant enough, and at this time of year, very quiet. As has been the case for as long as I can remember getting within digging range of sand, I built myself a sandcastle. Yay! Back when I was younger, my father and I used to make elaborately irrigated constructions on Turkish holidays, but I keep forgetting to bring along a bucket and spade. And yes, I am basically a big child, which won't surprise anyone who has seen my DVD collection. ;)

The night before we left, there was a random festival type thing going in, in which a lady apparently dressed as 'the sea' gave a long monologue about the greatness of El Puerto. This greatness was all due to the sea (El Puerto was a big deal back in the days of Columbus), which distracted me as they were showing a video of the beach I'd built my sandcastle on. I reckon I could see the outlines of Fortress Slidey, though no doubt the video was made weeks before we even arrived. But meh, I'll pretend anyway.


Seville, or Sevilla in Spanish, was by far the most touristy place we went to – even in low season, it was relatively stuffed. The two main sights are the cathedral and the Alcázar, which is second only to the Alhambra in its intricate Islamic and Mudejar (a name for the Muslims who stayed on after the Christian reconquest, including amongst their number many of the superb artisans who made monuments like the Alhambra so magnificent) carving.

To start with the cathedral (good and cheap for students: unlike the bastard at the Alcázar, they gave me a discount. I've got a perfectly valid student card, so you may need to watch out in case you get an idiot at the Alcázar entrance), it is indeed huge. The guidebook claimed it was one of the three biggest in the world, and I can well believe it, although that immense size is obscured somewhat by the various constructions within the building (like the choir and a truly massive retable, along with ongoing renovations). There's also plenty of artwork, both in separate galleries and various chapels along the walls.

The best part is, as often happens in Andalucía, the most prominent leftover from the original mosque: the Giralda. This 90 foot tower again displays the gorgeous artistry of Moorish craftsmen, though that's mainly on the outside. Christians later shoved a belltower on top, but unlike some other attempts to 'christianise' Islamic monuments, this one isn't too disfiguring. From the inside, as you'd expect, you're going up the tower for the view from the top rather than the contents. Having said that, there are a few interesting exhibits on the way, like a slowly rotating three-part illustration, showing the Giralda at three stages in its history. From that, you can see that there was once a large gate connected to an outer wall, long since gone as the tower now stands comparatively free (except for an enormous cathedral clinging to its side).

That view is also worth the climb, and its not much of effort to reach it. Although the tower isn't exactly small, the only steps come right at the end. For the rest of your ascent, you're walking up a ramp, which apparently was designed so that horseman could rapidly ride to their lookout points.

The nearby Alcázar is perhaps even more impressive, especially the central palace, the Palacio de Don Pedro. As ever, its on top of an older Islamic edifice, but unusually the christian king, Pedro I, had a longstanding friendship with the emir of Granada, Mohammed V. Visitors to the Alhambra might recognise that name, as he was a major figure behind the beauty of that building. King Pedro would benefit from the same expertise, as Mohammed sent over the artisans he had used for his palace to aid Pedro on the Spaniard's efforts.

Intricate carving, stunning plasterwork and awe-inspiring ceilings mark the Alcázar in much the same way they do the Alhambra, with an intriguing difference. Unlike the Alhambra, the Alcázar has retained most of its colour, so the effect is even more spectacular, at least for a first time viewer. Having seen the Alhambra, the colour can at times seem a bit garish, as you're used to the austere colour (or rather, lack of it) at the Alhambra. The Salón de Embajadores is justly famous, without doubt the highlight.

Aside from all the spectacular buildings, the Alcázar has extensive gardens. My friend was especially enamoured of Mercury's Pool (at least I think that's what it was called), which somewhat incongruously is swarming with ducks. I tend to associate ducks with England, but that familiarity is merely a matter of where I live: ducks are all over the place, so no doubt if I'd grown up in Canada or New Zealand, I'd associate ducks with those countries instead.

Last site I'd like to mention is the Museo de Bellas Artes. On either side of this post (presuming you're looking at the main blogger site) is a background by Parmigianino, my favourite painter, and a major proponent of the Mannerist style that flourished between the High Renaissance and Baroque periods. Seville's artistic pinnacle came in the 17th century, so is centred around Mannerism, its greatest painters of the period being Francisco de Zubarán and Murillo. Hence why I fancied popping down to this gallery: the mention of Mannerism caught my eye.

If you're an EU citizen, its free, and small enough that you can easily cover it in a few hours, even accounting for a good long stare at your favourites. Unfortunately, one of the rooms was closed, but I did get more than enough Murillo and Zubarán, as there is a lot of them in the gallery. Downstairs, there was an El Greco exhibition, which was cool as I've not seen much of his work before. I sometimes see him listed as a Mannerist too, but his art is so unusual I'm not sure it fits (though of course that’s the problem with putting anyone in a category). Although his subject matter is decidedly religious, the way in which he paints makes it feel fantastical: dragons and the like crop up, normally metaphorical. Strangely enough, I had a strong sense of one of my favourite RPGs, Dark Sun II: Wake of the Ravager. Would be interesting to know if the designers on that game were fond of El Greco.

Our first hostel was cheap, but a bit of a climb and rather grotty (though the bed was probably the most comfortable we slept in all holiday). So we decided to move to the Hostal Javier, where you'll be welcomed by the father of an Olympic hurdler (the shelf behind him proudly displays his son's part in the 1992 event in Barcelona). The room was far nicer and only slightly more expensive (42), but a bit cold. There are loads of places to stay in Seville, so it may be worth a look round before booking (at least off-peak: always dangerous to leave accommodation to the last minute in high season).

I was chatting to Jude after a class on the 14th, and he mentioned there is apparently a Gracie Barra school in Seville. I didn't think to look, though then again I doubt my friend would have been too keen to wait while I went and grappled. Not to mention my Spanish only extends to things like "can I have a cheese pie, please", which isn't going to serve me well in a BJJ class. ;)


  1. Hey Slideyfoot,

    Great review. I used to live in the Basque region in northern Spain. I miss it a lot, but am excited because I believe the gf and I will be heading to Spain this summer for a vacation. I think I can convince her to go let me train for an afternoon at least once!


  2. Yeah - convincing the gf is definitely the hardest part, though fair enough they aren't keen when its supposed to be a holiday. Then again, speaking personally, both my gf and I quite like doing things on our own (for me its art galleries, whereas she likes to sit in a cafe and think/write), so if I could find some kind of lightweight travel gi and somewhere that spoke enough English, I'd be set.

    Do you have any particular recommendations from your time in Spain? Its been all Andalucia for me so far, except for a brief bit on a package holiday (which involved lots of alcohol rather than culture, and could therefore have been anywhere). My gf was keen on Santiago de Compostela next, and I'd quite like to finally make it to Barcelona.

    I don't know anything about the Basque region, except for the separatist stuff: is there lots to see in Bilbao?