Sanlucar de Barrameda could be described as a modern old town, in this case not a contradiction in terms. The buildings date from the 15th Century right through to the 20th but somehow manage to sit side by side in a pleasing blend of architectural styles.
Situated at the mouth of the Rio Guadalquivir it was for a long time an important port and home to some famous explorers. Alonso Fernandez de Logo who conquered La Palma in the Canary Islands in 1492 and Tenerife in 1495 was born here. Columbus departed on his third exploration of the New World from Sanlucar in 1498 and the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan sailed from here in 1519, intending to sail around the word. Unfortunately he never made it himself, being killed by natives in the Philippines but 'Victoria' his last remaining ship of the five that started the journey, arrived back at Sanlucar in 1522. Of the 237 crew members of all the ships only 18 returned home commanded by Juan Sebastian Elcano.
In those days the sea was much higher and the quays and docks were in what is now the centre of town. Standing in the two main squares, one with a straight, wide, boulevard that leads to the estuary, all the buildings on one side date from the 16th and 17th Centuries whilst all those on the other are 18th to 20th, built after the river silted up. As you head deeper and up into the town the buildings become older until you reach the oldest part, the 15th Century Castillo de Santiago.
On the way you will have passed the Palacio de los Duques de Orleans y Borbon, now the town hall, and the Palacio El Ducal de Medina Sidonia. Just above the Municipal Market is the so called sea gate through the old town walls with a long, straight, steep, cobbled road leading directly to what used to be the quays. You will also have passed any number of bodegas where the Manzanilla sherry for which this town is famous, is stored prior to shipping it to all parts of the world. It is said that the west wind, from the sea, has a certain salty tang that lends a particular aroma and taste to the sherry and the bodegas that are in the path of that wind produce the best Manzanilla. This may be true, when the west wind blows all you can smell in the streets is the heady aroma of fine sherry, quite intoxicating. Many of the bodegas are open to the public and one, the Gitana bodega is directly on the now landlocked quay. The shop there has a wonderful range of Manzanilla, Amontilado and Cream Sherries and brandies from the bottles you can pick up in supermarkets to rare vintages you will find nowhere else.
On the opposite bank of the Guadalquivir is the Doñana national park, a huge area of wetlands. Sanlucar actually advertises itself as the Puerta de Doñana but if you expect to drive there from Sanlucar forget it, it's all of 150 kilometres up to Seville and back to El Rocio, the main town in the Doñana. There is a passenger ferry across but then you are on foot and part of a four hour guided tour that whisks you around in a mini bus with little time to catch breath never mind study the flora and fauna. Better to follow the signs to the Puerta de Doñana and, just before the grandly signposted ferry landing stage that turns out to be a beach, visit the Doñana museum which is in an abandoned ice factory. The ground floor is devoted to the Doñana, its geography, geology, history and inhabitants, plant and animal and is very well done. The upper floor carries displays illustrating the history of Sanlucar, concentrating on the explorers and overseas trade from the Phoenicians to the present day, and is similarly excellent, and free. Leave the Doñana for another day. (See the article last month.)
Eating in Sanlucar is no hardship so long as you enjoy fish and anything else that comes from the sea; head for the area known as the Bajo de Guia. There you will be able to sample the delicious langostinos for which Sanlucar is well known or the incredibly fattening camerones that contain handfuls of those tiny, exquisite, Cadiz Bay shrimps. Self service tapas has reached new heights in Sanlucar. Many establishments serving food, from bars to full restaurants, allow you to choose from a menu and from the spread of daily specials. You can specify tapa, media racione or racione portion. You wait for your choice to be cooked and then you take it to your table. Do not forget to ask for a Manzanilla. You will be served with an ice cold half bottle and as many glasses as you want. If you want more food or drink just go back. How they keep track of who owes what is a mystery but, after a couple of half bottles, who cares?
There is one establishment in the main square that could easily become a favourite watering hole. It is called the Irish Pub and is about as far from what you might be expecting as you could imagine but it epitomises the attitude of the native Sanluquenos. They have a reputation for having more fiestas than any other town in Spain. The girl behind the bar informs you that every week end is a fiesta, and so it seems. The style of the pub is that of a Catholic church, complete with religious icons, a lectern and statuary. It is full of cheerful, irreverent locals. The Irish comedian Dave Allan could easily have sat there and had a good laugh himself. As for the Irish part, well, they do not have Guinness, they have no Beamish but they do have Manzanilla. Sanlucar is a fun loving town and it's fun to be there.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.