When you think of Spain, do you think of sunny beaches, tapas and sangria? That’s what I thought too…until I moved to Jaén. Jaén is the most northern region in Spain’s most southern province, Andalusia. It is also one of the lesser known regions in the south. Unfortunately, there are no beaches in this part of Spain. However, what Jaén lacks in sand, it makes up for in olive trees. And who says olive trees aren’t beautiful?
Olive Trees after Olive Trees after Olive Trees…
It is very easy to overlook just how large Spain is, particularly the sheer diversity of its landscape. The first time I went to Jaén was with my family. We hired a car and drove the distance from Malaga airport and oh man, it was worth it. As we travelled from the south coast further north, the scenery rapidly changed, and what I saw was not what I expected one bit. I did not envisage rows and rows of never-ending olive trees. More than 66 million to be exact. Okay, so we didn’t drive past the entire 66 million but there was still a TONNE of olive trees. In all honesty, I did little to no research on Jaén before going. I remember googling the town I was staying in, thinking it looked decent and assuming it would all be fine. The beautiful olive-filled scenery was a bonus and made for an exciting car ride.
So, to debunk the myth once and for all: olive trees do not only exist in Italy. Jaén itself produces around 50% of Spain’s olive oil and an incredible 20% of the entire world’s olive oil. In fact, the region is known as the World Capital of Olive Oil – how crazy is that?! In many bars, you will receive a small plate of olives when you order a drink and I can guarantee that most dishes are cooked in olive oil. As someone who was once indifferent to the wonders of olive oil, Jaén introduced me to the highest quality oil I have ever tasted and now I can never go back. Forget the balsamic vinegar; even the bread is only there to help bring out the flavours of the olive oils. Yes, you read right…there are different flavours.
Small Towns: Úbeda and Baeza
The capital of the Jaén region is also called Jaén. This pattern follows with all regions and their capital cities in Andalusia – maybe people kept forgetting the city names? The city is overlooked by Saint Catalina’s Castle (Castillo de Santa Catalina) and its point of interests include the Jaén Cathedral and the Arab Baths, which are historically significant as they are evidence of Arab influence in Andalusia. However, the real beauty lies in the small towns dotted around the region. Two towns that are particularly worth visiting are Úbeda and Baeza. This isn’t just my biased opinion – they were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2003, so there’s tangible proof that they must be quite something! I was lucky enough to live in Úbeda and work in Baeza for nine months, so I had the best of both worlds and experienced the beauty of both cities every day.
As you walk through the streets of the old towns, it feels like you have taken a step into the past. This is reflected in the Renaissance architecture and never-ending monuments. There are 48 in Úbeda – quite a lot for a small town! Yet I would not be surprised if there were double the number of quaint bars dotted around. Like in Granada, a free plate of tapas comes with any drink ordered. Need any more incentive to visit now? Úbeda and Baeza are highly elevated at 748m and 769m above sea level respectively, meaning that they each look out to extraordinary views of the vast plains of olive trees and the magnificent mountains of the Sierra Mágina and the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas. To top it all off, in winter the mountains are sometimes snow-capped! If there was one constant in my life for the nine months I lived and worked in these towns, it would be that jaw-dropping view that made me go running every day, just so I could see it!
National Park: Cazorla
If you didn’t think it could get any better…well, it can. Driving a mere forty minutes east of Úbeda takes you to Cazorla National Park. Cazorla is the name of one of the mountain ranges I mentioned earlier; it also neighbours Sera and Las Villas. The unofficial capital located at the base of the National Park is the picturesque city of Cazorla (I see a pattern forming…). I would call it the heart of the park, even though it isn’t geographically in the centre. For me, Cazorla really is a smaller and purer version of Úbeda and Baeza. Cazorla offers guided tours of its castle (once a defence fort), the cathedral ruins and the river that runs below the town. And let us not forget that that city’s highest points show stunning views of that eternal sea of olive trees. If it is a clear day, you can even sea Úbeda and Baeza in the distance!
As you drive out of the town and deeper into the National Park, the landscape begins to change. This demonstrates the real diversity of Spain’s land, as I mentioned earlier. It moves away from just olive trees to a variety of woodland, forests, mountains, lakes, gorges and waterfalls, to name a few. The first time I drove with my family into the park, we had no idea what to expect. So imagine our faces when we came across a stunning dam with the most vivid turquoise blue colour. As it happens, the Cazorla National Park is the birthplace of the Guadalquivir river, the longest river in Andalusia. Could this place get any better?! There is a range of activities to do in the park, such as river walks, hiking, kayaking, water sports on the dam and observing the wildlife. If you ever want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, this is the trip for you.
Jaén isn’t popular for tourism in the same way that Granada or Seville are. I don’t know why though, I’ll take all the free tapas I can get! In all seriousness, though, that’s what gives it charm. The world has yet to exploit its magnificent views, traditional towns and sacred national parks. If you’re ever looking for a piece of Andalusia without burnt tourists, binoculars and tour buses, Jaén is the place for you. But shhh, let’s keep it our little secret.