There are a few things everyone thinks of when talking about Spain– Flamenco music and dancing, fútbol and its most famous stars Reynaldo and Messi, bullfighting, or perhaps tapas. Everyone knows about the bustling metropolitan Madrid in the heart of the country, the beautiful beaches of Barcelona, and maybe even the Southern charm of Seville. Spain is all of those things and those places, but there is oh so much more to be discovered off the beaten path, that rivals, if not betters the best known tourist spots in the country.
Small City, Big Charm
Jaén is a city of around 116,000 people in Andalusia, in the south of Spain. Even after one year of living in Spain, I had never heard of the area until I was assigned a job teaching in the city. Compared to all of the other much larger and famous surrounding cities, I was a bit upset at first to be placed in such an unknown town. A quick google search didn’t do much to help the city’s case– not much comes up besides the wikipedia page, which lists the most exciting music event as “International Piano Competition Premio Jaén”. Not that I don’t love a good bit of piano, but I was hoping for a place with a bit more pizazz. However, beggars can’t be choosers, as the old saying goes, so I made the move. I don’t want to give away too much– but it was the best move I could have made.
After spending time in the major tourist spots in Spain, one of the most apparent things about spending time in a non-tourist city is just how non-touristy it is. In all of the major cities, tourists are always badgered to join a bus tour, or are surrounded by souvenir shops selling the same shot glasses and bags (you know the type: black with the city name in different colors all over the bag) sold in every souvenir shop everywhere. Spending time in a city like Jaén is a refreshing escape from the constant hustle and bustle of your more famous Spanish spots. Known as the olive oil capital of the world, there is a tourist office, and there is one souvenir shop, but thankfully you don’t have to worry about saying “No, gracias” to anyone trying to get you on their double decker bus.
The Layout & Sights
In terms of things to see, the list is short (but mighty!). The city of Jaén is essentially on one big hill, and could be divided into three main parts. The lowermost part of the hill is the newest part of the city, defined by a beautiful large park, with modern restaurants flanking both sides. On a nice day, you can find people exercising along the track, skating on the ramps, or picnicking in the grass. There are beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, although they never photograph as well as you like, and a lovely long fountain to dip your feet in in the hot summer months.
If you continue up the hill, you will eventually reach the older part of town, the center. Here you can find lots of great Spanish restaurants, where you can sit outside in the plazas year round thanks to portable heaters placed near the tables, and it’s here you will find one of Jaén’s gems: it’s Cathedral.
As frequently happens, photos can’t do the sheer size of the building justice, but try to take notice of the two people in the lower left corner if you would like to get an idea of the scale. On a nice sunny day, people can be found milling about in the open plaza in front of the church. If you go to mass, it is free to enter, otherwise, there is a small entrance fee of around 5 Euros.
Also found around the same area as the cathedral are the Arabic Baths. Southern Spain is rooted in Moorish history, which is plainly visible in much of the architecture found in the area. Sadly, Jaen lost many of its old buildings during war, but the baths are an excellently preserved ruin showcasing what an ancient bath would be like. Inside, you can see artifacts as well as an educational film explaining how the baths were used, and the different function of each room, before touring the baths themselves. In addition, there is a terrace with stunning views of the city and countryside. of
If you’ve brought your walking shoes and some energy, you can continue walking up. About a half hour hike from the cathedral will take you to the Castillo de Santa Catalina, or Saint Catalina’s castle. It is a pleasant walk up, and once you arrive, you can find a room at the hotel, enjoy a meal at one of the best restaurants in the city, visit the small castle museum, or simply take in the stunning views. To be the olive oil capital of the world, you need a lot of trees. And man oh man, the view is always beautiful, every. single. time.
If you don’t have the energy or desire to walk (although I would recommend it!) there is a bus, or you can call for a taxi– the castle is accessible by road.
Time to Tapa
When you have finished your sightseeing adventures, it is time to reward yourself with one of the best parts of Spain– the cheap wine or beer! Perhaps my favorite thing about Jaén are the tapas, or small plates of food that you get with your drink. These are available in most parts of Spain, but in Jaén, they are free. One beer might cost around 1.50, but it comes with food; you can feed yourself, and get drunk, for very cheap. Depending on the time of day, you will get different food: kitchens close for siesta around 4-9, so in that time, you might get a cold dish like a potato salad, or some peanuts and cheese, but during lunch or dinner, you’ll usually get something warm. Depending on where you choose to eat, you might get a smaller portion of a higher quality food, or a large portion of food that is more likely something that was frozen, then served, like a chicken burger, but either way your tummy gets very full for very little!
When it’s time to go out at night, you can dress yourself as fancy as casual as you please, and hit your favorite bars to start the night with drinks and tapas. All of the bars have outdoor seating, so the city is always a-buzz as soon as the sun goes down. Hop from bar to bar, tasting a little bit of what the city has to offer in each, before the kitchens close at midnight. Keep on winding your way through the bars like a local, or move on to dance the night away in a disco– the choice is yours! Either way, you can be sure you will probably be the only tourist there.
There are hotels and a hostel, to fit all budgets, for when you are finally ready for bed. While Jaén will probably never be the next Ibiza, there is something special about being in a place where the only option is to live like a local (bonus that the locals here are really friendly!). Come check it out yourself– your wallet and your belly will thank you.