Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Tio Pepe Sails the Guadalete

From an interesting article in Diario de Jerez by A. Espejo

Downstream from El Portal, not far from the weir, there is an old disused wharf (the Embarcadero de la Marina) from which the Navy used to transport heavy armaments to the nearby Rancho de la Bola. Access is difficult but it is still in a good state of conservation except for the disappearance of the bollards which served for tying up boats, and which have been stolen and most likely sold for scrap.

The embarcadero before the bollards were stolen (foto:entorno a jerez)

At this point in the river a canal, which was planned many years ago (see post on canal), should have departed towards Playas de San Telmo at Jerez, where the Basque engineer Juan Machimbarrena planned to build a river port in what was the last, but frustrated, attempt to realise the long-held dream of giving the city direct access to the sea which would facilitate exports.

According to Agustín García Lázaro, professor and member of the Jerez Centre for Historic Studies, this dream of making the Guadalete navigable between Jerez and the sea goes back to the XVI century, and numbers as many attempts as failures, be it because of the opposition of nearby municipalities with long-standing sea connections or simply the high cost of such a project. He reckons that this challenge is all but ruled out, except for a possible recuperation of the river area as a recreational and leisure facility.

Rancho de la Bola today (foto: entorno a jerez)

Agustín and his brother José relate the history of the river and its current state of abandonment in the blog “Entorno a Jerez” which has served to inspire González Byass to take the first step towards its recuperation with an initiative which attempts to re-create the old “viaje de las botas” (journey of the barrels), the river and sea crossings which the wine made in barges via the Guadalete to the port of El Trocadero by Cádiz, where it was loaded onto ships for export. In those days, of course, the wine was taken to the river rather than the other way round.

“This project unites gastronomy, wine and history” explains the Tio Pepe representative, José Argudo, who explains that the trip down the river would be a homage to the journey the Sherry used to make as well as being a wonderful wine tourism experience which re-lives the history of the river journey and the many difficulties it presented to the bodegueros.

Train leaving a bodega (foto:jerez siempre)

The Embarcadero de la Marina will be the setting-off point for the expedition which José Argudo will make in the next few days with officials from a local nautical company which specialises in recreational activities and tourist excursions. González Byass is in talks with them to study the land, the navigability of the river and the general possibilities of the project.

“Jerez has made little use of the river for a long time, and the idea is to look at the Guadalete from the wine point of view”, says Argudo, who is keen to imitate the first embarcations of those who once opened a canal which joined the Rio San Pedro which offered direct access to the sea, avoiding the levies payable to the Duke of Medinacelli at El Puerto de Santa María. The Duke finally won a legal battle to have this blocked, though it took years to do so because the tide kept washing away the building work.

The idea of the Tio Pepe journey is that tourists will board the boat with expert guides and travel down to the marshes at Doña Blanca, one of the first places to be colonised and with its own castle. Here, in the XVIII century a large four kilometre excavation had to be made to straighten out the meanderings of this part of the river but boats frequently ran aground at low tide.

Interestingly, the Viaje de las botas was not the only viaje. The other was the “Viaje de los Cantos” which took place during the XVI century. It consisted of the river transport of rocks from the San Cristóbal quarry to El Puerto for onward shipment up the Guadalquivir to Sevilla for the construction of the cathedral.

Back to the Tio Pepe viaje. The journey will end in El Puerto where the first stop will be a wine and food experience at the salt pans by the old El Caño tide mill situated in the eco-system of the Parque Natural de la Bahía.  The mill is currently being restored by double Michelin starred chef, Ángel León, for conversion into a gastronomic laboratory and restaurant, though there is some opposition from ecologists.

After leaving behind the mouth of the Guadalete and the city of El Puerto, the planned itinerary will take the boat towards the port of El Trocadero at the bay of Cádiz where the old “tren del vino Jerez-Trocadero” used to arrive, and which alleviated most of the bodegueros’ problems with river transport.

The last stop of the Tio Pepe sea/river journey will be right in the heart of Cádiz itself at La Caleta beach, where José Argudo hopes to organise another banquet in praise of the marriage of Sherry with the local gastronomy in collaboration with the Córdoba family, owners of the restaurant El Faro. José says that Tio Pepe has already done other such “experiences” involving gastronomy and history, referring to event s such as fishing on the coast, looking at fungi in the Alcornocales or a marriage of Sherry with carne de retinto, superb beef from the local Retinto breed.

A view of the Parque de los Alcornocales (

The journey downstream, by which Sherry was sent out to the world, gave rise to some Sherry expressions, such as “Arrumbador” (men who move barrels and draw samples)which came from the word “Estibador” (stevedore), “Vinos Mareados” (seasick wines)meaning wines exported by boat and the “Toques Salinos” (hints of salinity)in Finos and Manzanillas” from their exposure to sea air.

There is still a lot of work ahead to turn this project into reality. Among the main obstacles, including anything turned up by the test journey, is the necessity to create access to the Embarcadero de la Marina which, after being silted up by the last floods, finds itself further away from the river course. Tio Pepe is hoping for the involvement of public institutions to help bring about this initiative which explores a historic aspect of Sherry and will open up Jerez to the rest of the province. Depending what happens on the trial run, an assessment can be made as to whether the project is viable and whether it might be possible to restore one of the old barges which transported armaments to the Rancho de la Bola, as abandoned as the river itself, whose Arabic name translates ironically as “the river of oblivion”.

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