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Jerez

Jerez is the Andalusian sunshine again after the dark clouds of Granada. It is a little town in the middle of a fertile plain, clean and comfortable and spacious. It is one of the richest places in Spain; the houses have an opulent look, and without the help of Baedeker you may guess that they contain respectable persons with incomes, and carriages and horses, with frock-coats and gold watch-chains. I like the people of Jerez; their habitual expression suggests a consciousness that the Almighty is pleased with them, and they without doubt are well content with the Almighty. The main street, with its trim shops and its cafés, has the air of a French provincial town--an appearance of agreeable ease and dulness.

Every building in Jerez is washed with lime, and in the sunlight the brilliancy is dazzling. You realise then that in Seville the houses are not white--although the general impression is of a white town--but, on the contrary, tinted with various colours from faintest pink to pale blue, pale green; they remind you of the summer dresses of women. The soft tones are all mingled with the sunlight and very restful. But Jerez is like a white banner floating under the cloudless sky, the pure white banner of Bacchus raised defiantly against the gaudy dyes of teetotalism and its shrieking trumpets.

Jerez the White is, of course, the home of sherry, and the whole town is given over to the preparation of the grateful juice. The air is impregnated with a rich smell. The sun shines down on Jerez; and its cleanliness, its prosperity, are a rebuke to harsh-voiced contemners of the grape.

You pass bodega after bodega, cask-factories, bottle-factories. A bottle-factory is a curious, interesting place, an immense barn, sombre, so that the eye loses itself in the shadows of the roof; and the scanty light is red and lurid from the furnaces, which roar hoarsely and long. Against the glow the figures of men, half-naked, move silently, performing the actions of their craft with a monotonous regularity which is strange and solemn. They move to and fro, carrying an iron instrument on which is the molten mass of red-hot glass, and it gleams with an extraordinary warm brilliancy. It twists hither and thither in obedience to the artisan's deft movements; it coils and writhes into odd shapes, like a fire-snake curling in the torture of its own unearthly ardour. The men pass so regularly, with such a silent and exact precision, that it seems a weird and mystic measure they perform--a rhythmic dance of unimaginable intricacy, whose meaning you cannot gather and whose harmony escapes you. The flames leap and soar in a thousand savage forms, and their dull thunder fills your ears with a confusion of sound. Your eyes become accustomed to the dimness, and you discern more clearly the features of those swarthy men, bearded and gnome-like. But the molten mass has been put into the mould; you watch it withdrawn, the bottom indented, the mouth cut and shaped. And now it is complete, but still red-hot, and glowing with an infernal transparency, gem-like and wonderful; it is a bottle fit now for the juice of satanic vineyards, and the miraculous potions of eternal youth, for which men in the old days bartered their immortal souls.

And the effect of a bodega is picturesque, too, though in a different way. It is a bright and cheerful spot, a huge shed with whitewashed walls and an open roof supported by dark beams; great casks are piled up, impressing you in their vast rotundity with a sort of aldermanic stateliness. The whole place is fragrant with clean, vinous perfumes. Your guide carries a glass and a long filler. You taste wine after wine, in different shades of brown; light wines to drink with your dinner, older wines to drink before your coffee; wines more than a century old, of which the odour is more delicate than violets; new wines of the preceding year, strong and rough; Amontillados, with the softest flavour in the world; Manzanillas for the gouty; Marsalas, heavy and sweet; wines that smell of wild-flowers; cheap wines and expensive wines. Then the brandies--the distiller tells you proudly that Spanish brandy is made from wine, and contemptuously that French brandy is not--old brandies for which a toper would sell his soul; new brandies like fusel-oil; brandies mellow and mild and rich. It is a drunkard's paradise.

And why should not the drinker have his paradise? The teetotallers have slapped their bosoms and vowed that liquor was the devil's own invention. (Note, by the way, that liquor is a noble word that should not be applied to those weak-kneed abominations that insolently flaunt their lack of alcohol. Let them be called liquids or fluids or beverages, or what you will. Liquor is a word for heroes, for the British tar who has built up British glory--Imperialism is quite the fashion now.) And for a hundred years none has dared lift his voice in refutation of these dyspeptic slanders. The toper did not care, he nursed his bottle and let the world say what it would; but the moderate drinker was abashed. Who will venture to say that a glass of beer gives savour to the humblest crust, and comforts Corydon, lamenting the inconstancy of Phyllis? Who will come forward and strike an attitude and prove the benefits of the grape? (The attitude is essential, for without it you cannot hope to impress your fellow men.) Rise up in your might, ye lovers of hop and grape and rye--rise up and slay the Egyptians. Be honest and thank your stars for the cup that cheers. Bacchus was not a pot-bellied old sot, but a beautiful youth with vine-leaves in his hair, Bacchus the lover of flowers; and Ariadne was charming.

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The country about Jerez undulates in just such an easy comfortable fashion as you would expect. It is scenery of the gentlest and pleasantest type, sinuous; little hills rising with rounded lines and fertile valleys. The vines cover the whole land, creeping over the brown soil fantastically, black stumps, shrivelled and gnarled, tortured into uncouth shapes; they remind you of the creeping things in a naturalist's museum, of giant spiders and great dried centipedes and scorpions. But imagine the vineyards later, when the spring has stirred the earth with fecundity! The green shoots tenderly forth; at first it is all too delicate for a colour, it is but a mist of indescribable tenuity; and gradually the leaves burst out and trail along the ground with ever-increasing luxuriance; and then it is a rippling sea of passionate verdure.

But I liked Jerez best towards evening, when the sun had set and the twilight glided through the tortuous alleys like a woman dressed in white. Then, as I walked in the silent streets, narrow and steep, with their cobble-paving, the white houses gained a new aspect. There seemed not a soul in the world, and the loneliness was more intoxicating than all their wines; the shining sun was gone, and the sky lost its blue richness, it became so pale that you felt it like a face of death--and the houses looked like long rows of tombs. We walked through the deserted streets, I and the woman dressed in white, side by side silently; our footsteps made no sound upon the stones. And Jerez was wrapped in a ghostly shroud. Ah, the beautiful things I have seen which other men have not!


William Somerset Maugham