While I am away traveling in Turkey this week, I have lined up some guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers, posts about places I hope to make it to one day. This post is from Trevor, a long-time internet buddy and writer over at A Texan in Spain. Trevor is teaching English down in Jaén, in southern Spain, a region famous for its olive oil. Right next to Córdoba where I lived for a year, I shamefully never made it over to this beautiful little area, even though I am a huge advocate of off the beaten track travel. Luckily, Trevor has agreed to offer us some of his insider tips to this overlooked region and gives us his top 5 reasons to visit Jaén, Spain.
Have you ever been to Jaén? Or better yet, have you heard of it? Do you want to visit here if you ever make it to Spain one day?
Bring up southern Spain in a conversation and many people will probably start talking about Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, Granada’s Alhambra, or Málaga’s beaches. Rarely, though, will anyone mention Jaén province (pronounced “khah-AYN”), even though it’s right next door to Córdoba. Most people pass through the area to get to Granada, yet they miss out on an affordable, lightly-touristed part of the country with a lot to offer.
A land of mountains and olives, of Renaissance architecture and free tapas, the province of Jaén in eastern Andalucía will pleasantly surprise you if you spend even two days here. Confession: I was initially disappointed when I found out the Spanish Ministry of Education had placed me as a language assistant in Jaén, but after living here for four months I have realized how lucky I am to be living in such a special place. Let me share with you five reasons why I think you should stop off in the province of Jaén the next time you visit Spain.
1. Úbeda and Baeza
I’m perhaps a little biased since I live in Úbeda, but these two towns in the center of the province are probably the best places to encounter Renaissance architecture outside of Italy, and have even been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In Úbeda, well-proportioned palaces and chapels dominate, while in Baeza you can find university halls with arched patios and also a calming cathedral.
Their unusual-sounding names come from the Arabic Ubbadat and Bayyasa, becoming the “OO-vay-dah” and “bah-AY-thah” of today after the towns were re-conquered in the 1200s. A few centuries later, local ubetense Francisco de los Cobos became King Carlos I’s secretary of state, a position through which he was able to bring funds down south to transform these two cities into Renaissance gems.
When you visit, be sure to pick up a mug from Úbeda’s pottery shops (alfarería); the unique green glaze is a carryover from Moorish times. And don’t forget to enjoy the simple pleasure of wandering through each city’s old town; although they’re both decent-sized places, they’re still small enough to hold that Spanish pueblo charm.
2. Olives and Olive Oil
It’s a pretty well-known fact that southern Europe leads the world in growing olives and processing their liquid gold—olive oil. But most people don’t know that the province of Jaén accounts for half of Andalucía’s olive oil production, a third of Spain’s, and a tenth of the entire world’s—whoa! This isn’t hard to believe, though, because almost every square inch of land outside the cities and natural parks is covered in unending, pointillist rows of olive groves.
I recently had the chance to go on a field trip with sixth-graders from the school I work at to *ahem* the world’s largest olive oil factory (almazara)—Cooperativa Ntra. Sra. del Pilar—which has been hiding in plain sight ten minutes down the road! After the olives are harvested, they’re dumped into huge chutes, cleaned, and squeezed to release their raw juices, which are then separated and bottled as extra virgin olive oil. You’ll have to call or email ahead, but exploring any of the province’s co-ops would be on par with touring a vineyard.
Even if you can’t manage to coordinate a factory visit, you can still pop in to any supermarket or boutique oil shop and pick up a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. I recommend the stuff made from the picual olives (traditional olive flavor) or arbequina ones (with hints of almonds!). Stop off at a bakery, get a fresh loaf of bread, and you’ve got your snacktime made.
3. Free Tapas and Great Food
Move over, Granada—you’ve got company. One of Spain’s best-kept secrets is that you can get free tapas (little appetizers to go with your drink) not just in Granada or Madrid but also all over the province of Jaén. This custom was actually really confusing when I first arrived in town because I thought you had to order tapas separately and was worried they were serving me food I didn’t order.
Anyway, whenever you order a beer, a Coca-Cola, or a glass of wine, your servers will also bring out a little plate of munchies—can be potato salad, toast with cured ham, or anchovies. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a dish of preserved olives, just because, in addition to your tapa. At one place here in Úbeda I’ve been given half a baked potato or a small sandwich!
Some specialties that I really love from this area include: andrajos, a warm, lime-green stew of rabbit, noodles, and vegetables; migas, fried garlic bread crumbs; and ochíos con morcilla en caldera, paprika-coated bread rolls filled with flavorful blood-sausage pâté.
4. Mountains and Natural Parks
Feeling weary of the flat plains of Castilla? Tired of the beach? Come to Jaén for a change of scenery! For me personally, being a “mountain person,” the landscape is wonderful. With 20% of the province’s land protected in the natural park system, all corners of the province have great chances to hike, see wildlife, and even go parasailing!
The most popular park is the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura, y Las Villas to the east. Composed of three parallel mountain ranges, this nature preserve holds within its borders a dozen or so quiet villages from which you can appreciate many dramatic vistas. One of these towns, Segura de la Sierra, is built on the side of a hill with an ancient castle enthroned on its summit.
5. Jaén City
To be honest, when I first went down to the provincial capital of Jaén, I hated it: the city seemed ugly and industrial and I had to deal with the local delegation of Spanish bureaucracy. But a few more visits later and the city has really come to grow on me.
First of all, the city’s cathedral, which dominates the skyline of Jaén, is a first-class structure. Designed by Andrés de Vandelvira—the same architect behind most of the famous buildings in Úbeda and Baeza—the building is a massive, beautiful epitome of Renaissance architecture. Behind the cathedral’s altar hangs an important relic: the Veil of Veronica (Santo Rostro), which, according to legend, bears an image of Jesus’ face, imprinted after Saint Veronica used it to clean Jesus’s head on his way to Calvary.
Near the cathedral is a wonderful collection of tasty tapas bars—some of which date back to the 1800s. It’s a lot of fun getting lost in the super-narrow streets while trying to walk back and forth across this neighborhood.
The highest point in the city is the hill of Santa Catalina, on top of which is an old castle that now serves as the city’s parador (fancy state-run hotel). You can hike or take the bus up to the top, where you can admire the whole city stretching out in front of you. To the north runs the Guadalquivir River not far from its source, and to the south is the Sierra Mágina—the “Mystical Range.”
How to Get There
The province of Jaén is surprisingly central and well-linked with the rest of the country despite being so unknown. The capital is within an hour’s drive of Granada, an hour and a half of Córdoba, and three and a half of Madrid. The Linares-Baeza and Jaén train stations have daily (or more) connections with Sevilla, Córdoba, Granada, Madrid, and Barcelona. And by bus, the company Alsa runs thousands of affordable, direct trips to basically any city you can think of in southern Spain.
Trevor Huxham is currently working as a language assistant in Úbeda, Spain, but calls the state of Texas home. He writes about Spain, travel, and languages on his blog, A Texan in Spain and is looking forward to moving up to Galicia in northwest Spain in the fall. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter today!