One of my earliest memories of Spain – lo, these many years ago – was jumping a high school trip in Andalusia to visit (with permission of all concerned, of course) a pen friend in a somewhat isolated, provincial backwater – but one filled with venerable Renaissance architecture. And returning a couple of times as a somewhat more, er, jaded adult, I couldn’t even remember that long-ago girl’s name, but was struck by how impressive I still found this city and its province. It’s truly one of Spain’s under the radar, least visited treasures – partly because of relatively poor roads and transport links. As infrastructure has improved in recent years, that has been changing, and more people are discovering Jaén.
Ask most Spaniards about this city and region, and they’ll probably say “olives” – because, indeed, this province is the world’s single biggest producer of this little green fruit and its by product, olive oil (and this very week, in fact, the third annual olive oil festival has been underway, and one of the popular activities for visitors is the OleoTour Jaén, which involves oil tastings and visits to olive producers). But the region is also home to some of Spain’s finest architecture, especially in the capital city, centred around Mt. Santa Catalina.
With a current population of just over 120,000, the provincial capital has many historic buildings but two main icons, the crenellated, mid-13th-century Santa Catalina Castle atop the eponymous hill, and the monumental Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin (top) on Plaza Santa María, one of Andalusia’s best Renaissance exemplars, begun in 1570 and completed in 1802. Another cool thing about the castle, by the way, is that you can actually overnight here, as it’s now home to the Parador de Jaén, one of the more spectacular of Spain’s semi-publically owned network of paradores (inns), many impressively located in historic buildings.
Perhaps my own personal favourite here in town, however, is a bit more special than either. The Baños Árabes (Arab Baths) are a remnant of Moorish al-Andalus; date back to the 10th century; and are the largest and best preserved of their kind in Spain (fun fact: unlike many other ancient Spanish cities, the very name Jaén, comes from the Arabic khayyān, meaning “crossroad of caravans”). These four-room baths are located in the basement of the late-16th-century Villadompardo Palace, also home to the Museum of Art and Popular Traditions and the Manuel Moral International Museum of Naïve Art.
Speaking of museums, another very worthwhile one here is the Provincial Museum, which boasts among its varied fine art and archaeology collection Spain’s largest assemblage of artifacts of the ancient Iberians, the tribes which predate even the Roman Empire on the Iberian Peninsula.
And also speaking of things Moorish, outside the capital you can follow the local section of Andalusia’s “Route of the Caliphate” (no, nothing to do with ISIS/Daesh, quite obviously!), which includes Granada and Córdoba. Here in towns like Alcalá la Real, Alcaudete, and Martos, you can explore Arab castles and other sites, in addition to churches and other buildings built in Mudéjar style characteristic of Moorish craftsmen who stayed on after the area’s reconquest from the Moors in the mid-13th century.
The real cultural stars out in the hinterland, however, are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Úbeda and Baeza, less than an hour’s drive northeast of the capital, which thanks to a thoroughgoing makeover in the 16th century are now extraordinary examples of open-air museums of the Renaissance.
The province has also developed something of an adventure and ecotourism niche, as well – most notably the Natural Park of Sierra de Cazorla, Spain’s largest protected reserve (and in Europe second largest only to Germany’s Black Forest), where olive trees give way to for verdant greenery and hiking trails where visitors can spot deers, wild boar, a plethora of birds, and sundry other wildlife.
The video below gives a nice overview of the various allures of this province. Enjoy!
More information in English: Spain.info/Jaen.