Whether you’re taking a road trip or heading there directly, Jaen, Spain is a town that is sure to surprise you. Andaluci’as hidden treasure has cultural attractions galore, and merits further exploration. Set in a vast plain surrounded by sixty million olive trees, it actually produces 60% of Spanish and 20% of the world’s extra virgin olive oil. They call it liquid gold here!
Spain is renowned for its Paradors, government-run hotels in historic buildings and spectacular locations. The Parador de Jaén is one of the finest, with a breathtaking position on Santa Catalina Hill overlooking the town.
We had a real thrill of anticipation driving up to the hotel. It’s located right next to the medieval castle, Castillo de Santa Catalina, open for visits every day of the week.
We’d chosen Auto Europe for our Andalucian road trip and the whole process went really smoothly. We’d picked our Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 Z up in Malaga, one of the busiest car rental hubs in the world, so we were glad that the service was efficient. Our car had great horsepower for the hill climbs around Granada and the Alhambra, but was extremely comfy. Although the Parador itself was constructed in 1965, you’d never know, it’s so in keeping with the adjacent 8th century fortress.
The only clues are the spaciousness and sense of light in the bedrooms…
Together with the sizeable balcony of our suite…The view over the valley of the Guadalquivir towards the Sierra Morena mountain range is magnificent.
Waiting for us in our room was an appetizing tray of sweet treats, together with lots of useful brochures on the area.
Once we’d settled in, we headed out to explore the rest of the Parador. The swimming pool will soon be open for the season.
There are two spectacular adjacent bar areas, with 20 meter high cross-vaulted ceilings and stylish decor. General Charles de Gaulle once stayed here whilst writing his memoirs, I imagine it’s changed a bit since then! The current King of Spain has also graced its doors.
The restaurant is equally impressive and serves seasonal local produce.
After dinner, the split level lounge is an atmospheric place to relax.
By night, the parador is illuminated and makes a striking sight.
The next day we met our guide from the Jaen Tourist Office, the knowledgeable and charming Eva. We took a walk past Castillo de Santa Catalina, along a picturesque path to a monumental cross commemorating the one that Ferdinand III erected here.
She showed us around the castle, which served as a military stronghold, defending the town from attacks. It was improved by Abdallah ibn al-Ahmar, the Nasrid King famed for building the Alhambra. King Ferdinand III of Castile recaptured the city in 1246 and transformed the castle. What I find rather fascinating is that the castle was connected to the centre of town by secret tunnels.
From here, we headed into town to visit Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Cathedral. It’s considered the most important example of Renaissance architecture in Andalucia, and aspiring to be declared a World Heritage Site. The masterwork of Andrés de Vandelvira, it served as a model for many Latin American cathedrals.
And also for its unique construction with an upper level allowing people to view the nave from on high. The reason it was built this way is that the cathedral houses a rare relic, a version of the Veil of Veronica. This cloth bears a likeness of the face of Jesus, purportedly since Saint Veronica of Jerusalem met Jesus on the way to Calvary and wiped the blood from his face. Whilst the Church make no claims about the relic’s authenticity, people have come for centuries to get a glimpse of it. Allowing people to view it from above preserved the relic. These days it’s exhibited on Good Friday and on the Feast of the Assumption.
Next we walked to the Palacio de Villardompardo. This Renaissance Palace is interesting in its own right and houses some fascinating exhibits including the only naive art museum in Spain. What particularly impressed us was the Arab Baths hidden inside the Palace, the largest and most important in Europe. Dating from the 11th century, they were discovered in 1913 and are the largest baths open to the public in Spain. They were most likely constructed on top of Roman baths, as Roman ruins are visible from a glass walkway in the palace basement. There are four different rooms – a marble lobby, a cold room and warm and hot rooms,
There are a few sections where natural daylight streams through the star shaped skylights, to stunning effect. The restoration of the baths won the Europa Nostra (European Cultural Heritage) prize.
The Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions, also located within the palace, showcases some very interesting artefacts like these traditional local costumes.
We were pleasantly surprised by the variety of attractions that the town of Jaén has to offer. As for the province itself, there’s much to discover – tours of the world’s largest olive oil factory sound fascinating and the largest area of protected natural spaces in Spain. It also has the largest number of castles in Spain. As for us, the next stage of our road trip, aristocratic Ubeda, is calling!