The habitation of the area around the mouth of the Guadalquivir river can be traced back to the semi-mythical city of Tartessos and the lost Tartessians culture which had its own written language, contemporaries of the Phoenicians who later built their own port city in nearby Cádiz. The city rich in silver and bronze was referenced often in Greek and other ancient texts and appeared to be an important trade city mentioned as far back as 1000BC, though the exact site of the city has remained a mystery. Some believe this was the site of the mythic city of Atlantis which was taken by the sea and attribute its location to the wetlands across the river from present day Sanlúcar which was flooded by shifting sandbars at the mouth of the estuary (currently Parque Nacional de Doñana).
The modern day city was originally built by the Moors but was conquered by King Alfonso X of Castile in 1264 and became capital of the Señorío de Sanlúcar, an independent Christian dukedom in the Kingdom of Castile. It’s position at the mouth of the river which runs through Seville made it an important launching point and shipbuilding center for Spanish conquistadors and the Spanish armada. Columbus launched his third voyage from Sanlúcar and Magellan docked his ships here for 5 weeks after leaving Seville before heading into the sea. And for a time the commander of the Spanish armada lived here. Throughout the 16th century, the town, along with Spain, began to decline. The admiral, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán y Sotomayor 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, beaten by the English in 1588 (mainly by following too closely the King’s orders), brought shame to his dukedom. And finally the Casa de Contratación was moved in 1717 to Cádiz diminishing the importance of Seville.
Today, the city with less then 70k inhabitants is primarily known for the production of sherry and its economy is driven by both agriculture and tourism related to it. True manzanilla can only come from this town and its signature flavors are uniquely produced only here. Broadly speaking, a manzanilla is fino sherry produced in Sanlúcar.
Compared to the larger Jerez, the city is a bit sleepy and less grand. Even during the run up to the city’s Carnival when we visited, the town seemed almost deserted and the tour we took at the famous Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana had only one other visitor besides us. But there were children playing in squares and people eating and drinking in the cafes in the center of town and it seemed like a great little town to live in.
Walking around town
There seemed to be two major areas of town, the el Centro which is the flat area between the hills and the river which revolves around the Plaza del Cabildo, and the Barrio Alto, the inward hilly old town area about 15 minutes from the water, where you’ll find the castle, old wine houses, and lots of residential areas. Bodegas Hidalgo is located just off of Plaza del Cabildo, so we started there and then hiked up the stairs to the castle (which was closed unfortunately while we were there).
Similar to Jerez, the streets are narrow and the sidewalks come and go but are narrow at best. There’s a crumbling ancient vibe but the city wears it well. Carnival decorations had been erected along the streets and the square and carnival accoutrement where evident along the perimetry. But during the glaring light of the day, not many people were around. We got a splash of schoolchildren in the afternoon and a bit of traffic in the evening. Maybe it would have been more lively if we had stayed into the night. Sadly we only had time for a daytrip.
Bodegas Hidalgo “La Gitana”
We were very familiar with the La Gitana brand and have had many of their varieties. They are the most well known producers of manzanilla globally and their branding is eyecatching and unique. The winery, founded in 1792 and on their 8th generation, uses their own locally produced grapes. The wine was originally sold in casks instead of bottles and one of their best customers was a gypsy woman from Malaga where the wine had become quite popular and known by the locals as “the gypsy woman’s wine”. The owner, who began an affair with this woman, was infatuated, and when the winery began producing its own bottles, he used her image on the bottle and called the wine La Gitana, or the Gypsy, both as a tribute but also as an extension of the existing moniker in Malaga. And though the name of the Bodega is still Bodegas Hidalgo it is almost always referenced along with La Gitana. During the tour along with their standard releases, we got to try a cask reserved for the bodega staff and sample some VOS/VORS casks in their long aging room.
Inside the bodega is a great restaurant that we decided to stay and have lunch at along with our other tour companion. We ended up getting their set menu which was delicious but was waaay too much food for two people to eat. It would have been too much for 4. But was only about 20 euros each. It started off with four heavy starters, then moved to an enormous pan of paella, and then dessert.
Plaza del Cabildo
The center of the Centro district was this delightful square with two tone patterned stone flooring and a huge bright fountain teaming with bathing pigeons. Old men sitting at cafes sipping manzanilla sherry and kids chasing each other in the sun. I would have loved to spend more time here in the cooler evening hours.
Castillo de Santiago
This was the town’s castle high on the hill of the Barrio Alto neighborhood. It looks ancient and menacing and not particularly adorned. It was closed the day we visited so we didn’t get to see inside but was still interesting to see from outside.
Parroquia Nuestra Señora De La O
This church built in 1360 was only a few blocks away from the castle overlooking the city. It was sadly also closed when we were there but it’s a tourist site of the town and supposedly is ornately decorated on the inside. If you get to see inside, let me know what you think.