By Alissa Greenberg
The city of Jaén is nearly synonymous in Spain with olive oil, and “el mar de olivos,” (or “sea of olives”) is the affectionate name for the expanse of olive groves that surround it that makes its bounty possible. Approaching Jaén by bus at dawn, the landscape looks almost coastal. Endless waves of gently rolling hills are bathed in mist and lined with twisted, ancient trees that blur together in a deep darkness; a rose-tinged sky is crowned with mountains silhouetted blue in the distance. As one Jaén friend put it, “We don’t have a beach, but we don’t need one.”
Strangely enough, this land-bound city island (pop. 116,000) in the endless olive ocean has an unfavorable reputation, even among Andalusians. “Jaén? But it’s so ugly and isolated,” another friend said when I explained I was going to live nearby.
“Oh,” I said. “You’ve been there, then?”
“No,” he replied.
Isolated, maybe, but one man’s middle-of-nowhere is another’s middle-of-everything: one can reach almost every southern and central city within three hours by car, from Sevilla, Cordoba, and Cadiz to Valencia, Murcia, and Madrid. And ugly? Hardly. Even the new city is pleasant, shady streets studded with tapas bars that give free morsels with drinks—a practice found here and an hour south in Granada.
I stop at one of these bars on a breathless walk from the bus station. I’m here to visit the capital for a whirlwind two days from Linares, a smaller town to the northeast, and the bus station is at the base of the large hill upon which Jaen is built. I’m aware that even a city this compact can’t be discovered in just two days: I’m here for first impressions. I plan to poke around corners, see the highlights, and generally form a brief sketch whose borders I can fill in with later visits.
The last of my beer swallowed, I continue the trek upward. Here, the new city gives way to a compact but sizable and charming old city of cobbled, winding streets, and laundry blowing in the breeze. An occasional glimpse down an alley reveals the olive valley, surprisingly far below. Later in the evening, the larger byways will be crowded with neighbors drinking beer on stoops while small children play soccer and ride bikes between pools of light. I pass the famous Arab Baths, 11th century ruined Moorish hammams. I mentally add the baths to my Jaén “to do” list in the future, just another reason to come back.
The Calle Maestra, a street with glossy paving stones and a wealth of small bars and shops, lets out on the grand Santa Maria Square. The square is home to both Jaén’s city hall and its cathedral, whose façade is somehow imposing, impressive, and elegant all at once. The cathedral’s innards are not the most beautiful in Spain, but they are certainly striking, especially the motif of circles and half-circles that repeats in the intricate plaster-work on the ceiling and the truly impressive choir in the center. The Veil of Veronica, a cloth used to wipe blood and sweat from Jesus’ face, supposedly resides here, and once a year, the priests bring it out for display. It’s easy to imagine the cavernous space filled with adoring masses. A duck up a side staircase provides the highlight, however– a view of the city, enfolded in stunning mountains beyond.
The main square leads down to the stately neighborhood of San Ildefanso. From here, slightly down hill, the cathedral spires are backed by stark, rocky cliffs, and I stop in awe to snap a picture. I’ve been told the city’s best tapas bars are behind the square where the stately San Ildefonso church holds court, but there’s no time for that now—it will have to be another item for my list. I do take a moment to appreciate the bustling atmosphere of the neighborhood’s shopping streets, a border between new and old filled with attractive art noveau buildings that hold Zaras, pharmacies, and cafes crowded with coffee-swilling crowds.
My evening destination is Finn McCool’s, an Irish pub in the northern outskirts of the city. It’s a comfortable, funky bar on a street full of similar places, and tonight it’s full of Erasmus students milling around with beers and cups of tinto de verano (red wine and fruit juice). The vibrant student community built around the University of Jaén often holds language intercambio (language exchange) meetings here, and I spend the evening chatting with a pleasant mix of Spanish, English, Scottish, Australian, and other American students and workers. A moment of exhaustion—it’s been a long day’—and I close my eyes and enjoy the buzz of English and Spanish floating around me.
The next afternoon there’s a bus to catch, but I have a particular goal in mind before the trip home. As an American Jew with some Spanish background, I am interested in Sephardic Jewish history in Spain, and I noticed an area in the old city last night marked as the Juderia—the Jewish neighborhood.
There are no Jews here now, but this small cross section retains its claustrophobic, medieval feel—a cluster of streets bordered by high walls and with only three exits. (The tourism material says this was a matter of “protection” for the Jews, although I suspect it was more about enforcing curfews and keeping the inhabitants in.) My tour of the Juderia is fruitful, to a point— I pass a house with a Jewish star stamped into the front that once belonged to a rabbi and discover a leafy square with a statue in the center commemorating the suffering of the community here under the Inquisition.
The streets are pleasantly narrow and atmospheric, but all the doors are locked, including the entrance to a simple, whitewashed church that was once a synagogue. I’d like to go in and see what remains of the temple that was, but first impressions are always on the surface. To go deeper, I’ll have to come back.
Alissa Greenberg started her love affair with travel as a young child and cemented it with a six-month stint in China in 2007 and a year-long trip around the world in 2009. She returned to her home city of Boston to work in public radio and at a local newspaper but eventually was compelled to follow her curiosity about the expat experience into a new life in Spain. After a year of endless plains and stately cathedrals in Castilla y Leon, she now lives in northern Andalucia, eating her weight in tapas and enjoying the contrasts of north and south. Her work has been broadcast on National Public Radio and has appeared in the Sampan newspaper, Wesleyan Magazine, and the travel websites DGuides and GoMadrid. She writes about culture, language, travel, and adventure at http://alissaswideworld.blogspot.com/