The terroir of sherry—Jerez de la Frontera

If you are like me, sherry has been something that is used for cooking, but is not much good for anything else, like drinking. But here in the place where sherry was invented, it’s possible to get another perspective. It is not just the sweet stuff of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. There are also varieties—such as fino and manzanilla—that are bone dry and drinkable. One type—called oloroso—has a deep caramel color and a rich warm flavor and is still very much on the dry side.

The word sherry is an anglicisation of Xeres, the word used by the Moors when they created the fortified wine in this region more than 1000 years ago. The town where we are staying now is called Jerez, a spanishization of Xeres. Today, under Spanish law, all wine labelled as sherry must come from the Sherry Triangle, an area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. These three towns are shown on the map below, which was created in tiles and is displayed in the bodega of one of the main sherry-making companies (González Byass) where we did a tour and tasting. [Many towns in this region include “de la Frontera” in their names because they were once at the border between the Moorish—Muslim—controlled area and the Spanish—Christian—controlled area. But more on that later.]

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But what is the terroir of sherry? The region is in the low-lying coastal plain of southwest Spain. To the south are the mountains of southern Spain that were created by the most recent collision between Africa and Europe. The low-lying area north of the collision zone is known in geology as a foreland basin. It is the Guadalquivir River valley where the great towns of Córdoba and Seville are located (more on that later in the trip). The three towns of the Sherry Triangle are located at the western end of this lowland, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. The soils are chalky—they contain microfossils made of calcium carbonate and are a type of limestone. These soils are notably infertile but can produce wines with distinctive character. The chalky white soils are the light green color in the map above and can be seen in the vineyard displayed in the photo below.

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The process of sherry making contrasts with normal wine making in that any bottle produced is usually a mix of many years; brandy, a distillate of grapes, is usually mixed in to increase the alcohol content. So a sherry bodega, like the one shown below, will include barrels that date back to many decades before.

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A sherry bodega in Jerez is like a wine cellar in California—everyone wants one. Our hostess at the Airbnb where we’re staying brings us tapas she has made in her kitchen. Yesterday she even brought us glasses of oloroso sherry produced in the bodegita (small sherry making facility) located in the bottom floor of their home. Carmen (shown below with me in the bodegita) and her husband restored their 19th century house and created their own bodegita. The smaller barrels next to the oloroso are sweeter versions of sherry.

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The coastal lowlands include vast areas of tidal wetlands. These areas are now recognized as valuable parts of our ecosystems and the remaining undisturbed areas here are, as in other parts of the world, now protected as natural sanctuaries. We were able to get out into the wetland areas that are protected in the south of Portugal. From the kayak is visible the old town walls of Faro (Algarve Province).

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The view south from our hotel shows the tidal marshes and channels with a sandy barrier island in the distance. Unfortunately, the reason the island is visible is because of all of the houses that have been built upon it. Not a good thing in earthquake country—like Lisbon, Faro was mostly destroyed as a result in the 1755 earthquake.

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Another interesting town in the area of the Sherry Triangle is Cádiz—once the principal port town for trade with the Americas. It’s still a prosperous town, although tourism is now more important than shipping. This view across the town may provide a glimpse of the Arabic architectural influence that will be explored further in subsequent posts. (For location, see westernmost point on tile map above.)

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Final Footnote—fun food. Because this coastal lowland region is so accessible to the sea, fish and seafood are ubiquitous options on restaurant menus. In Faro, we tried a regional dish called Cataplana de Polvo (octopus). Yes, we ate every bit of this dish, which was delicious. The octopus was not chewy at all, but was a soft, wonderful texture. The small clam-like bivalves are cockles (“singing cockles and mussels, alive alive oh”—a Irish folk song you may have heard)!

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Fossils fossils everywhere (and Sintra update)

The previous post got “published” before it was finished, so this post is going out to announce the update of the prior post and to include some fossil photos.

Everywhere you step or look in Lisbon there are fossils—interior floors and walls are often covered with fossiliferous limestone. This rock was quarried from a place where oysters were once very abundant! The three photos below show oyster fossils in three locations: in situ in a coastal outcrop, as a flooring tile, and “faux fossils” in the wall of a small cathedral (with cherub for scale!).

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Final footnote. A fun restaurant name—”Here there is fish”!

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The fantasy world of Sintra

A short 40-minute train ride—going west from Lisbon—brings you to Sintra, a small town that feels a world away from the conjested streets of Lisbon. Like most scenically beautiful places, It all starts with the geology! In this case, a blob of granite (small pluton for you geologists) has created a high ridge that looms over the surrounding region, with 360-degree-views that encompass the Atlantic coastline, Lisbon, and countryside. The high ridge is here because the granite is a more resistance rock type than the surrounding sediments that are weaker and more subject to erosion.

Because of its incredible location, people have been inhabiting this ridge for millennia, and building castles and palaces for both their enjoyment and their defense. The Castelo do Moros (Moorish Castle) looks well situated for defense, appearing to grow directly out of the granite bedrock. It was built in the 9th century by the Moors, who were then in charge of the area. It’s fun to clamor along the castle walls and take in the ever-changing vistas.image

The fantasy aspect of Sintra comes from the many palaces that have been built over the ages. The most “over the top” is the Palacio da Pena (Pena Palace), which sits on top of the ridge like a giant, colorful confection. The guidebook describes it as “a compelling riot of kitsch”, a good description! Once used as a convent, it was remodeled for family living by the royal family in the nineteenth century and was used into the early twentieth century. Now its possible to wander through the walkways, towers, and maze of rooms, and gawk at the extravagant furnishings within.

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Adding to the fantasy feel is the town itself, which snuggles into the base of the mountain, with Carmel-like quaint buildings and narrow, winding streets. In the middle of town is the Palacio Nacional (National Palace), which was built by the Moors but modified many times over the years. This view from the Moorish castle shows the town of Sintra. The conic tower is part of the National Palace.

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The interior of the palace has been decorated in fine style. One example is the Sala dos Cisnes (room of swans) where the entire ceiling is decorated with the swan motif.

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From Sintra it is possible to ride an old tram to the coast, which faces the Atlantic Ocean and draws surfers and families seeking recreation. Like the U.S. West coast, the currents are flowing from the north, and the water is cold and rough. This is why the south coast of Portugal, where the water is warmer and more gentle, gets more summer vacationers.

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Also visible on the coast are the sediments that form the less resistant lowlands surrounding the Sintra ridge. These are marine limestones and mudstones that have been uplifted by the active faults now affecting the area.

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Many people visit Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon. But it is well worth staying a few days. There are lush gardens around the Pena Palace for walks (the high ridge draws more rainfall); with more time it’s possible to hike from town to ridge and vice versa; excellent seafood restaurants are dinner time attractions; and it’s possible to ride the quaint tram to the Atlantic coast!

Note: Internet struggles caused the draft to get published prematurely. It is now complete! Sorry about that!

Why are there earthquakes in Lisbon?

Lisbon is similar to San Francisco not only because of its position on the edge of an estuary and its Golden-Gate-like bridge. Another similarity is immediately obvious in the topography of the landscape—steep slopes and numerous hills separate distinctive neighborhoods and make the city feel larger than it is.

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Both cities have streetcars. Whereas San Francisco’s streetcars stick to the flattest parts of the city, Lisbon’s streetcars worm their way along the more narrow, steep thoroughfares. Like the steep-climbing cable cars in San Francisco, the cute streetcars are a favorite of tourists.

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Another common aid to those wishing to gain the views but not strain their legs is the ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk. It’s a wonder someone hasn’t figured out how well these would work in San Francisco. Here is a couple who has just gotten a ride to one of the many viewpoints scattered throughout the city (the intrepid San Franciscans walked of course!)

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Another similarity is only obvious after walking around and reading information about buildings newly rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Although Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe, you wouldn’t know it from walking around. Here is one piece of evidence still visible—church that was destroyed but never rebuilt. It now serves as an open-air archeology museum—to me one of the most interesting sights in the city

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A castle on one of the highest hills (Castelo de Sao Jorge) was built over various layers of culture. On the back side it’s still possible to see the ancient walls from the time of the Moors (8th to 12th century in Lisbon), with newer edifices built on top. The main center of activity, and where tourists tend to concentrate) is a valley heading northwest from the Placa do Comercio (Plaza of Commerce). Here is a view overlooking the valley, which is where a river formerly flowed into the sea. The Castelo do Sao Jorge is just off the left side of the photo.
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The arc below, on the north side of the Placa do Comercio, was designed to celebrate the rebuilding that occurred after the 1755 earthquake. Since it was built on an old river bed, on the edge of the bay where sediments are very weak, one wonders it they did not set themselves up for another catastrophe during the next major earthquake. You may remember that the Marina district in San Francisco, which suffered so much damage in the 1989 earthquake, was the site where land was filled in to create a site to celebrate the rebuilding from the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

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How big was the earthquake? According to the USGS (search on earthquake.usgs.gov, which includes eyewitness I accounts and other interesting information) it was a magnitude 8.7. This is a very large earthquake! Why did it occur here? The history of Portugal is much like that of the U.S. east coast, which collided with the west coasts of Europe and Africa during the Paleozoic (around 400–250 million years ago). Beginning in the late Triassic (about 200 million years ago), the U.S. east coast and the Eurasian and African continents began to separate. Since then, the Atlantic Ocean has gotten larger, as the continents continued to move farther away from each other.

So both edges of the Atlantic are what referred to as passive continental margins—they are far from the active plate boundary that lies in the middle of the ocean. But the plate boundary between Europe and Africa is a collision zone, and as the Mediterranean Sea has gotten smaller, and Europe and Africa have gotten closer, the plate boundary has oozed westward and has now included southern Portugal in its sphere. So the earthquakes will continue….

When in Lisbon, be sure to visit the Geological Museum. It’s not in the tour guides but easy to find on Rua Da Academia Das Ciencias (Street of the Academy of Sciences) in the Barrio Alto district.

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The museum is “old school”, with samples laid out in neat rows. One could spend many hours pursuing their incredible collections, including awesome rock and mineral samples and fossils extending from Paleozoic trilobites to Pleistocene large vertebrate, including the fierce crocodile shown below. They also have a stellar archeological exhibit.

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Final Footnote. Jay took this photo of the blogger working on photos while drinking a local Portuguese beer (stout) on the terrace of a quaint restaurant on the streetcar line in the Alfama district of rambling, narrow alleyways. Life is good!

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Lisboa (Lisbon) by the sea

The landscape of Lisbon is largely defined by its seaside location. For centuries, even millennia, inhabitants have made their living on the sea—searching for their food and new lands to exploit. The city is situated next to the Rio Tejo (Tagus River), which is not a river at all, but an estuary where fresh water from the Tagus River interacts with salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s much like San Francisco Bay, where water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers mix with water from the Pacific Ocean.

Here is a map of the region around Lisbon. The Rio Tejo is the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. It begins east of Madrid and flows westward across much of Spain and all of Portugal until it reaches the sea just southwest of Lisbon. Because the mouth of the Tejo is an embayment of the sea, where fresh and salt water mix, it has brackish water and the rising and falling tides create ebbing and flowing currents. The tides are semi-diurnal and they range from 1.5–4 meters (4–13 feet) in elevation between low tide and high tide.

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There are various similarities with San Francisco Bay. The Ponte 24 de Abril (April 24 Bridge, it runs north–south just inside the mouth of the Tejo) is painted an orange color that makes it look very much like the Golden Gate Bridge! Here is a photo of the bridge, looking north from the Monument to the Discoveries erected in 1960. That’s Vasco de Gama leading the way, to steer his boat out of the Tejo and to explore new worlds.

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The next photo is a more complete view of the monument, which is an amazing work of art that celebrates Portugal’s moment of fame on the world stage. There is the queen praying for her explorer’s safe travels (and no doubt hoping for accompanying riches); a priest clawing his way upward to seek new souls in distant lands; and other men looking to find fame and fortune through voyages on the high seas. Their position on the bow of the boat, with sails full of forward-thrusting wind, emphasizes the hopes and dreams of this sea-faring nation.

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Just south of the monument is the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower). It was erected in the 16th century to protect the mouth of the Tejo. Startlingly, it was in the middle of the bay when constructed—it’s now situated firmly on the western shore. In 1777, an earthquake changed the course of the Tejo and the area that was once on the west side of the tower is now land that is developed with a variety of infrastructure. But more on earthquakes in a subsequent post.

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Like all major ports, with sights of interest to tourists, the Lisbon shoreline gets frequent cruise line visits. The photo below shows one large cruise ship docked alongside the old town area of Alfama, where narrow steep streets laid out in medina style by the occupying Moors (more than 1000 years ago) entice visitors to amble the make ze. An even larger cruise ship appeared the next day, dumping tourist hourdes upon the streets and making transit difficult for residents and solo tourists alike.

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One of Lisbon’s most famous products is fado music, probably a response to both the call of the sea and the Moorish musical influence. Fado musicians sing of longing and sadness and lovesickness. Friends and relatives who were off at sea could evoke such longing, and sailors long away from their home could feel deep sadness for their loss of country and family. The chanting style of Arabic music may have influenced the wailing Fado sound. Many restaurants in the Alfama district have Fado artists who, although shunned in the past, are now enjoying a revival of both local and international fame. For example, SF Jazz every year includes fado artists (the most famous ones of course) in their yearly lineup. The sign below is for a restaurant with nightly fado music; the couple is a reproduction of a famous painting now housed in the Museum of Fado, opened in 1998 and an indication of fado’s resurgence.

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There are many fun vehicles in Lisbon that are well adapted for the narrow cobble streets and that have many functions. Here’s an example: an ice cream truck located adjacent to a waterfront marina.

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Final note: my now 3.5-year-old iPad is not working as well now as it did when I started this blog. I may be forced to upgrade but hope it will limp along for these 7 weeks of posting! For one thing, I can’t edit the size or quality of the photos—so they’ll just have to appear  “as is”.

Join me for a trip to a place where cultures and tectonic plates have collided!

Welcome to the reawakening of this blog, which has been dormant for three years. I invite you to follow the blog and receive notifications of new posts via email during the next two months. The goal is to explore incredible landscapes and provide the reader with a taste of their beauty and geologic underpinnings. The Mediterranean Sea is the remnant of the once vast Tethys Ocean that has been shrinking as the African and European continents have been converging. Visible in southern Spain is evidence of this collision. Southern Spain is also referred to as Andalusia because Muslim groups from northern Africa (so-called Moors) invaded southern Spain in the early 8th century and named it Al-Andalus. They ruled until the late 15th century when the Christians collided with the Moors and wrested power from them. The culture of southern Spain owes much of its interest to the influence of the Moors. The scenic beauty owes much of its interest to its geologic history. Both will be explored.

The trip will follow a mostly counterclockwise path, beginning in Lisbon, Portugal on 14 September 2015 and ending in Seville, Spain on 5 November 2015. From Lisbon we will travel to Faro on the south coast of Portugal, then to Jerez on the Gulf of Cádiz in western Andalusia (Spain). From there, we will cross the Strait of Gibralter to Morocco, first traveling to Fes and then back north to Tangier. After visiting the rock of Gibralter, we will travel to Ronda, a mountain town north of Málaga, and then on to Granada and Córdoba, with stops in small towns along the way. After walking among small mountain towns at Aracena (north of Seville), the trip will end in Seville, along the Guadalquivir River, the major watercourse of southern Spain.

Stay tuned!

Andalucia